Checking In with Lee Yankou
Interview by Jeff Thorburn
Photos by Michael Kazimierczuk
How's life as a pro skateboarder in Toronto?
That's funny. I was anticipating that we were going to talk about this but earlier today I did actually go down memory lane. First of all, I'm going to say that it's definitely a dream come true, like all that, whatever, cheesy fake stuff you're supposed to say. I'm like beyond psyched. It's more like a funny thing, like if I were to see a kid riding my board, I just want to like... dude, to be silly and just go up and just shake their hands and say, "Thanks man. That’s pretty cool". Then lo and behold they probably wouldn’t even know who I am.
Go sign their board for them.
Yeah, exactly, but I don't know, I was thinking about all this stuff today. I like where I'm at, I guess. I'm psyched on Toronto. I guess we have a lot of spots and a lot of stuff that’s kind of slept on. So, I mean aside from the bullshit weather, obviously—I love Toronto, is basically what I'm trying to say. I'm sorry, I'm all over the place. I swear if I keep talking I'll get more focused and—
No, it's fine. You're stoked. What's up with Heroin, how's everything going with that?
Heroin is going pretty much like a dream. One of the reasons that I was super psyched on Heroin is that before I was even looking for a board sponsor or anything like that, I met Fos. He was in San Francisco and he was hanging out with my friend Josh Robertson and I just met him briefly and he was a down skater. He's like, "Yeah, if you're ever in LA come stay at my house, we'll go skate." I was like "Whoa, that's cool." He actually skates and, you know, it's kind of just like, “let's go have fun”. You know what I mean? I feel like it's not enough people in the skateboard industry actively enjoy going out skateboarding, so the fact that Fos and everyone involved with Heroin is a skater helps make the brand what it is. It’s a rad brand and I'm just psyched to be along for the ride. Sometimes Fos will be like "What do you think about this?” or offer me input on the graphics. I'm like "I'll tell you when I don't like it. I'm a fan of the brand, you just do that and I'm along for the ride.” That's basically it.
That's great. Are you in touch with them a lot or do you see him or any of the guys a lot?
Unfortunately not as much as I'd like to because I’m having some border troubles. When we're filming for Bath Salts, the filmer Cody came up to film with me for a week in Toronto. I took a week off work, like a vacation in my own city. It was a good week.
You mentioned something to me before about a new clothing company you are involved with. What's the deal?
Basically it’s through Phil Song who does Kadence Distribution up here. It's not actually fully a skate brand, it more of a lifestyle brand. It's nice to maybe get clothes that I could maybe like wear out to a restaurant or I could go to a Sunday dinner. Not always look like a skateboarder wearing a flannel. It’s dope working with Phil too. He’s a real skateboarder as well. You seem him at the skate park as often as you see anyone else. Kind of like what I said before, I feel like there's a lot of people in skateboarding that aren’t skateboarders but make money off of it. I think it shines through when someone is actually out there in the streets, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I agree.
I back that. I'm hyped to be a part of it and to basically see where it goes. I'm not really sure what it entails but I'm psyched to work with Phil and Amin.
Is there a name for it?
Wow, I should probably mention that, huh?
That's classic maneuver on my part there. It's called ONEMETH.
It's not drug thing, is it?
No, although my dad has like made jokes about the fact that the people that are supporting me are ONEMETH and Heroin skateboards.
That could cause you some trouble.
It's funny, I have an office job working nine to five and so say I'm trying to coordinate things being delivered there, and it’s things like "Oh, yeah, I'm getting a Heroin box." I have to say, "Oh, I'm getting my board sponsor box this week." Because I’m not really trying to just be saying Heroin in an office building in.
What's your job?
I'm an insurance broker and I do customer service type stuff. It's pretty boring, involves lots of computers and I listen to—well, I shouldn't say that because— I work for my parents so they're probably going to read this. It's a great place to work.
You work super hard.
I don't ever go on YouTube and listen to podcasts.
Strictly work. You've been doing that for a while, are you pretty invested and comfortable in it?
Well, okay, so I've been doing it for long enough that I can see the positives in it. Sure, I sit at a desk and don't have any windows and I have three computer screens and I send a lot of emails, but what is awesome is, well, not to touch on all the skateboard companies but like, depending on circumstances, your skateboard check may or may not be late, may or may not even show up at that point so it's fucking really nice to know that I'm going to have a check show up. It's really nice to know if I go take courses and it's nice to know what I have to do to get a raise, to progress. Compared to going skateboarding, where you're like, “Uh, so I know that I want to skateboard and not have to work and then try to figure out I have to do to make that happen. It's way nicer, it makes your life a lot simpler and easier to have it all cut and dry. I'm also thankful that I'm not doing manual labor so when I'm done work my body has a little more energy than it would if I were like lifting shit all day, you know? After work I can just go huck myself to let some stress out.
Just let it out.
Yeah, live in the moment and just breathe.
Kickflip Frontside Lipslide
Do you still make a little bit dough from skating?
Yeah, I guess so. I get board royalties, that's pretty sick. Basically what I've found is like it's almost like the money that I make from skateboarding, it goes back into skateboarding. I'm not making much but the money I got skating in the Dime Glory contest or from my board royalties, I used that money to go to Copenhagen and Paris with the Dime guys. All things considered, I'm really happy with that relationship. Also, shout out to the Dime guys for keeping skating fun. The Glory Challenge is the best and is basically a day long joke.
Back to the job, is there anything you think you've learned as a skater that you apply to your job now?
I had one interesting conversation with my friend Tim Gmeiner. He is the smartest skateboarder I know. He was like an aerospace engineer and he does like biomedical engineering. He's just taking time off from some good job he has to write a book about skateboarding. Basically I think he was in Germany working for maybe an auto-manufacturer and they basically had a psychologist come in and say, "You guys are too smart and you guys are afraid of making mistakes." He said they brought in a psychologist to basically tell them to think like a skateboarder, just to be more creative in problem solving, to just try things because then you might get better results. As skateboarders, we should have a greater chance at being happy just because we have something that we love so much. A lot of times we don't realize that. We don't think that we can apply skateboarding outside. It's like if any skateboarder applied the amount of energy and thought that they do with skateboarding to something else, even just a fraction, you'd be all right at that thing. I don't think I directly answered your question but I kind of dodged around it.
I think you're getting at it.
Specifically, at my job though, the thing that skateboarding has done for me is that I'm completely comfortable talking to everyone on the phone. If you can go to Dunbat and survive skating and smoking a cigarette and all the people coming up and talking to you all crazy, you're good anywhere. I feel like I'm pretty good with dealing with people in a variety of states.
You mentioned smoking, you still smoke or are you a clean guy these days?
I'm on the cigarettes yeah, I mean, I guess we'll say that. I haven't been drinking lately but I don't know, just trying to be healthy, I suppose.
Was that big thing to quit, drinking?
I think it was maturing type of thing where it was like, "You know what? This is real life. I'm not just 18 anymore, going and skateboarding and drinking afterwards isn't what's going to make me happy for the rest of my life." It was more of a type of thing like, I tried that for a long time, so I’ll try something else for a bit. I get a lot of anxiety. My brain can operate pretty quickly and just taking the alcohol out helps it operate less quickly. It was just another thing to worry about. I’m not saying don’t drink, I encourage everyone to live their life; I am just referring to my own personal experience.
Are you able to skate a lot in the winter right now? What have you been doing?
Definitely trying to skate as much as I can. I've been doing lots of silly art stuff too.
What silly art stuff?
Just basically whatever my brain tells me to do I do. I'm not really in charge, the brain is. I just find myself doing things and then realize that I'm doing it. I really like painting, that's my main kind of thing, but I've also recently started trying to making sculptures. So far I have a skull that I made out of clay. It has a vase in its head. Basically wanted to make 3D objects of what I draw all the time. I'm a fan of stacking images on top of each other. The skull is kind of a salmon pink colour. For the longest time before it was done it did look like a bong, but now it doesn’t because there's a plant in it. You know how when an idea is fresh it's just so much more attractive than an idea that you've had for a while? I need to finish this next thing because I've talked about it for so long. It's a wooden skeleton. What I'm trying to make a person that is on a bike and then it's just peddling. Just this sculpture where it's just peddling for infinity into nowhere. Right now what I'm looking at is a wooden frame of a bike and then like the legs that have hinges and can operate and I also have a motor going for the pedals.
Has this stuff been your after-work winter focus when you can't skate?
Skateboarding makes me the most happy of anything. That's what I'm going to go do. Other than that this stuff is pretty important in keeping my mental sanity throughout the winter. Also I really have to give a shout out to Noah Tynes, for just having all those indoor community centres where we can skate in the winter. Also, Ev at Skate Loft. Since I've been older and back in Toronto, I've been more appreciative of the community. Just like I'm psyched on just the skateshops the skateshop owners who provide a place, you know what I mean? Now I'm able to see things that I enjoyed earlier and actually understand who makes it happen. If I can I'd love to shout out Rob at Blue Tile and Jakes over at Adrift and Dave at Hammer because they do a lot for the community.
A lot of indoor skating, a lot of art. You're not playing video games or anything like that eh?
No, we have a dart board at the house so we've been playing a lot of that. We like to make it interesting so we introduced the veto round where you can veto any dart that's thrown throughout the game. So you can veto a bullseye to really heighten emotions, just to really heighten shit talking.
It's a way to knock someone down a peg when they're swaggering after a bullseye.
It's great, it's pretty funny when if someone is really killing it and we all have to use our vetos on them and then they're like "Really guys?" It's kind of great.
Do you watch hockey or anything?
Honestly, I'm more of a baseball person. I'll watch a good baseball game. That's truthfully my jam, like a baseball game and drawing while watching. That gets me hyped.
That's a good day. Do you still feel like you can skate the same as you could ten years ago?
Going back to the drinking thing, I think I could have been going a lot harder in the paint over the years, but just simply taking that out of my life has helped. I can definitely feel myself getting older at times. I'm sore for longer periods of time. When I got back from a Copenhagen and Paris trip awhile ago, I didn't skate for like a week and a half, two weeks. It definitely hurt to walk for a week. I think it lasts a little longer but if anything, and this might sound like mildly cocky or something, but I feel like my mindset is better now. My frame of mind is more confident. I feel like my body is as good as its ever been and since I stopped drinking definitely, I feel like I've just started jumping down shit more often. It makes sense though, dude, the longer you skate the more experience you're going to have.
In some ways you should be a lot more comfortable.
I mean, dude, every free moment since I was 11 or 12 years old has been spent thinking about or trying to ride a skateboard.
Having lived in California for many years, what do you think about what's going on the States right now?
It’s kind of like your political party that you're assigned to is based on where you grow up, so I think it's a lot of environment, but what I do think is spreading some hateful stuff out there isn’t cool. I'm just kind of blown away, actually. It's just kind of like, wasn’t there a failsafe to prevent this kind of thing? There wasn't some really assertive person at the debates to call someone out on their shit? I just don't understand. It seems like, "Oh, this is going to be exciting, let's roll a big snowball down the hill.” Then it got too big and they lost control of it.
I think about a kid learning about politics and government in school right now. How you would be able to rectify what people are saying and doing while teaching a child about the world?
The one way I thought of it as a potential positive was like all right, so if Hilary Clinton did get elected, I think she would have set a better moral tone for the country, simply by not saying a bunch of a hateful shit, you know? Not that much would have really changed though. But maybe what they have now is like the rock bottom a drug addict needs to hit before change actually occurs.
Well, I’m glad we live in Canada.
Honestly, throughout my travels, I think that Canada is the best.