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A broken scooter and a throwaway line went viral and made Levi Hawken famous. The artist and the skater talks with Russell Brown on the eve of a documentary debut about that minute and that fame.
At its essence, street skating is a matter of deriving function from form – interrogating built space in search of planes and edges, inscribing shapes the original designer never saw, finding a physical solution.
In a scratchy video shot in 1991, a skinny kid in baggy jeans and a blue beanie grins at the camera.
"I'm Levi Hawken," he squeaks. "And this is my section."
For the next few minutes, over a pop-punk soundtrack, the kid flies and grinds and falls over the city, over steps and seats and the fixtures of concrete carparks. When he nails it, he thrusts his hands in the air. When he doesn't, he picks up his skateboard, rubs his tailbone and tries again.
In another video, shot 18 years later, the skinny, squeaky kid is a grown man pointing his skateboard – short board, hard wheels, the most difficult and dangerous way to do this – down central Auckland's Liverpool St, a short road so steep you feel like you need a handrail just to walk down the footpath.
He nails it. Like the kid who's pulled off a trick, he raises his arms in triumph, relief and recognition of the cheering onlookers, before skating back and flopping theatrically on the hill he's just bombed, where he's mobbed. Someone hands him a beer when he gets up and he faces the camera and, flushed with adrenalin, dedicates his feat to Bridey Gallagher Hawken, his recently departed grandmother.
The descent of Liverpool St took 12 seconds – the same length of time as the clip someone took from a DVD. The one in which Hawken, clowning around in a city skate park, looks down at a broken scooter and jokes: "Left my scooter outside the dairy. Nek minnit ..."
Hawken is used to being on camera. He's been captured in action hundreds, maybe thousands, of times and his life spans pages of YouTube search results. But fate decreed that it would not be any of those videos that defined him in the public consciousness but the 12-second joke that got way, way out of hand.
There was little to indicate his life was about to change. Colin Evans' independent skate video South in Your Mouth, had premiered the year before. A clip from the DVD was uploaded to YouTube under the title Negg Minute in May and attracted little attention outside the skate scene. But in August, another YouTube user posted it as Nek Minnit and the world went mad. By the end of the year, the clip had been viewed 1.6 million times and "nek minnit" was New Zealand's sixth-most-searched term on Google. And it didn't stop.
"I've met so many people and it's made a lot of people happy," reflects Hawken, "but you know what it's like, you see famous people and you think they're happy and they're not."
On the internet, people speculated about his appearance: he had leukaemia, he was "retarded", he had a meth problem. He actually has a genetic disorder called ectodermal dysplasia, which affects his skin (he has hardly any sweat glands), hair (white and wispy as a child, long gone now) and snaggled teeth.
He was bullied about it at school and having that come back hurt a bit. But becoming a meme created another problem: he lost control of a reputation built up over two decades of absolute dedication to his craft. Was that more upsetting? Hawken pauses a long time before answering.
"It was upsetting. Well, not really upsetting, but … you have all these things you want to do and you think of how they would play out and then something happens and catches you off-guard. It wasn't so much that it was out of my control, it was that all these other people were controlling it and using it. I was really worried about what I was going to have my persona and my credibility assigned to."
He hasn't shied away entirely from "nek minnit" fame. He's accepted a number of commercial jobs that play on the meme, including NZTA's Dilemmas drink-drive ad, in which he is referred to as "The Nek Minnit", and he owns the relevant trademarks, "not so much so I can do things with it but just actually for my own protection. I've just had to focus on who I am and going back to what I do."
The film's visual style is distinct from the clatter and action of most skate videos – high drone shots emphasise the beauty of hill-skating and the magic and threat of gravity. It's inescapably about Hawken's experience of bequeathing a phrase to the national lexicon and becoming public property in the process. But it's just as much his attempt to put it to rest.
At the age of 43, Hawken still skates, lately on the team of the American company Sector 9. But when he gets up in the morning, he drives from his home in Sandringham to a high-ceilinged workshop perched below Scenic Drive in the Waitākere Ranges to do something he's done almost as long as he's been riding a skateboard: make art.
For a long time, his work was pretty much what we'd recognise as skate art, loose and full of colour, and it often appeared on public walls. But lately it's as if all the concrete he rode is flowing back out of him.
Hawken makes brutalist garden sculpture, cast in concrete from the same urethane his wheels are made of, which isn't a coincidence. He calls his designs "solves" – the same word used in street-skating culture for working out a way to navigate a buttress or a bench. He's interested in exposing function and letting it force the design – like street skating in reverse.
The style emerged, ironically, at the same time "nek minnit" was brewing. In 2011, Hawken designed and led the painting of a 45m mural in the Leith river tunnel in Dunedin.
The artist and poet Hana Aoake wrote that the work "highlights Hawken's active engagement with Modernist conventions and abstraction, as it reflects aspects of German expressionist Franz Marc and a kinetic embodiment of the theories of Kandinsky. The work is innately autonomous and can also be likened to a tomb, with the sharp lines of a hawk acting as a memento mori for both his late grandfather and close friend who died earlier this year. In this way the lines appear to me to resemble hieroglyphic symbols moving your eye across the wall like an archaeologist studying an ancient inscription."
It was created not with spray cans, but brushes. And it's grey.
"I got all this paint donated to remove graffiti," Hawken explains. "It was around the time of the Rugby World Cup and they started painting everything grey in Auckland. And Aotea Square was gone and to me Auckland was just going through a real weird phase. I was pissed off about the grey. We also did a big skate event and we built all these ramps and I painted them all grey. Like a protest – but at the same time saying, 'Okay, you want grey? I'll do my art out of grey.'"
When Hawken says "Aotea Square was gone", he means Terry Stringer's iconic sculpture Mountain Fountain, which was removed from its place in the square (and later relocated at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell) so the roof of the civic carpark could be strengthened. The work features in the documentary as a nexus of Hawken's passions – both a fixture for teen skaters to "solve" and an inspiration for his art.
"I think Terry Stringer was a little bit annoyed that everyone loved skating it so much. The engineers came in and made it a lot more robust than he intended it to be – which actually made it perfect for skateboarding. I still follow his work. And I have met him. We teed up an interview for Manual magazine for an article about Aotea Square, but I was a lot younger and I think was a little bit too bouncy and excitable about his monument. And he just wasn't very excited.
"I saw it as, he designed this thing and they put it there and that was one level of art. And then we came and skated it and that was a second level of art – because you had to solve it, in how you were going to go skate on it. Then someone could take photos of you solving it and that's the third level of art."
Hawken's own next level is his current residency at the Waitākere studio of commercial sculptor Simon Lewis Wards (he makes the wall fixtures of giant jet plane lollies you'll see in design stores). Before this, he was landscaping, toiling in and around the gardens of the southern slopes of Herne Bay, where he grew up, before it all gentrified.
"The funnest jobs were usually in Remuera," he says of the landscaping. "The old money. They'll bring you a cup of tea and let you use the toilet. New money, they're suspicious and making sure everything's locked."
He doesn't know if he'll make a living as an artist but lifelong motivation surely counts on his side. Andrew Moore, director of the New Zealand skate documentary No More Heroes, captured the first videos of Hawken in action for his Yeah Bo series in the late 1980s and recalls him as "just totally into it. Every day, I'd see him somewhere skating. He'd enter all the competitions. Just a real little skate rat."
Hawken also hung out every Saturday at the Blue Tile Lounge skate shop, helping customers as if he actually worked there. Eventually the owner gave him a job, and then – after he scored a surprise fourth place at the street skating nationals – a place on the Blue Tile Lounge team. From there, Hawken skated professionally in Melbourne, where he fronted a low-budget skate TV show and commentated at competitions, and in the US. These days, he's known best for his downhilling and longboarding. He is, says Moore, "a student of skateboarding".
Back in the day, Moore nicknamed the kid "Bart", after Bart Simpson. It's a name Hawken still relates to. When things went mad, he muses, "at least I had the Simpsons' wisdom to guide me."
For the future, "I'd really like to be able to travel a lot more and skate a lot of amazing hills. I just want to keep making art – and building things that can be used. I want to make products and really like making them by hand."
And if the art doesn't work out as a living, he'll go back to landscaping.
"There'll be a job there – it's really hard to find labourers these days. Everyone wants to be a YouTube celebrity, I think."
* MEME ME launches on Thursday, August 29 as part of the 2019 Loading Docs collection and can be viewed online via nzherald.co.nz and www.loadingdocs.net