John Cardiel --- Photograph by Jai Tanju

An Everyday Quest

Published On February 18, 2013 |

“If I could change anything, I would skate again. I see shit like the perfect curve cut and I could jump from one cut to the other, just the perfect manual on smooth ground, or a marble bench. Some things that you can just taste, those things I just can’t have. It’s like being in a candy store, being in the gnarliest fucking candy store, and you can’t even steal a candy. It’s just blocked off.”


-John Cardiel

Introduction by Matt Sharkey

Photographs by Jai Tanju for Paradigm Magazine

Interview by Theo Constantinou

I’ve never seen anyone stay on John Cardiel’s wheel while riding bikes through city traffic. Well, maybe Julien. Maybe Mike Hernandez. I sure as shit haven’t done it myself. To witness it is to see something simultaneously explosive and fluid. There is not a second of hesitation in his banged-up bones. To know that he was told ten years ago that he’d never walk again is downright laughable when you watch him blaze through rush hour traffic in Manhattan. My heroes are my friends. Always have been. John is the personification of that sentiment. I can see him now in his late 60s…still living in the same house, fucking around with bike parts in the backyard, Cocoa Tea vinyl heard pouring out the windows. Some unbeknownst 13 year old moves in next door. How hyped is that kid going to be?


I’ve been reading the journals of the French author, Andre Gide. This one passage stood out to me, in which he writes, “In this whole comedy the important acts stand at the two extremities birth and death. Of one we are not yet aware, of the other we are no longer aware and it is even likely that as soon as you are buried you do not remember dying. We are aware only of the deaths of others because it makes our life easier.” Do you agree that only by being aware of other peoples’ death does it makes our life easier, or do you think that it makes us more fearful of dying since we have no control over death.

Just knowing of death doesn’t make me feel hopeful, it makes it harder because you lost those people, they are gone so it’s kind of like they’re not in the struggle. It’s like this soldier that is fighting on the battlefield with you. You look over and you see a friend, for instance Phil Shao, that dude was very aware of his surroundings and super alert so you knew that he was facing life head on with all the bullshit. When you lose somebody that is conquering life, it’s like they got off easy while we’re still in this. That’s how I see it. It makes it feel better, but it’s tough either way you look at it.

I really respect what you’re saying. It sucks to know that that person just left the struggle in that sense.

It sucks but it’s kind of rad for them, they escaped. Maybe that’s a ‘jacked up’ way of thinking. They’re not able to crack a few brews or hang out, but on the heavyweight end of it, those trials are not to be had by them. They get the ultimate trial.

I don’t want to dwell on death too much, but it’s something that I still struggle with. I’m not fearful of it, and yet I’ve not fully accepted it. Because very close people in my life have died, I have this ultra sense of urgency, especially since I’ve been doing this magazine with no looking back or looking forward, just living in the moment. People who experience tragic accidents, or near death experiences, often lose something whether it’s confidence or the ability to do certain things, but something is often gained like an epiphany, energy, a new found reason to live, or lessons learned. I interviewed this guy who rode his bike around the world after his friend died in 9/11. He was asked this question by this middle school girl when he was giving a talk, she said something like: would you take it all back if you could get your friend back? All of these things you did, the book you wrote, riding your bike all over the world, would you take it back? …. In your life, if you could take it all back to skate again, would you?

That’s not even a fucking question, dude. If I could change anything, I would skate again. I see shit like the perfect curve cut and I could jump from one cut to the other, just the perfect manual on smooth ground, or a marble bench. Some things that you can just taste, those things I just can’t have. It’s like being in a candy store, being in the gnarliest fucking candy store, and you can’t even steal a candy. It’s just blocked off. I can travel by bike in the city and see so many more fucking spots in New York in a day than I ever saw in years prior. It’s irritating, you just want to get it. Skateboarding has always been about getting what you want out of skateboarding because it feels so good when you aim and hit what you want. If I see a perfect jump, a kicker, a ledge, I can’t do it. I can taste the way that would feel but I wish I could change that. I try.

What you’re able to do now is crazy inspiring, the fact that you were able to overcome and not only walk again, but also ride a bike. I watched your Epicly Later’d but it’s still crazy to hear from you about the struggle of being close to skating at full capacity, but you can’t …

My whole vibe was fuck that, I want to skate, I want to ride. I’m working so hard to get that back and it’s so fucking gnarly, dude. I stand on a board and I roll and it’s just chased away. I don’t see the things that you say could be inspiring; to me, it’s trying whatever it takes to just get some normalcy in my life.

What you did with your mind and your body up to this point is unbelievable. Do you think if you were able to dig deep enough into your mind that maybe you could heal?

I’ve tried. I’m at a point now where I’m trying to figure out how I can use my brain to do something beyond that. I’m thinking to myself that I’ve got myself on the right feet, and I can walk, and ride a bicycle, but as far as working on a rooftop or standing up and serving drinks at Starbucks all day, I can’t even do that. I’m fucked up. The little things are kind of bittersweet. To be able to get close to skating is still rejectful on a life level. All I can do is go day by day. You just take it as it comes and you just try to keep moving forward, keep fucking trying and as long as you’re moving in the current, that’s all you can ask for. Shit pops up, you just have to get through it.

I’ve read books about overcoming similar struggles. Hearing it from your mouth, not that I know you at all but knowing your story, and where you’ve come, I think if you keep digging that it could be possible?

Right, but I’ve been in certain situations where I spend hours trying to do something and it doesn’t matter. It could just be a smith grind on a ramp but I’m so possessed by it. I kind of fixate on one thing and I won’t stop until I get it. This behavior is kind of how this came about with somebody saying that I couldn’t make a trick. I was like: fuck you. As I get older, I look at all skateboarders and think they’re cool because I know that same drive that lurks in me is behind my most hated and favorite skater. That puts them on the level to me. I’ve always loved skating because you can’t judge it one way or the other. No one’s trick can outweigh somebody else’s style, it’s all kind of gray. I know a kid and he was so gnarly on a skateboard but he got kind of hated on for his style, and then was rubbed the wrong way by peers. I look at him today and I just see in his eyes and think: whoa, this dude is unbelievable, but nobody knows that, and I think as skaters we should all respect and know that.

For every legend or hero, there’s always that dude who is a silent hero who was never heard of except for by a few … In Les Miserables , Victor Hugo said, “Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty are battlefields which have their heroes, obscure heroes sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.” Do you consider yourself to be one of those obscure heroes?

Not at all. I feel fucking lucky to know my parents were not in extreme poverty. I’ve been fortunate enough to eat well and live the life that I lived. I don’t feel like my life has been in extremes since I feel like everybody’s burden is that no matter what, we’re all just doing our thing. There are other situations where kids are born into famine and they rise out of it. That’s extreme fucking heroism as far as I’m concerned.

That is where true heroism lies?

Right. When you’re fucking born into the grave you just have to figure it out.

That’s something I think about a lot. We were born into this awesome place called America where we can do whatever, create our own life, basically but then these people are born into slums and villages all over the world where there is no electricity or running water. You’re right, that is where the true heroes are.

I think that those dudes rock. I’ve been to Jamaica, I love Jamaican music so when I went to Jamaica actually I stayed in these towns that were really rough, sitting in people’s shacks and witnessing the water being turned off was unreal, but the smile on their faces and the will to survive was there and it’s insane.

Since you are a fan of Reggae music and you brought that up, I saw a Bob Marley film awhile back and I don’t remember the exact quote, but at the end of the film Bob basically says what we were talking about, “Me only have one ambition, y’know. I only have one thing I really like to see happen. I like to see mankind live together – black, white, Chinese, everyone – that’s all.” You’ve seen a lot of things in your life and I’m curious to hear your stance on the idea of treating others like you want to be treated?

The idea of unity you form in your head, you wish it could be so nice but you go into the world and you’re on a battlefield of people being so rude. It’s intense. You don’t know whether to start trying to change things, so you just watch shit go down. It’s life. Appreciate the balance and do your best at what you do in trying to do things that are more righteous. To witness the negativity, to witness the wrongdoing, I think that knowledge is more powerful through you having made you want to do right.

In a previous interview I did with a war photographer named Zoriah, he said , “If there is going to be a war the whole nation should stand by it and the rich should fight alongside the poor. If we believe something is worth fighting for we should all fight together. If the rich were fighting alongside the poor they would be choosing a lot fewer situations to fight in. If politicians’ sons and daughters were on the battlefields along with everybody else then those politicians are going to make the decisions to go to war a lot more dire a situation than they have in the past. The problem is that war has just been an incredible way of making money and wars benefit those who start them and has few negative effects for them.”

He’s so right because that’s it man, they just fucking sent these people on tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, but for what? And now they are just expected to deal with their brains like I just killed all these people and just hop back into society. It’s a tough call, dude. We can chat it out and get to like a personal human agreement on things, but it’s kind of just going.

It’s so out of our hands.

That’s the way I feel.

My father says to me, “You know Theo, I respect what you’re doing, but listen, this machine is bigger than you, you’re not going to change the world. You might go to a village somewhere, one little town somewhere, and you might make a difference, but on a global level the machine is massive. It’s well oiled, and it’s turning and you’re not going to stop anybody, you’re not going to make any globally collective difference.” That’s some heavy shit to think about as a young guy who’s kind of idealistic, and wants good. It’s scary.

So with that knowledge, I think if the worst case scenario is that the well oiled machine is turning, then our angle is to be beacons of truth upholding the concept of doing right and doing things that do make sense. To give back and hold values because even in the littlest thing, that well oiled machine can’t take out the inspirations and the hopes of those who are right. That’s how I feel about skating; people get inspiration and they’re like, ‘oh there’s life there,’ all knowing there is this fucking machine conquering and taking out things, but fuck it, dude. I want to get mine while I can and maybe next year we’ll rub off and some other people will see the light.

You inspired me to have this conversation and I was fortunate enough for you to agree and now I’m able to record it. Hopefully some kid somewhere reads this and gets hyped on it and says, “John Cardiel has inspired me, his story inspires me, he said all this gnarly stuff that I agree with and I want to do something good.” That to me is my ‘Fuck You’ to the machine.

That’s the fucking stick in the spokes. It may not stop the machine but dude stopping for a few minutes is a fucking lifetime. Fucking rad.

People are always talking about ‘happiness,’ I’ve asked a few people now about what their ideas are of this one word. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself and not upon other men has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderation, the man of character, and of wisdom.” What I see from people a lot is that they’re always looking to other people to gauge their happiness or self-worth. How would you give some interpretation of your mind or life?

I’m not sure what true happiness is; I can’t sit here and tell you that I’ve found it. It’s an everyday quest. Aristotle should go work on that, he’s over-confident … it’s, I do this, this all happened because of me, but it takes a lot of other people to help you and they create a lot of things for you to come up and it’s a cooperative ride. Being with other people and to appreciate other people and ride with everyone, I think that is the ultimate happiness. Inside, when I’m most happy is when all the people around me are in a vibe of happiness and there is no bullshit around me. That’s the peak of my happiness. For someone to come into the scene and say I’m self made, I’m self-righteous, I’ve got my happiness right here on my shoulder, that would fucking blow out my vibe.

I really respect that. I’ve been asking people what their definition of freedom is and what that means to them. If you were to articulate it, how you think of that word?

Freedom is that instance of not being at burden of your thoughts, or anything necessarily. Freedom is a moment just like any moment and you achieve it for whatever it is that you’re doing like it’s all the mode. I feel like freedom is a mode, I don’t know how else to explain it. Kind of like when you’re just in it and you are able to connect the vibe mentally and physically and everything is just working, I think that’s freedom. When you’re confound in feeling chained down, and someone telling you have to do this tomorrow at 6am, that is not freedom. I get my own freedom in my mind because I at least have a picture of things with the fact that I’m alive. Maybe just being alive in a sense is the simplest form of freedom, you can do it within your mind. It sucks, and maybe I can’t skate and that’s harsh, but at least I have the freedom to see it and experience it in my mind, at least in a lower scale it is conceivable and I have the freedom to go check it out.


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