Thrasher: the story of the ultimate skateboard magazine

September 7, 2020 | Skateboarding
Thrasher: the skateboard magazine founded in 1981 by Eric Swenson and Fausto Vitello

Thrasher is more than just a skateboard magazine. It's an iconic publication that chronicles the evolution of street culture through a skater's perspective.

The skateboarding world has had several relevant skateboard mags, but very few have stood the test of time.

Thrasher was founded by Eric Swenson and Fausto Vitello in 1981, in San Francisco, California.

Eric Leon Swenson was born on August 4, 1946, in San Francisco.

He was a fan of punk music and hard rock and loved playing guitar and repairing motorcycles.

His future business partner, Fausto Vitello, was born three days later, on August 7, 1946, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Vitello's family moved to California during the Liberating Revolution (Revolución Libertadora) that was taking place in their home country.

The duo met in the 1960s in the US Army Reserve, and the mutual passion for motorcycles morphed into a unique friendship.

In 1978, Swenson and Vitello teamed up with Richard Novak and Jay Shuirman and co-founded the Independent Truck Company.

Three years later, in January 1981, the friends launched Thrasher Skateboard Magazine, a publication that was supposed to be a vehicle to promote their skate truck firm.

Eric Swenson, Craig Stecyk and Fausto Vitello, circa 1983: working at the Independent Truck Co foundry in San Francisco, California | Photo: MoFo

Thrasher was an alternative skateboarding magazine printed by High Speed Productions.

The famous Thrasher logo uses the Banco typeface designed by Roger Excoffon in 1951.

The title's motto - "Skate and Destroy" - was an expression used by skaters and punks of the 1970s.

Although it was not the best-selling title within the sport for a long time, it grew as an underground and raw response to those who promoted skating as a polished and mainstream outdoor activity.

In a way, the essence of Thrasher reflected its founders' personality.

While the Californian was a low-profile thinker, the Argentinian was outspoken, exotic, and loud.

Thrasher's first editor was Kevin Thatcher. Mörizen "MoFo" Föche the legendary skate photographer, was the mag's second employee.

A quick look at Thrasher magazine covers reveals the evolution of skateboarding as a sport and socio-cultural manifestation of street culture.

"The very first cover of Thrasher was an illustration of a skater thrashing the coping in a pool, but the other 11 covers for the first year had samples of what was fading into the past, what was coming in the future, but mostly, what was happening now - and what was happening was vert skating in the 'Three P's': pools, parks, and pipes," notes Ben Marcus, author of "The Skateboard - The Good, the Rad, and the Gnarly: An Illustrated History."

"The first year of Thrasher had downhill racing on the cover one and a half times, but that might have had something to do with it being founded by a company that first made its name in the downhill and slalom skateboarding at La Costa, Signal Hill, the Catalina Classic, and the Capitola Classic."

"The rest of the Thrasher 1981 covers were all about vert, and the vert heroes who were beginning to emerge. Chris Strople's frontside slash in a pool, Chris Miller's bio frontside foot plant halfpipe, Allen Losi's fakie foot plant ollie in a skatepark bowl, Duane Peters doing an agro sweeper recovery, and many others."

One of the Thrasher's most popular features is "Hall of Meat," a photo space reserved for nasty and nauseating injuries sent by readers.

The Jake Phelps Era

In 1993, there was a new man in charge of the ship - James Kendall Phelps, a personality that would become the face and soul of Thrasher.

Jake Phelps had met Swenson and Vitello in 1986 at Concrete Jungle.

The duo initially invited him to become a contributing writer for the mag but, three years later, Phelps was already Thrasher's shipping manager.

After taking the Editor-in-Chief's seat in 1993, the controversial skater with a punk attitude grew the magazine like never before.

Jake Phelps loved skateboarding. It was his life.

But he also fell in love with the publication, even though he could sometimes be aggressive, problematic, unfair, and corrosive.

His raw skateboarding attitude translated into an alternative lifestyle and a 290-page medical record that included seven knee surgeries and fractures to his legs, pelvis, collarbones, thumbs, and skull.

"Jake didn't even have a computer on his desk. He didn't have an email address, and his voice mail was never even set up," a Thrasher employee once revealed.

Jake Phelps: the passion for skateboarding shaped him as a professional | Photo: Thrasher

Phelps led Thrasher for 27 years.

He passed away on March 14, 2019, at his home in San Francisco, aged 56. The cause of death has not been publicly revealed.

Jake was cremated with his skateboard, and his name sprayed in his honor at the Potrero del Sol skatepark.

The truth is that both Swenson and Vitello did not outlive Thrasher's iconic Editor-in-Chief.

Fausto Vitello died of a heart attack while riding his motorcycle in 2006, and his son Tony took over the magazine's ownership.

On June 20, 2011, Eric Swenson put an end to his life in front of a San Francisco police station, aged 63.

The Californian had been in a lot of pain for a long time following a motorcycle accident that resulted in multiple joint problems.

He shot himself in a public space so that his family could easily find his body.

Jake Phelps: he dedicated 27 years of his life to Thrasher magazine | Photo: Creative Commons

More Than a Skateboard Magazine

After surviving the early years, it was clear that Thrasher would become more than just a skateboard magazine.

In fact, it became a brand with several business interests.

In 1999, the publication sponsored "Thrasher Presents Skate and Destroy," a Playstation video game.

The title ended up competing directly with "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater."

Thrasher's gaming adventure had more realistic gameplay, snapped boards, broken bones, and even police detentions.

The goal was to get a sponsor and land the cover of Thrasher.

However, with mixed reviews and a record-breaking opponent, sales never really soared, and the game did not produce a sequel.

Thrasher Presents Skate and Destroy: the video game released in 1999 for Playstation

Today, Thrasher is one of the most popular skateboarding brands on the planet and capitalizes on its reputation and credibility.

The trademark sells t-shirts, balaclavas, hoodies, beanies, caps, jackets, girls' shorts, bandanas, socks, bags, stickers, collars, keychains, sunglasses, pins and patches, belts, skate bags, beach towels, and more.

The largest and most influential skateboard magazine of all time also runs the "Skater Of The Year" (SOTY) award non-stop since 1990.

It's the most prestigious trophy in skateboard culture. The list of winners is as follow:

1990: Tony Hawk
1991: Danny Way
1992: John Cardiel
1993: Salman Agah
1994: Mike Caroll
1995: Chris Senn
1996: Eric Koston
1997: Bob Burnquist
1998: Andrew Reynolds
1999: Brian Anderson
2000: Geoff Rowley
2001: Arto Saari
2002: Tony Trujillo
2003: Mark Appleyard
2004: Danny Way
2005: Chris Cole
2006: Daewon Song
2007: Marc Johnson
2008: Silas Baxter-Neal
2009: Chris Cole
2010: Leo Romero
2011: Grant Taylor
2012: David Gonzalez
2013: Ishod Wair
2014: Wes Kremer
2015: Anthony Van Engelen
2016: Kyle Walker
2017: Jamie Foy
2018: Tyshawn Jones
2019: Milton Martinez

From 1983 to 1990, Thrasher released "Skate Rock," a music compilation series featuring thrash and punk rock bands made of skaters.

The albums were sold as cassette tapes and vinyl records.

King of the Road: the skateboard contest series run by Thrasher

In 2003, Thrasher launched "King of the Road," a skateboard contest series held in the United States and China (2011 only) and designed by Micheal Burnett.

The event features groups of invited skateboarders that are given a list of challenges.

Each team has two weeks to complete all challenges, with points later awarded for their performance.

Thrasher also runs its private indoor skatepark.

Double Rock is located somewhere along the bay in San Francisco and is open to invitees only for special filming sessions.

66 6th St is a museum-store where skateboarders and the general public can explore the history of skateboarding and also buy Thrasher-branded apparel.

"The Skateboarder's Bible" has its digital platform available at thrashermagazine.com.

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