Born to humble beginnings in Venice Beach, Blake Johnson grew up in one of the most vibrant, eclectic environments that could shape a young man. In an area of Southern California where surfing, skateboarding, and cannabis pervade the culture, it’s no surprise that he was drawn to the few skateparks around his neighborhood at a young age.
When discussing Venice skateboarding, it’s mandatory to mention legends such as Jay Adams, Eric Dressen, and Natas Kaupas. These pioneers set the precedent of what it meant to be a professional skateboarder in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Reaching that level is hard enough; to stand out in the literal birthplace of skateboarding, surrounded by immense competition, takes another level of talent.
Johnson rose to the challenge. Despite setbacks during his rebellious adolescent years, he remained committed to his goal of achieving the ever-elusive professional status. With the right attitude and an immeasurable work ethic, he was given the nod by Santa Cruz Skateboards in 2016 and was awarded his first pro model by Dressen himself.
Currently based in Barcelona, Johnson was happy to jump on a FaceTime call to discuss growing up in Venice, how his hometown has changed in recent years, what America might learn from a European perspective on life, and how cannabis has shaped him as a human and skateboarder.
High Times: How does it feel to come from Venice, which is historically the birthplace of skateboarding?
Blake Johnson: It’s a blessing, honestly. That’s where everything started. It gave me a little bit more of an incentive to try to make something happen with skating, because it had been so long since somebody from Venice actually made it into the industry since back in the day.
Who were some of the Venice influences you had as an upstart skateboarder?
Growing up, I didn’t even know that much about how historical Venice was for skateboarding. I just knew that a lot of people who lived in Venice skated. Later on, I stopped skating for a couple years because I got more into graffiti. When I came back into skating around age 17 or so, that’s when the history of Venice resonated with me. I started taking more pride in it.
It might have been my friend Richard who said one day, “Who was the last person from Venice that turned pro?” That question literally gave me a lot of motivation to try to make something happen.
As much as Venice is associated with skating, it’s also associated with weed…
What was it like growing up there?
I remember starting to smoke weed at 13. During my years at Venice High School, we would ditch our sixth period, because after 1:30 pm you couldn’t get a truancy ticket. So we would leave once lunch started and go straight down to the beach and smoke. Back then, weed wasn’t legal yet, and the beach was just so open. And other people were doing it too, we weren’t the only group of kids smoking.
Eventually the medical stores started opening up, and that was a big hit. The medical shops still are a tourist attraction. Tourists go down there, take pictures with them, and trip out. Those places are so gnarly–they will give a weed license to anybody [laughs].
It sounds like as you were coming into your own as a skateboarder, you were also experimenting with weed, and that the two things were interwoven.
I think almost every single skateboarder is going to come across weed. I feel like ninety-something percent of skaters have smoked weed, at least once in their lives.
Weed goes so well with skating because it isn’t as much of a sport as it is an art. It’s just an expression of how you ride your board, how your mind works, and how you see the outer world. When you smoke, it intensifies that. It helps you get more into your art, if you will. Say I have been skating for 30 minutes or one hour, sometimes when I smoke I get a second wind.
Do you have any specific tricks that you know happened because you had been smoking weed?
Yeah, for sure. Hardflip backside tailslide was one of them. I watched Felipe Gustavo do them, and he made that trick look easy. I learned it a long time ago, on the small outledge at Stoner Park [in West Los Angeles]. I remember smoking, and thinking, Well, maybe it’s just like a kickflip noseslide, but you kind of body varial and land on the other foot instead. When I put it in my head like that it made sense. Luckily it doesn’t look like that [laughs].
Venice has arguably changed with gentrification–how has that affected the weed culture?
Oh man, it’s not arguably. I just saw an interview with the homie earlier saying Venice is potentially the most gentrified city in the world. He was like, “The reason why I say that is because of the amount of time that it took to gentrify was next to nothing.”
He talks about 2011, or whenever it was that Google showed up. And it started as soon as they opened their doors. You had the landlords finding out about Google employees making a bunch of money, so they started jacking up the rent. A lot of small businesses had to leave because all these tech startups are buying up the office space.
They started trying to call it “Silicon Beach,” and it became that. It was like they were vultures just feeding on a dead city because they sucked all of the life out of Venice, anything that it ever had. It’s hard to put your finger on what you want to call this “new” Venice. These super rich dudes dress all bohemian-looking and shit to try to fit in. It’s like, Dude, you are clearly not from here, man.
The vibe and everything; it’s not the same anymore. But luckily those people that were there before all this, the locals, even though a lot of people had to move away, people are still in Venice hanging out all the time.
Now, you go down to Venice and there is some boutique MedMen-type dispensary.
I was going to say, MedMen dude! I guess this is where we are. Gentrification sucks. With that being said, I do hope that it can potentially open up some opportunities for the new generation coming up in Venice, so that they can keep the surf and skate culture alive in the fashion that it should be.
After growing up in Venice, what was it like to experience skateboarding and cannabis in Barcelona, your current home base?
I was just at MACBA pretty much all day today. The amount of spliffs and tricks that go down at that place is like bread and butter–it just goes hand-in-hand.
How did you adjust to living in Europe as an American?
The biggest thing for me, and not that places in the U.S. aren’t like this, is the way that you get outside and go skate. You are always on foot, and everything is public transportation. There is no getting in the car, driving, sitting in traffic, or smoking in traffic. I probably smoke more weed back home just because of traffic [laughs].
You’ve been to Christiania in Copenhagen and traveled around Europe, what do you think America could learn?
One of the bigger things that we could improve on, and I know that there is a lot of division everywhere, but obviously our country has it more than anywhere. The whole world sees it. I think one thing would simply be just coming together as one, rather than being this divided country.
Most places in Europe that I’ve been to seem to be pretty sound. It’s hard to know because I’m not into the politics here, because that’s usually the driver of that, but just the way that people get along with each other as far as not having an ego and not being so judgmental of the next person.
I think we get so caught up in the American Dream of the grind, work, money, and all that. Not saying that everyone shouldn’t like those things, but I feel like we have a hard time balancing that out with just living life and being happy.
I feel like a lot of people here in Spain are the counter of what we are–they aren’t money-driven and are instead more concerned with their wellbeing. When you live in such a nice place, why would you be so stressed about all these little small things that aren’t really going to modify your day-to-day life? If a lot of people back home focused on themselves instead of judging others, we would all get along a lot better.
Taking that one step further, you could say that smoking cannabis could change your perspective on these kinds of things and create a more peaceful, welcoming society.
One of the easiest ways to get to know somebody is to smoke a joint with them. Over that whole five or 10 minutes or whatever that it lasts, you will have gotten to know this person a lot better than if that joint never existed [laughs].
It’s a casual conversation, which is more natural. With smoking weed, the way that it connects people together is pretty cool too. One guy might ask, “Hey, have you got papers?” And another might reply, “Sure, I was about to roll a joint, want to smoke?” Next thing you know you meet the person, go skate, and maybe become friends or whatever. It just happens like that.
And it’s the same with skating; it’s a tool to bring people together.
Skateboarding is just a close family, worldwide. We are just so lucky to have that shit because I feel like a lot of tourists go places and they don’t know where to start as far as even [connecting] with locals.
As skateboarders, we know exactly where to go. If you have a skateboard and you show up to a skatepark, I promise that if you reach out to somebody and ask for local food spots, where to get weed, and where the good bars are, you’re gonna find all three of those things 99% of the time. Even if the skater doesn’t speak your language, they will work with you; maybe they will find some homie who does speak it and they can translate.
Any updates on what you have been working on?
So my last part came out a year ago. I already have a lot of new footage; out here it’s easier to get shit done, so you can stockpile footage and have enough for multiple projects.
Right now I’ve laid out a timeline, and I have a little over four minutes of footage. Honestly, a lot of people might put it out right now, but for me, after my last part, I want to keep raising the bar, you know? This year is Santa Cruz’s 50th anniversary, so I’ll put some footage towards that too.