KZ Zapata

Flipping through old Thrasher magazines I spotted two mystery photos of a skater named KZ Zapata. In April 1986, a photo of her was included in an article by Bonnie Blouin called “Sugar and Spice..?” alongside Stephanie Person, April Hoffman, Babs Fahrney, and Michelle Sanderson. The caption said she was a 19-year-old student at UCSB and that she put many guys to shame when she skated.

Photos provided by KZ Zapata

And, in Thrasher July 1986, KZ was acknowledged as the lone woman competing in Sacramento at the Sacto Streetstyle contest doing a boneless, surrounded by 80s legends like Natas Kaupas, Mark Gonzales, Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi, Jeff Grosso, and Tommy Guerrero. I had to know her story.

In the interview below (which was re-printed with permission to Double Down ‘zine Issue #3, February 2022), I learned about her sponsorship with Santa Monica Airlines, her collaborative ‘zine called “Push, Push, Then Go!” and the hilarious story of how she found herself in a “Say No To Drugs” campaign that was presented in movie theatres and on TV in between Saturday morning cartoons! The $500, free flight, and hair-straightening didn’t seem worth it, but she found the silver lining.

Interview December 4th, 2021:

NP – How were you introduced to skateboarding and who were some of your early influences?

KZ – My brothers are on either side of me, older and younger, and my older brother started skating. It looked like so much fun, and I wanted to hang out with them – it could have been any sport, but I was drawn to the physicality of skateboarding. I was like, “Why would I just sit there and watch?” like what other girls were doing. I didn’t have a strong identification with being a girl, and in the late 70s I got a plastic board for Christmas. We would skate all day and would say, “A family that skates together, stays together.”

NP – That’s a great motto. With skateboarding seen as a liability and shifting into a punk mentality in the 80s, was that exciting for you or alienating? I’ve heard mixed reviews.

KZ – For me, it was very exciting. I mean, my brother was really into punk rock and it was very influential. There was all this stuff about liability, but people kind of didn’t know at that point. Once people had to start signing things, then it all fell apart.

NP – Did you prefer street or transition?

KZ – We skated a lot of backyard halfpipes. I was not a street skater until later in high school. I grew up in Albany, right next to Berkeley, and this friend of ours, Sean had a halfpipe in his backyard. Oh, and we did too for a while! Yeah, my dad let my brother build a halfpipe. There were a lot of backyard halfpipes in Berkeley. It was very relational and hierarchical in terms of whether you could go to someone’s house and skate. As a girl, I needed a lot of confidence because in between all the dropping-in, I would run up the transition and jump on my board.

NP – Claim your space!

KZ – You would be standing there, calculating when you could get your turn, and I learned that I could not overthink why I was there. There was a voice in my head that was like, “What are you doing here? You’re a girl, you don’t belong here,” and so I learned to be like, “If I don’t do this, I don’t get heard.”

NP – Yeah, you gotta go for it to get better. And then you went to University at Isla Vista, and it seemed like there was a pretty happening punk scene. What was that like?

KZ – So, in high school it was all about half pipes, but right at the end people started street skating. It was really weird – people posing, doing handstands with their board propped on their feet. And then, we were skating quarter pipes on the street, and you would launch off it. I actually really injured my ankle, it still hurts from that one injury. But I went to college and did my first year at UC Santa Barbara and lived in Isla Vista, and I loved it. It’s a small community and most people were students and played in punk bands in people’s backyards.

NP – Oh, fun!

KZ – At the end of my first year there was this contest in Isla Vista. I signed up and competed, and that’s when I got sponsored. Skip Engblom who owned Santa Monica Airlines (who Natas Kaupas skated for) was there and asked me to skate for Santa Monica Airlines, and suddenly I was a sponsored amateur! He sent this note, “Here’s your first flow,” with skateboards and stuff. Skip was very cool and experimental. He knew that girls were different, and he sponsored me not based on comparisons to a bunch of guys. That conversation was really important, and it’s what I was most interested in talking to other girls about, asking how we can do this thing we love and not feel like we’re being compared. That’s when I started making this ‘zine called “Push, Push Then Go.”

NP – I was hoping you still had copies!

KZ – Oh yeah, I have copies. Here’s an ad for Santa Monica Airlines, some drawings, basic DIY stuff. And there’s this part about the girls’ scene, and this is when Bonnie [Blouin] came to Oakland and her and I skated together. And this was some girl who sent in photos, so I kept asking for photos. This [photo] was me competing at Sacramento, the boneless in Thrasher, so I created a trick tips section. I knew we needed a space for us – a community.

NP – Was it challenging to create a network?

KZ – Every time I went skating, I was surprised to find more and more girls who were really good. I met four girls at a contest, I gave them my phone number, and we would insist on having our own division. I was like, “Let’s organize!” And everyone was doing a ‘zine, so I was like, “I should do a ‘zine!” I’d go over to Kinkos in Berkeley and literally everything is taped on, cut and pasted, with a bunch of white out. I don’t know how many copies I made, but I was always mailing them out.

NP – I have to ask about the “Don’t Use Drugs” commercial, which is pretty classic 80s. You get to rip around on your skateboard and have a feature role. How did you find yourself in this ad?

KZ – When I got sponsored in 1985, I decided to take a year off school to skate with my friend, Amy. What happened was that Stephanie [Person] was one of these connections I made trying to build community with Bonnie [Blouin]. Stephanie was doing cool stuff and was going to be in this State of California anti-drug commercial, but she injured herself and gave them my name. I was 19-years-old and had no idea what I was doing. They flew me out to Sacramento, I did an interview, and they offered me the job for $500. So, I got flown out again and they introduce me to the “expert,” who was a 40-year-old guy who had skated in the 1960s. I was like “Oh, shit!” The little ramp he built was awful – the transition was so tight. I felt like I looked really dumb, just dancing around, and then they combed my hair out. It really bugged me when they combed my hair, but I was too young to say fuck this.

NP – You wanted to pull out?

KZ – The flight corresponded with the Sacramento Street contest, so I made it work. There’s a video of that contest and I remember I was shaking – it happened every time I competed, but I actually really loved to compete because I loved to show that girls can skate. Maybe we don’t have the same tricks [as the guys] but we’re still doing it, and that contest was really big. And when the commercial came out, it was played in movie theatres, before the start of a movie. I was really embarrassed, but I was meeting people who said, “I saw that ad and it inspired me.” I felt seen as a girl or kind of a queer girl or someone that was tomboyish, so it had positive repercussions.

NP – How did other skateboarders treat you and your friends?

KZ – Mostly pretty positive. We were treated as an enigma. We weren’t dressed to attract attention, whatever that means. I was constantly in very baggy shirts and shorts, and Amy was also very genderqueer, even I couldn’t tell if she was a girl or boy. We first met in San Francisco at this place called The Dish, which is utterly famous in SF skate history. I was watching a contest, and someone said, “There’s a girl here who’s skating.” There were girls all over, but a girl who was like really skating. And so, I found Amy and we got each other’s numbers, and then when I took a year off, we would travel all the time. I don’t know if my skating would have been as rich if I didn’t have Amy there. I had male friends who were very supportive and encouraging, but Amy was my home base. We would go and skate a curb and we would push each other at the same rate.

NP – I was reviewing Bonnie’s article and she mentioned the challenge of not having a lot of visibility as a female skater, and how it made progression difficult. How did that article come about?

KZ – I don’t know how Bonnie and I connected, to be honest – it’s kind of a word-of-mouth thing. And I lived in the Bay Area, and Thrasher was here. People were saying like, “Have you heard there’s another girl skating?” And I have letters from her that we wrote back and forth, commiserating via mail.

NP –What were your favourite memories of skating in the 80s?

KZ – My best memories were in Sacramento – there’s a lot of concrete and loading docks, transitions, and blocks at the top. I just loved that feeling of being out there, cheering for each other, and skating the whole day.

NP – Were you taking photos of each other?

KZ – There was always a friend who had a camera, but the times that I remember were never photo shoots. They were all-day sessions of sweating our asses off, just being consumed by the challenge of learning a trick. There was something exceptional about it, and I got certain things out of it. in Santa Barbara, I got “Woman of the Year” in 1986 for outstanding achievement as a skater and community leader.

NP – Why was that acknowledgment important?

KZ – I felt that representation was important especially as I’m mixed race. My father is Peruvian from South America and my mom is Swedish, so my whole experience was constantly on the margins. Skateboarding freed me to live on the margins. I wasn’t fitting into any box, because I didn’t fit any description, even racially, so I embraced it. I’ll never forget when I was 16 watching MTV and I saw “The Go Gos,” and they were an all-girl band, and I’d never seen a woman play the drums. And that day I went and signed up for drum lessons. It sounds weird, but I was like, “I didn’t think girls could do that.” And then I started drumming and I was in an all-girls punk band in Isla Vista and started playing in people’s backyards.

NP – What was it called?

KZ –The band was called PMS. I’m sure there was some ego – I was getting cool feedback and encouragement.

NP – With skateboarding being projected as countercultural, do you think it’s even more so for women?

KZ – I really felt the whole “Skateboarding is Not a Crime” bumper sticker. In San Francisco we would go skate and be chased away by security guards or the police, we were probably damaging their property but that was kind of our goal. It was very punk – taking the concrete paved world, working with it, and skating it. Concrete became the canvas. We’d figure out a cool way to ride the wall instead of screaming at the wall.

NP – Today, we’ve got women in the Olympics skateboarding – would you ever have imagined that?

KZ – I knew it would happen. I watched the Olympics, and it filled my heart. It was overwhelming, but I knew we would be there. I knew that I was pushing the ceiling and that this progression would continue. In my time I saw the ceiling being raised, but we needed the visibility.

NP – And that’s really snowballed with social media – the progression is staggering. And the person you are today – how did skateboarding shape you?

KZ – It relates a lot to my identity, a complicated identity, but skateboarding was the beginning of my understanding and acceptance of myself. It’s a life-long journey. The box is really harmful, but you can be outside the box, and skateboarding taught me that lesson early on. I’ve tried to use it with teaching as I’m a high school teacher – if life doesn’t work for you there’s a way outside, but it’s not easy. If you’re black or brown, or have complications of identity, just accept you, know the box and try to be outside it. You have to put a bit of effort in, especially in the 1980s, but you can find like-minded people. I tell my students all the time – “You gotta find your crew.”

NP – Have you been tempted to step on a board lately?

KZ – The last time I skated was three years ago in my brother’s halfpipe in his backyard. It was really fun but I’m careful – I’m 54. The falling that I used to do – like I fell all the time, and my body was ready to fall, but if I fell on my knees now, I would be fucked. They hurt right now, and I took Advil this morning! To skate well, you have to be unafraid in order to deal with your fears, so what you can’t do is be afraid of falling. I know the attitude you have to have, and I don’t have it. I still obviously appreciate skateboarding, and watching the Olympics was beautiful.

NP – Thanks for letting me pick your brain!

KZ – I’m glad you’re pulling these stories together.

Historical note: There were four issues of “Push Push Then Go” ‘zine in the 1980s.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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