Josh Stewart is the founder of New York-based distribution company, Theories Of Atlantis. TOA is a highly intuitive skate collective that navigates creativity, independence, and artistic value within skateboarding culture. We interviewed Josh to explore the depths of his company, his perspective on the brands that they sell, and why keeping underground skateboarding alive is important.
How do you persevere to the top in such a highly competitive city like New York with an independent skate company?
I guess you have to have your hands in several different pots. To have some sort of side hustle that allows you to pull in some income that you can invest into your brand and take a risk. I moved to NYC 10 years ago and worked restaurant jobs while also doing contract video work for anyone that would hire me. Then I would film in between, usually at night after work. That allowed me to slowly dip my toe into starting Theories and TOA distribution.
What are your favorite companies that Theories supports and why do they mean so much to you?
Haha... well, that's pretty impossible to say what is my favorite, necessarily. The thing is that all of our brands that we've carried up to now have been created by my friends and skaters I did video parts with. So the beauty of this is that we’re not having to be salespeople pushing things we don't believe in. And I think that makes a big difference because I think people can tell when you're not being sincere. So, so far we've been really lucky that we're actually fans of everything we distribute.
Do you get to pick what the companies send you, or do they just send you stuff and then you have sell it?
No, we get to decide what we're gonna sell. For a long time I just had to guess what would sell, so I was basically picking everything based on my own taste. But we finally started to prebook everything so we send it to all our shops and they place their orders months in advance. Which is great because stuff that I don't think will be popular will often sell really well. Like the trends with the whole 90's retro thing or the style everyone's been wearing where they look like they're going yachting with their dad? If I was buying just based on my own personal taste we might not have ever imported that stuff but when we started pre-booking all of that stuff went crazy.
Were you guys the first American distribution to sell Polar?
Yeah I feel like I really remember that, like if I wanted anything Polar I always went to your website.
Yeah, we got kind of lucky. I did an interview with Pontus on our site about his “In Search of The Miraculous” video. And during that interview he told me he was starting a brand and I had just started distributing Magenta so I offered to help him get the brand going here in the States. It was definitely a different scene at that time though, the indie brand thing hadn't popped off yet so most shops, even my good friends' shops, were really hesitant to pick our brands up. It took a while to slowly build up support but I felt like kids were ready for something new and it started to become obvious with time as the brands did better and better.
Why do you think that there's such a heavy cool guy attitude in skateboarding? I feel like New York has it even heavier than anywhere else.
It's weird because I feel like the cool guy thing originally started in the 90's because skateboarding was considered really “uncool” and skaters were vibed and hated on for being skaters. When I was in high school there were only two other skaters so we got vibed out constantly and that eventually became part of our identity. You had to build a thick skin and I think a lot of skaters basically developed an attitude to counteract that. But then, about 15 years ago, things started changing and skateboarding started to become accepted. And now, it's almost universal that skateboarding is considered "cool". So nowadays, with skateboarding being so popular and universal, the biggest challenge is standing out. Everybody's good at skating, everybody's got their own brand, so how do you stand out? Well, I guess I’ll just be an asshole or I'll dress like a pirate.
People consider New York to be the epicenter of that mentality but I think it's pretty universal at this point. Supreme was an early pioneer in that model. Putting on a cool-guy vibe as part of their image... and it really worked for them. I think a lot of people noticed that and tried to adopt the same aura. So everything has changed—in the 90's it was kind of a reaction to how we were treated, but now I think people put on a cool-guy front as a way to give themselves some “edge” and stand out.
There's definitely something really special about New York and it's really cool to see how you capture it in your videos. I feel like you've always maintained a very dark and authentic outlook. Would you say that's how you view skateboarding through your lens? All urban and gritty and stuff?
I mean, I think for me growing up in Tampa where the city didn't really preserve or respect it's history and architecture, it made me fall in love with cities like NY, DC, Philly, etc. when I first started traveling. There's something about that gritty, industrial revolution-era architecture that captures my imagination. So I think that was sort of part of the inspiration for me with my skate videos, trying to capture that darker, more gritty vibe of the city and use that as a backdrop. I always felt like the videos that really grabbed me as a viewer were the ones that created a world of their own and pulled you into it. So I always felt like if I could somehow create a dark, eerie mystique it would help give the viewer an experience beyond just watching skate footage. That's the goal at least.
Do you think that the only way an independent skateboarding company can exist is because there's such a big industry to go up against?
I wouldn't say it's the ONLY way, but it helps put it into perspective. I think it took a full decade of the corporatization of major brands and watching skate companies get bought and sold like the stock market for skaters to realize and appreciate the value of an independent, skater-owned brand. So yeah, I think it realistically helps to have that duality. Those two different paradigms kind of feed off each other, especially with skateboarding going into the Olympics—which obviously sucks in a lot of ways—but when it does happen, I think it's only going to make the "underground" street skating side of things stronger.
Do you ever find yourself getting lost in oversaturated social media skate content? And do you ever question your existence about it?
Oh of course! It's the worst. It's a necessary part of having a brand in skateboarding, so you can't just ignore it. I mean I enjoy it in a lot of ways but in a business sense it's pretty frustrating. The worst part of it is that almost every day I catch myself looking at Instagram mostly just to evaluate our value and relevance. I'll be like “how do these guys have thirty thousand fucking followers?” and all this stupid stuff going through your head, like comparing yourself to everyone else to figure out where you fit in and then trying to justify in your head, like, ‘Well I guess we're just more underground.’ It's so ridiculous. Can you imagine for kids, like teenage kids nowadays, how awful it's gotta be? Being in high school and everybody's judging their self-worth by their social media, you know?
Through all that bullshit how do you stay true to your vision and work? How do you not let that affect you?
I think it's kind of impossible. Because as annoying as it is, none of these small brands, including ourselves, could have made it this far without social media because it's free advertising. It's a way to reach a lot of people for free, essentially, so it's really almost impossible to not get caught up in it and be affected by it. I don't know, we try to do a lot with TOA to be unique in the monotony of digital media... we still do stuff like print our own newspaper and try to make DVDs of our video projects and we carry and support as much printed independent media as we can from around the world. We try to do more things that are still tangible, but digital media is just the way of the world.
You guys have always done a really good job of keeping up with everything.
Thanks, thanks. Well it helps a lot having Pat Steiner as part of TOA because not only does he do the bulk of our designing and stuff at the office, he's also well immersed in that world. He kind of like keeps me a little more informed—well a lot more informed—about what's going on out in the skate world.
Through all your years of filming with skateboarders, who are some of the ones that stick out to you, any favorites?
Well I mean I guess there's a difference between favorite skaters and favorite people or just favorite in general. It's such a wide spectrum.
We can do your favorite skaters you've filmed with, like aesthetically.
Well I mean Pat Steiner was always like, aside from the fact that he's works with us, he's been one of my favorite guys to film with because there's so many people who are good skaters, but very few who really know how to make stuff look right on film. And he really gets it. He has a certain kind of rhythm to the way he puts together a line in skating and he knows which spots will go well with his skating. There's also people I’ve just been really stoked to get to film with, like Ricky Oyola. I wouldn't say I filmed with him a lot, we did a video part together, but just the fact that I got to film him and do a video part with him was a huge honor for me. Jake Rupp, Sean Mullendore, Kenny Anderson, Jahmal Williams, Quim Cardona... you know, there are certain people that just have that special energy that's really tough to translate through film. So it's a privilege to film with them and try to get their magic across to the viewer.
I also read in one of your interviews with Live Skateboard Media that you often find yourself in the role of a motivational speaker, trying to remind skaters of their value and the impact they can make on their board.
Yeah, I mean if you look at the Static videos there's always, like, a mixture of some young dudes that are less known and then a few guys who people maybe haven't seen in a while or who people always wished they saw more of but rarely did. So a lot of those guys that are a little bit older, I don't think they understand their value and that people just want to see them skate. With a skater like Jamal Williams, Ricky Oyola or even Pat Steiner, people aren't pulling out the yardstick to measure how high they're ollieing. It's more the feelings people get by watching that person on a skateboard. It's rad that those guys either typically don't know that about themselves or they don't take advantage of it, but, you know, you can't just blatantly say it to them that way. You have to find a creative way to understand their psychology. It's probably similar to some directors who work with somebody like Bill Murray or something and knowing just the right way to work with him to get the performance that's the most genuine. I don't know if that's a compliment or makes me look crazy, but there's a long list of dudes in Static videos that are notoriously not too easy to get footage with... Those are the kind of dudes that I'd be more stoked to get something out of, but it takes the most amount of work.
Why is keeping skateboarding underground important to you?
That's a tricky one... this might take a bit.
I mean I think if you look at a lot of things that were culturally important like punk music or hip hop, the reason they became such strong art forms is because they had a movement behind them. But then, when those movements found commercial success they became mainstream and they lost sight of the reason they started in the first place. If you listen to hip hop from the early 90's it had meaning, it was overall positive and it gave a voice to a disempowered facet of American culture. And now it promotes the exact opposite ideals of what it did in the 90's. Was it done on purpose? Or was it something that just happens with anything that finds commercial success? It goes from being a movement with an empowering message and it becomes a commodity that just pushes a negative and meaningless message. And that's already happening with skateboarding in some ways. In my experience skateboarding was always about individualism, a vehicle of self expression. But it's become more competitive, something that kids think can bring them fame or fortune. I think there are almost two cultures developing in skateboarding these days. One that's being shaped by the more mainstream brands with a competitive and homogenized culture, where skaters feel a need to 'fit-in,' and another side being shaped by the smaller indie brands, underground skate scenes, and video makers which celebrate being an individual. I prefer skateboarding to stay more underground because we have learned from the past that once a sub-culture goes pop, it almost always becomes a shell of it's former self. And if everyone who's picking up their first skateboard is doing it because they want to make it to the Olympics, or to become famous, then the original spirit of what makes skateboarding a movement will eventually burn out.
What do you wish to achieve through your creation of Theories?
In the past I've said a lot of stuff about the idea of West Coast brands tapping the East Coast for it's talent, but not providing an outlet or giving a real opportunity for people. In a certain way that's a bit too idealistic—like a college kid when he first starts reading about world politics. But, I know the world isn't that simple. There's not as much clear good and bad, but the reality is I don't think you're ever going to create an East Coast industry that's on par with the West Coast. But to create something that could be a platform for my friends and their brands and promote indie filmmaker's videos and hopefully keep an open outlet for the skating that I appreciate. And it's rad to be fan of something like an underground Japanese skate video or something and bring it into the US and see it actually sell. It's insane and it's rad to see stuff like that have legs. Everybody's trying to do their own thing, like "This is my brand", but all of it is really hard to get legs without bringing it together as a collective and I think that was kind of what helped us all in the beginning. It sounds corny to say “wW're all stronger together,” but with this experiment called Theories of Atlantis, it actually really held true.