The Year I got SOTY: Arto Saari
Your year was 2001. How old were you?
I was 20 years of age.
You were on a whirlwind experience. What year did you come to the States?
I think it was around ’98. I came on a three-month skate trip to come check it out. Obviously there was plenty of sunshine and spots galore. I thought, You know what? This might be my jam. I should probably stay over here. It all kind of snowballed from there. I’m still on that trip, chasing that sunshine. Seventeen years of snow in Finland, so I have had my fill of it for now.
One of the most shocking skate photos of all time. Back lip an 18, 18 years ago Photo: Sturt
A lot of people are tripping on how fast it’s happening for the pro skaters now, but you went from your mom’s house to having a pro board in California in about 16 months, right?
Yeah, it all happened fast. I was a kid that didn’t speak English. I said goodbye to my mom, dropped out of school and was off to the races. Sixteen months later, I was given Skater of the Year and I asked, “What’s that?” I got on stage and was like, “Okay? Rad.” I was tripping out because I had seen all the pros on video. There was Reynolds; there’s Koston. It was craziness. It was that two-year period that I was filming for Sorry and Menikmati. It was 16 months of going out every day and every night to film those two parts simultaneously. They basically came out back to back.
SSKFFSBS Sequence: Burnett
I was trying to figure out the timeline and the photos from your SOTY interview are Sorry tricks. You got Skater of the Year based off of Menikmati because Sorry hadn’t come out yet. When did you get a pro board and was it a big deal like it is today?
I can’t remember if there was a party or anything because everything was one big party at the time. Every day was something new. There were some birthday parties, some possible paid women involved—I can’t remember if that was a birthday party for Appleyard and I or if it was my pro party. For me, it was a big deal. I couldn’t believe it. Getting a pro board after being here for a little over a year, it hit me that it was working, that it was happening, this is my reality now. Sixteen months before I was a kid in Finland just thinking, Fuck, I am really not into going to school right now. This is not my jam. I need to skate and go see the world.
People are tripping out on Jamie Foy, thinking that it’s happening so fast. You were pretty fast, but not this fast.
It definitely went from zero to 60. I feel like I did all of my skating back then. I feel like you kind of have to do that. If you want to make your mark in skateboarding, you better come out the gates swinging. Just get in there and become part of the scene. Jamie Foy just got out there, got on some companies and is steady killing it.
Film sequence of a fakie flip. ‘Two ride-away frames is plenty!’ Sequence: Burnett
Were you filming for Sorry and Menikmati simultaneously at sessions?
Yeah, I met Fred in Europe in ’98 and he told me that he was going to do the éS video. I was a flow rider and he asked if I wanted to film a couple tricks while we were in Germany. Six months later we’re in California doing full-blown night missions. I don’t know how it ended up happening, but halfway through the filming of the éS video, I think he made a deal with Flip that he was going to do that project as well. We started filming for both and we decided, since I had ten front boards, let’s use that one for the éS video and the other for Flip. A dozen back lips? That goes over here; that goes over there.
You hit your head a couple of times during this period, right?
I was in the States for that first winter. About three months into it I slammed and got knocked out. That was in the Sorry video. One of the first sessions to film for it and I got knocked out—before my pro model even came out. A month and a half later it happened again. I hadn’t even done anything yet and I just got knocked out twice. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was seen as a liability. But after that I got into the groove and started figuring out what I needed to do and started getting some tricks. I didn’t hit my head again until the opener of Mindfield, the lipslide on the kinker.
Hurricane at the school where they filmed Back to the Future Photo: Sturt
What do you remember from the San Dieguito slam, where you barfed?
That was a weird one because no one was even filming it. I wanted to switch front board the 13 and was warming up. I couldn’t get my balls out of the handbag to jump on it and do a front board, so I just kept boardsliding, boardsliding, boardsliding. I got super pissed, focused my board and threw a full tantrum, hacked the board to pieces. The guys thought it was over so they packed up and took their time. I went to the van and set up a new board. By the time they’re walking off, I skate past them from the parking lot straight to the rail. I try to feeble it, still pissed, hung up and went face first. That goes to show what happens when you throw a tantrum. I don’t know what I did to hang up but I remember pushing towards it, ollieing and the next thing you know I’m in the hospital. Geoff is shoving the camera in my face and the nurse walks in and asks him, “What are you doing? You’re a sick man. Can’t you see he’s not well? Why are you filming him? Get out of here!” The nurse is trying to kick him out and he’s got a smirk on his face with the fisheye. That actually ended up in the intro.
During this timeline, when did you have your heart surgery?
Before I came out to the States, I had the heart surgery scheduled in Finland. It’s free healthcare but I had to get in line for the surgery and it was a year’s wait. I went to America, got knocked out a couple times and McCrank, Templeton and all those guys went on a tour to Finland. I came with them and my heart surgery was scheduled right in the middle of the tour. We’re skating a couple towns in Finland and I told everyone I had to go because I had a heart surgery planned. I went back to Helsinki and got it done while they were hanging out. They actually came to see me at the hospital, which was really cool. They made me laugh and all my guts opened up again. The nurse had to kick them out.
The Arco gap was a popular proving ground at the turn of the century. Nollie heel Sequence: Burnett
Have you had any other issues from the heart surgery? Do you still have heart problems?
No, I haven’t felt it that bad, just a couple palpitations. It hasn’t come full on after the surgery. It’s called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Basically, it’s like a faulty line in your heart. You have thousands of these veins going chamber to chamber and one of them was crooked. It would send my pulse into the same chamber. One would work super hard and the other didn’t know what to do so it felt like your heart is stabbing out and doesn’t know what to do. I’d get super out of breath and couldn’t move. The only thing you can do is lay on your back and hope it goes away.
Pissdrunk Summer, 2001 Photo: Antton
When you were running around high on all of those drugs all those years, were you ever worried that you would have a heart attack?
No, because I was, like, “The doctors are good in Finland. I’m all fixed now. I’m good.” It never crossed my mind.
I was looking at the photos and some of the one’s we’re going to run are the Sturt photos. I forget what the name of the school is but I trip out that Ed lipslid that thing.
He lipslid that thing, broke his tail off and rode away clean.
At the time, it was the craziest shit anyone had ever seen on handrails, especially the back lip. What was the vibe at the time, with you, Geoff, Ed and Sturt? What was it like being there?
It was really scary. Geoff had a picture of that rail on his wall for years. When I first came to America, I saw that and thought I would never fucking skate that thing. There’s no way. My biggest handrail at the time was a six-stair rail or something. I wasn’t touching that thing but that photo just sat there. Eventually, I don’t know if was me or Geoff that suggested it, but we had a look at it. That’s kind of how it started rolling. Ed was all fired up during that time. We were skating with him a lot and everyone was just feeding off of each other. We had a super fun crew and Luke McKirdy would come out once in a while. Everyone was just pushing each other. It was rad. It was good motivation.
Did you take anything away from your experience with Sturt? Did he have any influence on your photography career or how you deal with your subjects?
Sturt’s bedside manners are pretty awesome. He definitely had an influence on me, for sure. He was one of those guys, you don’t know what he’s really going to do or if he’s even going to show up. If you make that call for him to come out, you better be ready to jump. He would get pissed, or you would think that he would get pissed—I don’t know if he actually would. He was one of those dudes that it had better be a 14-plus if he was going to come out. That was part of the motivation, too. He would have a way of pushing you to get things done. That 18-stair rail, I was doing laps, rolling up to it over and over. He got agitated that it was taking too long. I was about to jump on it, almost there, and as I’m rolling up to it, he yells at me to come up to him. I’m thinking, What does he want now? Shit. So I go over there and he tells me to stand next to Geoff. I’m about to skate this thing but if you want me to stand next to Geoff, I will. He shoots one picture and I ask him what that was about. He told me, “You never know when someone is about to die. Go skate.” That pissed me off and it actually worked in a way. I just got it and got out of there. We hit the Wilshire rail on the way back and did the nollie noseslide on that as well. It was the same day. I think the feeble, crook and nollie noseslide was the same day. The back lip might’ve been separate. I can’t remember the order. We dragged Ed out there one day and he needed a hammer for his part. It was sick. Super fun times.
Nollie nose the Wilshire 15 Sequence: Sturt
There was a point after that where Flip was reinventing gnarly skating and what was possible. What did it feel like? Did you have a lot of pride being on Flip? Did you feel gnarly pressure?
To me, it didn’t feel like that when we were doing it. We were just out skating, having fun, scaring the shit out of ourselves. We were all homies; we were all getting in the car or van and searching for the next kill. At the time it wasn’t like, “We’re the gnarliest!” it was more, like, “What’s Heath doing on UCI this weekend? He’s got the biggest hammer in the new mag.” I’ve never felt like we were the guys. In hindsight, we did a big video that seems to stand the test of time and people talk about it. Cool. We did something in that era that is now part of history that people still talk about. At the time, it was just Bastien, Appleyard, Geoff—you know, all those guys. Let’s hop in the van and go to San Francisco for a couple days or let’s go to Miami for two weeks and film a bunch of shit. It wasn’t like we were thinking that we were making the gnarliest skateboarding in that moment.
Borrowed shoes, classic style. Filming with Fred in Barcelona Sequence: Burnett
Can you describe a moment when you thought that people expected too much from you, either the bosses or the public?
I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by people where I’ve never felt that. In hindsight, I’ve put more pressure on myself than anyone else could’ve. Maybe I’m just so naïve that I didn’t care. I wasn’t skating good enough; I wasn’t going big enough; I’m not doing it— I don’t think it’s come from anywhere else. There were times where people for sure told me that I was way too drunk, but skate-wise, no. I’ve definitely implemented more pressure on myself and driven myself crazy that way.
Getting into drugs and alcohol, was that more just about having fun in the beginning? Was it not trying to get away from the pressure? We’ve all seen the young hotshot where his only defense against somebody making him get on the next handrail is to get so stoned that he can’t talk.
There’s definitely dangers of that but I think at that time, in the early 2000s era, the rock-star status was more favorable. With social media and skating getting so much more gnarlier now than it was back then, you actually have to be a full athlete if you want to stay alive. Because the stuff they’re doing nowadays is just so gnarly that you can’t be fucked up and doing it, or at least you shouldn’t be. There’s definitely dangers of it, though, with more young people that are getting paid decently to skateboard and they have the freedom to do whatever they want. There’s not very many rules in that sense. There’s dangers of getting wrapped up in that. Looking back at it, yeah, the beer might work for you for a little bit, but alcohol always wins and it won’t work out in the end. It will just fucking eat you. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. Like, “But, dude, I skate better on beer.” It’s bullshit. Eventually it will turn on you, like everything does. You do it too much, it will turn on you. We’ve all seen it. It’s, like, “He’s on one right now. He’s gonna end up over there.” Skating can be gnarly: it can take you in, treat you really good for a little bit and spit you out. It’s kinda easy to get there, but to stay there and have longevity, that’s the hard part: keeping a straight head and not getting wrapped up in bullshit. If you want to be a good skateboarder you kind of have to be an addict, have the mentality of not giving up and getting what you want, being semi-obsessed with it. Otherwise you’ll never be able to deal with the pain and become a good skateboarder. It’s a really thin line to balance on, for sure, if you’re one of the best skateboarders in the world. But then the dark side is pretty close and it can flip over in a couple of days if you don’t keep it together.
Fakie back lip Pt. Loma for his SOTY cover Photo: Burnett
Now, looking back with some perspective, what does having been SOTY 2001 mean to you?
It was such monumental and pivotal moment, at least for my career, and it set the course for it. In hindsight, it was the best contest I had ever won. After that it didn’t matter. Maybe it was a bad thing. In my head, it was the highest thing I could ever possibly achieve. I think hearing people talk about it, it definitely feels good. It helped in the long run of putting me on a certain pedestal in skateboarding. Menikmati, Sorry, Mindfield parts and SOTY, those are the four things I look back on and I’m glad I got to experience those. Those are my proud moments. I think SOTY is up there. It’s nice to see people notice your hard work, although it wasn’t really work because I was just out there having fun.
Nollie back lip at a spot that won’t die Sequence: Burnett
Catch us up. What is your life like now? What are you doing?
I was in LA for ten years and I wanted a change, wanted to get my kids out of the city and little closer to nature. Hawaii seemed like the place to go. Little bit of a smaller community and country living. Obviously I picked up surfing so that’s kind of my next phase of life: being in the water a bunch. That’s also helping me to skate a bunch more, skate the park here a lot and just healthier living in general. I’m probably gonna form some rebar, pour some concrete and get a snake run going, keep on skating, raising kids, surfing and shooting photos. That’s basically it in a nutshell.
Arto’s July 2000 cover. We shoulda used the back lip! Photo: Sturt
Do you still make a living as a pro skater or do you make a living as a pro photographer?
After the beginning of the year, I might be currently unemployed. It’s either currently unemployed, or photographer or a skateboarder or all three combined. I’m doing stuff with Volcom. I’ve been on their roster for a bit. I guess it’s more of this term, “Ambassador” deal. I shoot photos for them, I wear their clothes, I skate. There isn’t any pressure from them to skate a big handrail or anything. And I’ve been doing some New Balance stuff, too. But someone forgot to resign my contract so I’m going to have to make some calls.
Are you still with Flip?
Yes, I’m still with Flip—Flip, New Balance, Volcom. More of an ambassador than a pro skater. I like to skate still but not at the level of when I considered myself a pro skater. I’m just kind of having fun with it and shooting photos. I think shooting photos is where I’m headed.
Last question: where do you keep your trophy?
My mum’s place in Finland. That was the safest place back over there. If there’s one place it won’t disappear, it’s if she’s got it.
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