Interview Ryan Lay Photo
Photo by Clément Le Gall

Interview with pro skateboarder ryan lay

february 26, 2021

Skateboarding is a rich culture full of great people, and Ryan Lay is one of them. He not only rides for Welcome Skateboards and has one of the best nollies in the game, but also runs the Skate After School organization for nearly ten years to provide skateboarding instruction to kids in Arizona. Let’s meet Ryan to talk about travelling and discovering the world through skateboarding.
What’s your take on skateboarding today?
I think a lot of people predicted that there was going to be an explosion in skating because of the Olympics, but the Olympics got cancelled. Then Covid happened and there was the explosion in skating because of it. So it’s interesting because we are having a big boon, but I don’t think that it’s correlated as much to the infrastructure that’s getting supported around the world with skateboarding. And I feel like in the run-up to the Olympics, all these countries are gonna get a boost in funding and kind of infrastructure, just like public support around skating that’s gonna change its image. For me, the thing that I’m always concerned with is how can the street side of skaters, like the subculture side, how can they harness that money and energy, turn it and keep it radical, and use the money for funding cool organizations.

It’s funny though because the thing that I’ve seen in traveling is that you’ll see people who get into skateboarding through very popular channels, like Rob & Big or Life of Ryan on MTV, and they immediately move past that. They get into skating through the kind of institutionalized version of skating, and then they find things like Thrasher, and they’re like, “I want to bomb hills and I want to do street skating”. I feel like I’ve seen that happen so many times that it does give me a lot of hope. Even if there is a world in which kids are getting taught to skate to train for the Olympics, a good amount of them will take those skills and use it for progress in the way that we think of it in terms of skating, which is building out a more inclusive culture, and keeping that counter cultural edge. The kind of anti-establishment edge that skating has.
Ryan Lay Interview Gif 1
Are you working on a video part at the moment?
I’ve been filming a little bit and I’m working on an interview, potentially for Thrasher. But I’m really trying to build out a travel TV show about skating. It’d be a mix of documentary and also skating but tap into the different social skate projects around the world. I’m just trying to figure out how to get funding for it and obviously, right now is a good time to plan because nobody’s traveling [laughs]. I’m trying to figure out how to get in on a non-skate platform, because I think that’d be much better, rather than doing it through a traditional skate channel. I’d really like to do something almost like Anthony Bourdain, where he travels to countries and it’s all about food. Something like that, you get the human-interest story, you have a main subject and it’s interviewed. You learn a little bit about the scene and the culture, how they’re building skateboarding there, and also in addition to that, you get some skating as well.

I feel like for even non-skaters, that could be interesting because skating, unlike basically every other sport, happens in the street. So you get a really good look of cities just from a travel perspective which I think is the allure of food shows, even if you’re not that into food you’re like, “I want to see what the streets of Egypt look like”. There are so many people doing things on a shoestring budget. Like everyone I’ve met doing social skate stuff, they don’t have big government grants, they’ve got a trunk full of skateboards and they’re swimming upstream most of the time. So yeah, that’s something I would really like to do but we’ll see. There’s not really anything like it, so it’s kind of hard to pitch but I’ve heard from a lot of people that they’re looking for stuff. And again, skateboarding is kind of hitting this global peak right now. So I think some of the streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix and HBO are looking for skate content, trying to get in that universe.
You live in Phoenix, Arizona, isn’t it too hard to skate during summers because of the heat?
I travel because I’m fortunate enough to be able to travel, so typically I will try to be gone most of the summer. When I’m here I just don’t really skate, my parents have a pool over there, and you can drive up to the mountains though. The mountains are much cooler, the climate’s much nicer up there in the summer. But I try to be gone like May through August-September, try to leave, do international trips and stuff like that. Everything just kind of shuts down here during the summer, it’s just dead, all the universities are closed. Most people leave because we have a lot of people who are snowbirds, so they just come for the winters.
I was visiting Arizona a few years ago during May, I remember it was hot.
April and May, it hasn’t even quite hit boiling temps. I mean, we have like Saudi Arabia temperatures, probably 115 Fahrenheit [45 Celsius] in the summer where it just feels like you’ve stepped into an oven you know.
Interview Ryan Lay Quote 1
Interview Ryan Lay Quote 1 Mobile
So you turned pro for Welcome Skateboards in 2016, and it seems like the company really fits in with you. Do you think being kicked out of Enjoi was a good thing in a way?
It’s like the water you swim in, I can’t really imagine any other way. You got to live life with no regrets and every decision leads to an outcome and shoots you down some new path. So leaving Enjoi, I ended up going back to school, and I also helped start Skate After School. So I’m very thankful for those things, it gave me some time to cement what I wanted to do, as an aside to skateboarding, things that I’d just been putting off. So it was really helpful with that regard, and when I did get back into skating, riding for Welcome was very much on my own term, which was a good thing. I was like, “I’m building an organization here, I’m gonna be in school”, I had my own terms and because there was this new crop of brands that didn’t really adhere to the traditional routes, they were super cool with it and really supportive, it was great.
You co-founded Skate After School in 2012, can you tell us more about it?
I was at a point in my life where I knew that I needed to do something aside from build my own personal brand, which all of sponsored skateboarding ultimately is. It’s a very self-obsessed industry, which is fun because it gives you the time and capacity to really explore your potential as an artist or athlete. But because all of it revolves around your personal brand building, sometimes that can be really exhausting, so I wanted to build skills outside of skating and in a very generic way give back, try to get into community organizing work. A friend of mine was building boards and donating them to a local community center, Tim Ward, who’s one of the other co-founders, and I just tapped in with him, it was super fun. It’s been a journey. When we first got started, we were basically doing this little, tiny community project, just building boards, and donating them. Then a few years in, the administrators at the school started reaching out to us and they really encouraged us to start a non-profit, we didn’t even know what a non-profit was at that time [laughs]. So my co-founder and I ended up going to university for work that kind of relates to Skate After School, and now we’ve built it into a small little non-profit, a small business here in Phoenix.
Do you plan to develop the program in other cities outside of Arizona?
Not right now, we feel like the work that we do is hyper localized, and it just works much better on a grassroots level when it’s really localized. Potentially we’d expand to other cities but there are so many elementary schools that are underserved in Phoenix, which is one of the top 10 biggest cities in the country, so there’s a lot of people here. But we encourage people to start their own organizations if possible and I’m always interested in having conversations with people. Potentially we’ll be able to expand outside of Arizona and maybe we can bring those people into the fold. But for right now, the thing that we’re really focusing on doing is trying to build out a full life cycle mentorship program, where kids who are in the program can get mentored and tap back into volunteering, and then hopefully they’ll take our jobs in a few years, let’s hope!
Have you seen some kids progressing and getting super good?
Yeah definitely, there’s a few kids who are really good, like doing three flip down a nine stair [laughs]. That never really was our intention, but it’s always a cool outcome. For us, it’s exciting because we work with younger kids and our program is just an after school program, to keep kids safe. In many cases, they don’t have a parent after school, and skateboarding just happens to be what we do. So we’re not really into coaching or training, but ultimately, kids do get into it and it’s really cool when they step into the culture, because that happens after a few years where you’re not just a person who skateboards, like you play other sports at recess, you become a skateboarder. You want to immerse yourself in the culture, and you want to take the bus down to the local skateshop, and you’re reading magazines, well maybe not reading magazines, but following YouTube channels.
Interview Ryan Lay Quote 2
Interview Ryan Lay Quote 2 Mobile
How can we help the organization? If I live in Phoenix, how can I help you, how can I be involved with you?
This year actually, I’ve been trying to focus on ways that people outside of Phoenix can help us. Donating money is always helpful obviously, but if you have skills, like you’re an animator, hit us up and we can try to find ways to work with you. I recently put a call out with some graphics that we had and had somebody help us animate those, that was really cool. So I feel like there are people who have skills, and right now especially because of Covid and the political issues we’ve been dealing with, a lot of people are feeling this impulse to get involved with some sort of volunteer work. What you’re doing right now, interviewing me, is a really helpful thing in spreading the word of our organization. But people who do video stuff, photo stuff, web stuff, animations, illustrations, even accountants and stuff like that, there are lots of different ways you can tap in, not just with us but all sorts of different orgs. As much as we love having people come to the program and volunteer, if they live here, that’s really great, but there’s just so much other stuff that goes on behind the scenes. So that’s always really helpful especially when it’s a thing that is so time-consuming and exhausting for me, because I don’t know how to use a computer, and someone can come in and be like, “I’m going to help you build out an Excel spreadsheet for a five-year plan or something”.
You seem to be a pretty busy man, you’re a pro skater, you run the Skate After School organization, you do the Vent City podcast, you must have a crazy schedule.
[Laughs] honestly, I think with a lot of people who do work that is decentralized, like you don’t clock into an office or out, it feels like I’m always working and also, I don’t work that much, especially because a lot of it is stuff that I love. It just feels natural, the things that I want to be doing, I want to talk about skateboarding, I want to teach people how to skateboard, I want to go skateboard myself. It’s funny because the work that I’ve done with Skate After School at school and going to university, a lot of that I got interested in just because I would get hurt all the time, and I had a ton of free time. I like playing video games or whatever, but ultimately you want to build out that time with stuff that is skate-adjacent. Trying to find the intersection of what you’re doing work-wise, that was always really interesting to me. I was traveling through skating and I got really interested in studying history and geopolitics. So I follow a lot of geopolitics stuff just because I got interested from traveling skating and wanted to have a better grasp on what was going on, and the places that I would visit. Everything that I’m trying to do is maximizing those connections, so that you can see more clearly the bigger picture.
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But as of right now, because of Covid we don’t have programs and I’m skating, but like a lot of people, I have a lot of free time [laughs]. It’s a lot of cleaning the house and reorganizing and hiking. I’ve really gotten into hiking this past year, and it’s become a second, almost first passion for me. I haven’t really done anything publicly with it, but I’m getting ready to do a really big hike in March, that will be kind of a big public fundraising campaign. I really love the meditative quality of long distance hiking. The past year has just put a burden on all of us in terms of overloading our brains with the political landscape and Covid and the protests and police brutality. You sit on your phone and just kind of feel paralyzed.
What’s next for you in 2021?
I’m about to hike 800 miles [1300 kilometers], so that’s what’s on the near horizon. I’m hiking the entire state of Arizona from south to north, hopefully. Trying to have a positive mindset so I’m going to do it and that’ll be early March through mid-April. I’m really excited about that, and then beyond the hike, just trying to get our organization back in shape and starting up with programs again. We’ve got some exciting changes that we’re gonna make with the organization. But I think a lot of people are just anxious to get back in the swing of things and doing stuff with other humans [laughs], meeting on the computer just pales in comparison.
Thanks so much to everyone taking the time to read this, means a lot!
Check out more of Ryan Lay’s skating and projects on Instagram.