David Mendez

The Yin and Yang of Beach Cities Shredders

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Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Friends from youth, Mason Silva and Chris Russell shred together after carving separate paths to pro skateboarding careers.

by David Mendez

The differences between skateboarders Chris Russell and Mason Silva, as they prepare to power across Manhattan Beach Skatepark and attempt a tandem trick (Russell airing off a quarter-pipe and stalling on a nearby fence, Silva simultaneously pulling off a grind under Russell) are stark.

Russell, a Hermosa Beach native now living in San Diego, looks, well, haggard. His hair is shaggy under a Red Bull beanie, his face wearing a few days’ stubble, and his clothes give the distinct appearance of something he may have recently woken up in.

Silva, a native of Manhattan Beach now living in Long Beach, is relatively clean cut – his dark hair closely cropped, his black hoodie and jeans looking fresh.

But as the two push off and start to hit the trick, you see what binds them: talent and unshakable focus.

Mason Silva slides into a backside Smith grind, while Chris Russell launches into a frontside Smith stall at Manhattan Beach Skatepark. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

The two young men, both 21 and recently-minted professionals for their respective sponsors (Element Skateboards for Silva, Creature Skateboards for Russell), grew up as good friends seeking skate spots and riding to parks as adolescents. As the two found their niches and developed their talents, they grew apart. But occasionally, their paths would cross – in 2015, Silva and Russell were named The Skateboard Mag’s Amateur of the Year and first runner-up, respectively.

“They’re exact polar opposites, the yin and yang,” said Sonny McCollom, of Hermosa’s ET Surf, who helped secure support for both as they grew up. “Chris is your grime, hardcore guy, while Mason is your conservative, technical guy. And it’s cool that they came out of here and it shows you the diversity out there.”

Silva’s philosophies pop out at you from his video clips, and he’s quick to admit them: Hit tricks fast, and hit them hard.

“It’s pretty apparent to see in footage, even for people who don’t skateboard: it’s easy to tell if someone is going fast over anything,” Silva said. “It’s like playing music loud or soft.”

That, he said, is something that’s been with him for as long as he could remember. Everything he did, he said, was fast, and there was no way he could turn that off.

“But power, that came way after speed. I got that from surfing, watching some of my favorite surfers, like Dan Reynolds, put so much power in their turns when they go fast,” Silva said.

Saltwater and shaped foam are in Silva’s blood. His brother Dayton, went to work in the surf industry after competing as a pro. His father Mark is locally famed for surfing for more than 1,000 days straight.

“It’s pretty surreal — it’s like if a child told you he wanted to be a fireman… you make sure he got all the right grades, did all the right things, and it wouldn’t be a surprise,” Mark Silva said. “But when a kid tells you at a young age he wants to be a pro skateboarder… all we provided him with was the opportunity.”

That opportunity, Mark Silva said, was to allow Mason to pursue independent study in high school, granting him time to skate and film without being forced to stay on the Mira Costa campus.

“I gravitated toward this,” Mason Silva said. “That’s how I got around to Chris, seeing him at other parks, and seeing that he had the drive to really be something. He was in the same boat as me.”

The two groms were close, catching rides together to ride skate parks around LA and Orange County.

“It’s funny, he’s a transition guy, skating pools and ramps, and that got me skating at first,” Silva said. “But when Vans Skatepark built a street course, I started skating that and never looked back.”

“It’s so funny, he used to skate transition back in the day, but he started seeing his niche in street skating,” Russell said. “It’s so rad he took that route and made it his own…he’s so, so f—king good in the streets.”

Street skating – conquering stairs, handrails, ledges and other landmarks of urban environments – is Silva’s bread and butter. His video clips show him catching ridiculous air off banked asphalt and open-top culverts, catching his board soon after making it dance below him.

“I think there are more options, more creativity for me,” Silva said. “I like the culture of it, going into the street, finding something unique and filming it, making an artwork from it.”

Though he cites fellow Element Skateboards pro team member Brandon Westgate among his greatest influences, South Bay local and skateboard legend Rodney Mullen was among Silva’s first idols. Mullen is a technical wizard, known for spinning, flipping and twirling his board with uncanny precision. Watching Mason idly skating, you can see him taking those same influences, popping two, three, four tricks in a line on flat ground.

But if Silva is technical, Russell is visceral. He has a raw power to his lines, tinged with recklessness.

“The skill is there, and he just has the guts to do everything he wants to do; he can think of anything, and nothing in his mind is going to tell him ‘no,’” Silva said.

“I’ve always been like that, with anything. I can’t do it any other way, with anything I do in life,” Russell said. “It’s weird. I feel like I’m worse when I’m trying to be relaxed, than when I’m pushing it into the ground.”

Russell described his style as embedded along the “hairline of chaos and complete control,” on the brink of destruction.

“That’s what I liked to watch growing up, where you don’t do things that are necessarily perfect, but were unique and completely off the wall,” Russell said. “Where you can’t tell what’s rehearsed and practiced, or completely in the moment and genuine.”

Russell came up in an older skating tradition, growing up among well-respected older heads, like Mike Smith and Lester Kasai.

“That’s where I was sculpted, and learned the boundaries of etiquette,” Russell said. “Those were the main inspirations growing up, older dudes who had deep roots in skating already.”

Russell’s discipline is in transition, carving the curves and rolls of bowls and pools, grinding or stalling along the coping – the top edge, where flat ground meets the lip of the bowl – before diving back in.

“There’s a texture to it, and the coping has so much to do with what transition skaters like,” Russell said. “The street is amazing, but I never got that same feeling of going fast.”

The people who have observed Russell’s growth have struggled finding the words to describe his style – at least, words that are printable in a family publication – but they say he’s always had the fearlessness he displayed in parks and videos.

“He’s not afraid to take it to the next level, and I don’t think he has the same fear that most people do,” McCollom said, recalling Russell as a kid who would never be seen without a torn-up metal band shirt and hair cascading down his back. “He’s the one guy you’d say who completely paves his own way, and has his own style. He’s not a follower by any means.”

Russell’s career was nurtured by heavy family support as well. His parents would often take both him and Silva to parks across Southern California, and he was a regular on the contest scene even as a grom.

Manhattan Beach skateboarder Mason Silva and Hermosa skateboarder Chris Russell at the new Manhattan Beach Skate Park.

“We started helping Chris out because I knew his mom, Jessica,” said Steve Harkenrider, of ET Surf, who helped connect Russell with NHS – the parent company to his eventual sponsor, Creature Skateboards – who would throw in free gear to help him. “He was a ripper who killed it in pool skating, really any type of transition skating.”

But his family, Harkenrider said, was unlike the typical helicoptering sports parent who acts as a de facto agent for their child.

“We’ve seen throughout the years, parents always making the kids work, trying to live their dreams vicariously through them,” Harkenrider said. “[Chris’s parents] Jonas and Jessica were so mellow and thankful… he was mellow, his family was grateful, and that speaks a lot.”

Russell’s apple didn’t fall far from his parents’ tree – as the shop helped them, he and his family stayed loyal.

“Only ET,” Russell said when asked where he bought his gear growing up. “I started riding for them when I was like, 10. Our fam’s never gone anywhere else.”

About a mile up Pacific Coast Highway, Spyder Surfboards treated Mason Silva with just as much love. Though they have a skate section in their PCH store, the only pro decks they carry in their online shop are Silva’s pro decks. Once upon a time, a young Mason Silva worked behind the counters at Spyder, who he says “pretty much raised [him].”

“You’ve gotta represent him; he’s one of those guys who’s been so close to us and been a part of the family and made it,” said Luke Jarvis, son of Spyder founder Dennis Jarvis.

As he talked, Jarvis grabbed two DVDs from behind the counter: Disorganized Fun, and Goosenectar, two locally-made skate videos, both featuring a young Silva. “It’s crazy, I was just showing my buddy these two… they sold out the old Hermosa Playhouse screening these.”

As conversations turned toward the future, the young pros turned introspective. Silva, as from when he was a kid, hopes to stay deeply involved in skating.

“I always want to be putting out video parts, photos, keeping everything alive for as long as I can. I want to do this forever,” Silva said. “I’m not going to be able to, because my body won’t let me, but I’m going to do everything I possibly can do.”

Though Russell acknowledged he’d be in a very different place if he wasn’t skating (“My mom raised me on a really good palate,” he said. “I’d fully embrace food and go that direction,”), his plan is keep working to improve, which might even lead to skating in the Olympics.

Skateboarding medal events are planned for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, and upcoming contest series will soon start taking scores for Olympic qualifying. But he’s not stressing about that.

“I’m not going to put myself through all this stress into something I love so much,” Russell said, before pointing to his sponsors’ gear. “These dudes, and these dudes would really want me to do it, and I’m going to try my hardest…but if it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to cry about it.”

As for seeing his old friend on the same track to success, Russell is stoked.

“It’s pretty rad to see how we did this, and back in the middle again; it’s funny, man, how it worked out like that,” Russell said. “It’s a trip. It worked out in the best way, for sure.” 

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