Behind the Lens with Brandon Alton
If you are looking to get inspired and motivated, then you’ve come to the right place. Brandon Alton is a prolific photographer...
My name is Malik Walker. I’m 23, from Calgary, and now living in Vancouver.
When did you move here?
I moved here around the end of December, the 27th actually, I remember the day.
Tell me about growing up in Calgary, what your family is like, and how you discovered skateboarding.
I discovered skateboarding through my dad actually. He skated when he was younger. He gave me this old Back to the Future skateboard he had.
Did he grow up in Calgary?
No, he grew up in Jamaica, and then moved here when he was 14 or so. He found skating here. My mom is from Kenya, and moved over here when she was 12 or so. It was pretty mellow in Calgary. I started skating more because of my friends in school actually, in grade 5. I saw my friend ollie over a board and had to learn it. I spent like six hours every day and finally figured it out. Growing up there, I guess I was the only skateboarder of colour, and really often the only skateboarder at all, in my school and area.
What part of the city did you live in?
Forest Lawn, so more of like, well, I guess some people might call it the ghetto, but to me it’s not really.
It’s definitely the most multicultural part of Calgary, the Northeast.
Yup, I grew up around every single race. It definitely allowed me to just see people as one. That was my favourite thing. Skateboarding is very different out there, in Calgary. It was tight knit, small. It’s booming now. There might have been 20 or 30 skaters that you really knew. Now it’s like everywhere you go, the parks are full, people are skating, everyone’s having fun.
Have you gone to Kenya or Jamaica, where your parents grew up?
No, but I’m planning a trip to Jamaica next year. It’s kind of weird, my mom’s from Africa, but she’s East Indian. So going out there, it’d be a whole different culture shock, because where her family is from, they migrated from India a long time ago to Kenya. So there’s half a population of East Indians, and also a population of Africans. It’d be a cool culture shock, to go there, go through both places, to see how they live and how they adapted.
Were all of those unique family cultures a part of your life as a kid?
Definitely, yeah, they were present. I grew up more Jamaican than anything, but they were there. I went to church with my grandma a bunch; she’s East Indian. So I went there a lot. I went to church with my grandma on my dad’s side a lot, too. So I grew up kind of Christian and kind of Muslim, so I got the best of both worlds.
So you said you were one of few or the only skateboarder in your school growing up?
Growing up, I was one of a handful of skaters in my area. Once I got to high school, there were a couple more, basically my two friends I grew up skating with. So there were 4 or 5 of us. When they graduated, because they were two years older than me, I was like the only one of 3 or 4 dudes that brought their boards to school. So you definitely stand out, being one of the only ones, hearing “skater dude” all the time. Everyone’s doing their own thing, and you’re the one out there skating the three stair or flatground alone. It was an eye-opener, but also nice, because you’re doing your own thing, and there’s not anyone trying to step on your toes, or make you feel different. Even though you already are kind of different.
By high school, were you already skating around the city, meeting other skateboarders?
Around grade 7, my friends took me to Millennium Park, and that’s when I met a lot of skaters. That’s when I realized there was a bigger scene in Calgary then just my area. Since then, the scene has grown, and every year I would see more people going to Millz, new faces, familiar faces. Now it’s a wonderland with people everywhere.
Coming from the Northeast, as a person of colour, was that something on your mind at all, or did that have any affect you, as you spent more time skating in other parts of the city?
Personally, no, it didn’t affect me, but I could definitely feel it there. I played hockey for 15 years and skated my whole life, two “whiter” sports I guess you could say, so I definitely felt that shadowing, that casting. “You should be playing basketball…”
Did you hear that a lot?
Oh, a lot with hockey. Friends would always be surprised when I said I just got back from hockey practice. I mean, it’s fun, it’s dynamic, the same types of movements as any other sport. I liked it. Skating, same thing. “Why are you skating? You should be playing basketball, running, doing something like that.” For me it’s more of a drive, because when it’s a sport that’s so dominant in one colour, in one race, you stand out. More people are watching you. It gives you that drive to push harder and more.
Growing up, my father told me to never see colour. I can’t see my face, you can’t see your face, so why identify people by what you can see, when you can’t even see yourself. He told me you’re going to meet people of different colour, and you’re going to meet people the same colour. Everyone’s skin and bones. Appreciate them how they want to be appreciated, and you’ll be appreciated too. I kept that mindset my whole life. I don’t see the barriers, but I know they’re there. They’re definitely around, but for me personally, I’m not thinking about them too much.
Once the Black Lives Matter stuff really came in, that’s when it was more on my mind. Noticing a lot of my friends going off to the side, because this is a little too much for them. When I see it that way, it’s like, you guys don’t want change. You’re fine with how everything is. In a world where change is imminent, anything can happen. Accept it and let the change be. I think of change like music. Think about it from the disco era to the hip-hop era. No one liked hip-hop music, because it was weird. Now, 75% of people like hip-hop. Adapt and grow; it’s the only way to really be with the times.
We’ll come back around to that. Growing up, looking at skateboard magazines and watching videos, were you aware of how it was mostly just white males featured?
Definitely. I didn’t find out about Kevin Romar, Theotis Beasley, Terry Kennedy, Antwuan Dixon, and those guys into much later on. So I always thought, “This is predominately for white people, this is a sport where white people get their shine.” So stepping in might be a little weird, knowing that people might vibe you out a bit. But I just let it be. It’s something that over time will become for everyone.
At what point did you start seeing more skaters of colour featured, and what did that mean to you?
It was a refresher. It gave me more hope, and more stoke. These guys are doing it, now I can do it. That’s what was sick. I always felt like I could do this, it’s fun, but if I go to a park, maybe people are going to vibe me out and I’ll have to leave the park and go skate somewhere else. But now I can watch Kevin Romar’s Damn video part, watch TK or Antwuan in Baker 3 or Baker has a Deathwish and just be so stoked to skate. Cameo Wilson, too. I find a lot of black people are getting their shine now, which is nice. Watching Primitive videos, Girl videos, DC, everywhere, they’re acknowledging now that it’s not a standardized white sport. Everyone’s doing it, and everyone’s good at it. There’s not just one group that’s good at it.
What is it about skateboarding that hooked you, that keeps you so hooked that you’ve not even taken a break until now, at 3 in the afternoon, to eat that breakfast sandwich you brought with you when we met up at 10 this morning?
It just frees my mind, not thinking about anything. It’s the joy of landing tricks. A lot of skateboarders know this, but every day is not the same as the day before. Some days a Kickflip works, some days it doesn’t. It’s the joy of making it work, and once it does work, you’re smiling, you’re happy. It’s just the joy it brings for me. I’m around people, everyone’s always stoked, and that makes me want to skate, makes me forget to eat my breakfast sandwich, because everyone’s going around skating, and I just want to join in.
Who do you like to watch skateboard right now?
I’ve been watching a lot of Ishod lately. Ish Cepeda has been on my radar recently. Kevin Bradley because he’s been putting out more footage recently. Kyle Walker, for sure. Chima. Shane O’Neill here and there. I’ve been watching a lot more older videos too, like Wade Desarmo stuff. Yuto, too, he’s nice to watch for some techy stuff.
What brought you to Vancouver?
I came in November, and the second I landed, it felt right. I was skating around for a few weeks. It was a little bit rainier than a normal November, so not a lot of skating, but it felt good. My friends were all telling me I should move out, since I felt comfortable here and was enjoying it. In Calgary, I didn’t feel so comfortable, so coming out here is super comfy, not a stress in the world.
Can you identify why that is?
In Calgary, I guess I felt, not intimidation, but awareness of the people that are and aren’t fond of you. So anywhere I’d go, I’d notice the few that weren’t fond. I don’t want to be in a spot where people are vibing me out, so I’d go somewhere else.
Do you mean this with relation to skateboarding, or overall, in society?
Both. Society, you notice it a lot. Calgary, being a predominately white place, you go on the bus and you notice it. You go on the trains and you notice it. At work, you notice it. Skating too, you go to a park, and let’s say there are a lot of transition rippers. Often a lot of those dudes didn’t really grow up around different cultures. I’d say. “Hey, what’s up?” and maybe just get a stare down, like “What are you doing?” Skate for a bit, still notice them beaming you, so then maybe just decide to go skate flat somewhere else. In Calgary it was nice, having other parks.
But it can be a barrier, making you not want to skate, just because you might see those same people you saw last week if you go to that park. Coming here, it’s nice, you see people of every race skating, and you’re never really worried about it. There are a lot of positive vibes here, everyone’s really nice, super friendly, and they’re all encouraging. No one wants to see another person fail. They want to see everyone succeed.
Do you have goals, in skating or outside? Anything you’re working toward?
Skating-wise, whatever happens, happens. It’s the world we live in, stuff is so up and down, anything could happen. I’m appreciative of what I have in skateboarding, and I’m thankful for what people have given me. In life, it’d be cool to do some photography stuff. I’ve always been into science too. Geology and astronomy, that stuff’s cool. A name on a board would be cool, for sure. It is achievable, I won’t say that it’s not. Anyone can do it. But it shouldn’t be the main focus. It can take the fun out of everything. So life goals, yeah: work, be happy, stay around, keep people happy and vibing.
What do you like outside of skateboarding?
Basketball sometimes. Video games, but now that it’s warm I’ve put those aside. Reading, I’ve been doing a bit of that. Hiking is fun, biking around fun. I’m a sucker for views. So I just like going around finding nice views.
So what do you think about this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement in particular?
I definitely felt the affects of Covid, having just moved here and then within a short amount of time going into full lockdown. That was a big halt on everything. Skateparks were closed, so we just did little street missions. You feel that impact. But it definitely was a good way to sit down, relax, and really get that skate bug again, just waiting to get back out there and skate every day.
When the Black Lives Matter stuff came in, that was another eye-opener. I never noticed how shielded it was here in Vancouver, especially for a place that’s so multi-cultural. I really noticed how many of my friends were now learning new things about Black lives and the struggles they go through and deal with. You realize there are a lot of talented, humble, nice African-American people, and they never got their time in the light. Now that this Black Lives Matter stuff is happening, they’re getting their shine, people are hearing their voices, which is good, because they need to be heard. Especially after generations of racism and being put to the side, not being the same as society, being a step down, a minority, whatever they classify you as. Now we’re starting to build that equality. I’m not saying it’s there yet, there are still some big roadblocks, but there are people opening their eyes and starting to understand. That gives me a drive to go out and make a random person smile, whether they’re Black, White, or Asian.
You’re going to go through the world and not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone is going to be there for you. Especially with Black Lives Matter now, you really understand who out of your friends and peers are there for serious issues, and who aren’t. Covid is another thing. Some people thought it was a fake thing and kept going out, doing whatever they do. It’s not so fake when you realize we’re still in a pandemic.
Same thing with Black Lives Matter, they did this same thing a decade ago, and the voices never got heard. Now that they’re doing it and the voices are being heard, but some people don’t want them to be heard, so they’re trying to shut it down.
Everyone in the world has different challenges and obstacles they’ve overcome, and that’s what makes them who they are. Whether it’s a crazy outcome, a crazy upbringing, or everything was just handed to you, everyone has their own story, and I find that a lot more stories need to be heard. You hear from a lot of people, how they had to go from ground zero all the way to the top—but you don’t hear that until later on in life. Why not hear their story as it happens, because that could give a little kid some stoke, a kid that’s feeling a little bit hopeless. They hear about someone with a similar sort of story to them, and see where they got in a decade, and maybe they think they can do something too.
Always work toward your goals. Never be satisfied, and never think you’re not working hard enough. Any work is hard work. Whether it’s a little bit of work or a lot of work, you’re still working hard toward something.
Do you want to add anything in closing?
I guess for kids skating and watching skate videos, seeing people getting sponsored—don’t do it to be sponsored. Do it for the fun. Why did you start doing it, and what’s going continue you doing it? This is just in my eyes, but if someone’s willing to give you something, it’s because they see you working hard and enjoying what you’re doing. Keep enjoying what you’re doing, and stuff may come to you. If nothing comes, keep at it, because anything can happen in this world.
Interview and photos by Jeff Thorburn