Photo: Aaron Joseph
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of this site. We are simply printing a story as it was told to us from one person’s perspective.
Lee Smith has a long and rich history in skateboarding. If you’d like some more background information on him, check out our original interview with Lee from 2008. Lee’s life has taken some twists and turns over the past few years. He went through some trying situations in Barcelona, but managed to land on his feet and is now living in New York and working for DQM. Lee’s a good friend that I hadn’t spoken too in many years, so I was hyped when he reached out to me to do this interview. As he said, “he needed to get some things off his chest.” It’s a good story and there’s definitely some words of wisdom in there. Check it out below…
48 Blocks: It’s been a few years since we’ve spoken. Last I remember you were ex-pat status in Barcelona. What prompted you to leave the US and how is the lifestyle in Spain different from here?
Lee: What’s up? It’s been a minute, I lived in Barcelona for about 5-6 years or so, which was a great experience for the most part. My leaving had nothing to do with any ill feelings towards the US, I just took advantage of the fact that I got paid to skateboard and had the freedom and ability to live in other places. Like everybody else that goes to Barcelona I loved it straight off the bat.
I can’t really speak on the lifestyle in Spain too much but I can tell you about life in Barcelona from my perspective.as a foreigner. I think Barcelona is great in your 20′s, in fact it’s perfect in your 20′s. Life is cheap, low cost living, beautiful people everywhere, parties till sunset everyday, and the best skate spots for sure. But when you get to your 30′s and you want to actually make a life for yourself there,an adult life, that’s when it becomes complicated. Because when you scratch the surface of Barcelona there really isn’t much else to it besides the parties, bars, and beaches etc….Especially not as a foreigner. Most people I know from other countries that have spent time in Barcelona usually leave after 5-6 years, when they get to be 30 or so. The few jobs that there are will go to a Catalan person first of course and if your not spending money, then your not really welcome to be there. All this of course is different if you’re a pretty woman, especially blond, then they will be bending over backwards to help you out.
Also you know immigration is fairly new there, people that are my age, when they were kids didn’t see other races and other cultures too often, only Spanish and Catalan people. So here we are 20 years later and Barcelona has totally changed, well the center at least, it’s full of tourists and foreigners, people from all over the world and this creates an interesting dynamic as this is such a new thing, there is always a slight feeling of tension, and a lot of times awkwardness and insecurity from lot’s of people, mostly from the locals.
But Barcelona is a great city, full of interesting and amazing people and I love it there, I think Barcelona is the perfect city to live in if you work for a foreign company and don’t make a Spanish salary, this is the trick, then you’ll be living it up.
48 Blocks: You had a major role in starting FTC Barcelona, as I remember you had been planning that for years. Talk about that experience, what was your role and what was it like opening a retail store?
Lee: The whole idea was mine. I was riding for Santa Cruz at the time and when that ended I really didn’t know what to do with myself. Rather than look for another sponsor (which probably wouldn’t of happened anyway, let’s be honest) I started to think about my next move. During that time I met a girl and we “fell in love” so I decided that if this is the girl for me and I’m going to live my life in Barcelona then I want to do something cool and build something for the future.
So I’m sitting on the beach one day with my friends Gunes and Jens and it just hit me why not open a store in Barcelona, it seemed to be a great idea. I had spoken to a few friends before on different occasions about opening something in Barcelona and Julio (my old business partner) was one of them. So that same night that I came up with the idea I contacted my friend Christian to help put together the business plan, I asked Julio to be my partner as we were friends and I would obviously need help from a Spanish native, and I contacted another friend to be the first investor as he had some extra cash put aside. That was my 4 man team that I put together to make it happen and to get the ball rolling.
It was fun and exciting, but obviously the fantasy is always better than the reality like most things in life. You don’t think about the stress, money, time & energy that it takes to make things happen, but like I said it was fun and really a great learning experience in many ways.
48 Blocks: I’m going to have to assume that things went south being that you left Spain and now live in New York. What exactly happened?
Lee: So I put the plan in motion and I went back to California to work. I was living with Mike Carroll and working for Diamond Supply Co. This was the moment that my friends in LA (Mike, Sam, Nick, etc…) really looked out for me, as I wasn’t really doing anything in Barcelona so they intended on setting me back up in LA, to get my feet off the ground. I didn’t want to tell them about my project in Spain, I figured I would let things take their course and see what happens, after all I didn’t even know if we could pull it off. It took us about a year and a half to get everything together, and in that time I started to question what I was doing and had a great deal of anxiety and stress, at the time I felt it was a pretty major life decision, and I guess it was in a way.
But finally we got things together and things were ready to go. As I was in LA, Julio pretty much took the reigns in Spain to make a lot of things happen, which is what he needed to do; but he made them happen his way. He also basically kicked out my first investor which he didn’t have any right to do, we all came into it together, and in fact that person was a part of the plan before Julio was, that was a bad sign.
So finally I get back to Spain and the store is almost ready to open, it was cool, stressful but cool. Most importantly to me I never would of went back to Spain without the ability to be legal, so a friend of ours Ivan that has a board company was supposed to give me a contract as a “professional athlete” which would allow me to be legal in Spain. But when I got back I didn’t hear anything about this at all, months went by and finally I asked Julio if he heard from Ivan about my legal papers, to which he casually responded “Oh yeah, he said he doesn’t want to do it anymore, I forgot to tell you.” I’m there for a few months and I’m already starting to realize my partner isn’t the person I thought he was, and worst of all I’m illegal. Basically once I set foot back in Barcelona the ball was in Julio’s court, and I made the mistake of trusting him, I walked right into the trap.
A few months later we opened the store and things were cool, but I wasn’t legal and I didn’t have my name on any legal documents besides our franchise contracts, so basically Julio was in control of everything. We would talk about things when decisions had to be made but at the end of the day everything was done the way he wanted it to be done, after a while I started to resent him, I mean really hating him.
Time went by and things got worse, it ended with the girl I was with at the time, and as things were going so bad with everything else around me I felt like she was the only good thing I had in my life, the store wasn’t doing well, and I was extremely pissed and angry at Julio and myself actually for trusting him and being in the situation I was in so I became pretty depressed, extremely depressed actually.
I hit the bottle pretty hard and generally stopped caring about much, especially the store. Why would I care about a store that I knew in the back of my mind isn’t really mine? In the eyes of everyone around I was the drunk irresponsible one and Julio was the responsible guy that was taking care of everything. This worked to his advantage actually. People thought that I was just upset about my ex girlfriend but deep down inside I was pissed that I was illegal and my idea had become Julio’s business, like I said. So I was pretty much hating everything and drinking a lot for about 6 months, at this time Julio was pressuring me to go back to the States (which I didn’t really understand at the time) using the excuse that my life would be better there, but I didn’t leave. I got my mind right, started riding my bike a lot, running, skating more, hanging out with new people and meeting new girls. and with the little money that I had I got a new place to live in my friend Andreia’s house. I started feeling good and despite my situation with the store I started to try to make things better for myself, and to think of solutions, instead of being pissed. When Julio saw that I wasn’t leaving he resorted to plan b which was to cut me off completely.
The same month that I moved into my new place Julio told me that the store couldn’t “afford” to pay my rent or my salary of 150 Euros a week anymore, in the back of my mind I knew this was a lie. I either had to leave or find a job, but how could I find a job? I was illegal, it’s hard enough for Spanish people to find jobs. So I lived in my new place for only a month. And there I was, homeless and broke in Barcelona. It was at that moment that it was clear that Julio didn’t have good intentions from the start, I always thought about it before and even confronted him about it (not in the best way sometimes) but he always had excuses so I would tell myself I was being paranoid and put these thoughts out of my head. I guess you should always listen to your gut instincts
In a nut shell, I came to him with an idea and he saw it as a way to get ahead, and to be a “somebody” in the Barcelona skate scene by having a store all for himself. In retrospect it’s easy to see that he had this plan for a long time starting with kicking out my first investor and getting a bank loan in his name only (which I thought would be in my name as well) and having his family invest money, my idea quickly became his family business. Later on he tried to throw it in my face that I didn’t bring any money to the table but the point was that I never came to him asking for money, I had my plan. I came to him with an idea and he took it, used me, and made it his. I didn’t want the bank loan and I reluctantly agreed to having his family invest money, I didn’t want to do that but at the time I trusted him as a friend. When he felt comfortable enough that he had the store all in his name and had used me for all I could give he did whatever he could to get me to leave, and eventually it worked.
I don’t think he conspired with Ivan to not give me my legal papers, Ivan is a cool guy but he’s really busy so I think he couldn’t be bothered and that worked out perfectly for Julio’s plans.
This story is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the skateboarding scene in Barcelona. Greedy, opportunistic, small-minded people who don’t see the big picture, The funny thing is, is that Julio’s biggest fear was that if we got an investor then that person might try to take over our business one day, but in the end he did the same thing to me. I asked him how he felt about that straight to his face, he had nothing to say.
Thank god I have good friends that got me through that summer, I stayed in Barcelona for another 4 months trying to figure out what to do. And actually had one of the best summers of my life, broke, homeless, and all. I learned a lot about myself during that whole situation and actually I have my head screwed on a lot better now than I did before. It’s funny, one of the worst situations of my life was actually one of the best at the same time, because everything is a learning experience.
In the end of all that I’m not really mad about it, the only thing that pisses me off a bit is the time I spent to do all of this.
It was about a four year process from when I had the idea ’til when I got to NY, and time is the only thing you don’t get back. People and situations change, things come and go, but time is precious. Starting over at 33 is not really what I want to be doing but I guess it could be worse.
48 Blocks: Are you still on good terms with FTC Barcelona and FTC in general?
Lee: I just saw Ando, Kent, and Graham not that long ago and it’s all love. I’m from SF and I will always be down with FTC…I have nothing to do with FTC Barcelona. I read an interview with Julio lately where he’s sending me “saludos y abrazos”(hugs and greetings) and acting as if we are still cool, even using me after I’m gone.
48 Blocks: I recall seeing some semi-negative Facebook posts from you towards the end of your time in Barcelona… something about “Peter Pan” syndrome. Care to elaborate on that?
Lee: Barcelona is a place full of people that are escaping the reality of growing up, and I’m mostly talking about people from other places, not the locals. They go to Barcelona to work a part time job, rent a room and party and take drugs, and people will do that for years there, next thing you know 7 or 8 years have passed and you’ve made no actual progression in life. So a lot of people there are suffering from “Peter Pan” syndrome, and I will admit that’s probably one of the things that attracted me to Barcelona initially, but that’s not what I want anymore. Obviously not everyone in Barcelona is living like that, but a lot of people are.
48 Blocks: Last time we spoke, you were very anti America and pro Europe, has your opinion changed at all, if so how?
Lee: Haha, I don’t really remember exactly what was said but I really love the States and Europe, both places have good and bad. And you know me I like to talk trash and provoke people at times, so when I’m in the states I’m all Euro and when I’m over there I’m like Captain America, but really I love both sides of the pond equally.
48 Blocks: Now you’re in NYC working for the Vans DQM General Store. What is your role there and how did you hook that up?
Lee: Yeah it’s great to be here, I’m working in the store like you said and we all play a part in the direction of the brand more or less, DQM has a family feel and we all sit down and talk about things and give ideas, I think there is a lot of room for growth here so I’m just taking it as it comes. When everything went down in Barcelona I just focused on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I contacted Chris Keefe and approached him about working for DQM, and it worked out.
I don’t really know how I pulled it off. Leaving Barcelona was like escaping a prison, not only figuring out how to eat everyday but how the hell your gonna get out of there, where to go and over all how to make it happen. Maybe that’s a good idea for a reality show, drop people off in different countries with nothing and see if they can make it out alive.
48 Blocks: How does your life now compare to when you lived in Barcelona?
Lee: Personally I changed a lot, I used to be really angry about a lot of stuff in my life and what my experience did there was really force me to sit down and take an introspective look at myself, to see why I do certain things and to face certain demons from the past that I had. I think most people go through life really unconscious about certain things, behavioral patterns and so on and aren’t really aware about the things they do or why they end up in certain situations over and over again. I used to feel very entitled for some reason, and I didn’t appreciate what I had, now I just enjoy the simple things in life, going skating with homies, having a nice brunch with friends and so on, the simple things are what life is about and before I took a lot of things for granted. I can see now the difference in my life as I approach everyday situations from a more humble perspective, life works a lot better now.
48 Blocks: Do you think you’ll stay in New York for a long time or is this just another stop on the Lee Smith world tour?
Lee: I think I’m good here! Actually NY is where I have wanted to live for a long time and even though it was a crazy unconventional journey to get here I’m psyched to be here, I want to plant some roots and have some stability, I’m chilling.
48 Blocks: What are your thoughts on the Menace Epicly Later’d and how that came out? I kind of thought that you deserved a bigger role in that being that you were on from the beginning til the end?
Lee: I thought it was great actually, Patrick O’dell did a great job with what he had to work with. I was psyched to see what Pupecki, Billy, and Fabian were up to as I haven’t seen those guys in a long time. Obviously it would of been great to have Kareem in there and I also would of liked to hear more about Steven’s life story, but it was good. As for myself I would of liked to have been in it more and I actually did a really long interview but as I was in Barcelona at the time I guess Patrick didn’t have any images to go with my story. Oh well, like I said I was pretty psyched on it though.
48 Blocks: Are you still skating? If so, how seriously.
Lee: Yeah bro! I skate as much as I can. My wrists, ankles, and shoulder hurt a lot more than before but that’s life. Skating is actually a lot more fun now as there is no pressure to do new tricks! Haha, I want drop a video part for fun, I fantasize about it, like an old man chilling part.
48 Blocks: I was living in LA for most of 2011 and your name came up a lot. Any chance of you returning to the West Coast?
Lee: People talking shit?! Naw I’m kidding, hmmm, I haven’t really thought too much about it, like I said I’m feeling really good in NY and happy to be here. I’m definitely long over due for a visit back home, I’ll try to make it happen this summer.
48 Blocks: Where do you see yourself going from here. It seemed like the FTC Barcelona thing was a long-term goal of yours, now that you moved on what would you like to do in the future?
Lee: Honestly, I’m not really thinking too much about the future, not in an irresponsible way but more of just enjoying my life at the moment. One thing I’ve learned is that your future is really shaped by what you do today, so when you’re busy thinking about the future a lot of times your not focusing on what’s going on now. I have a few ideas of things I would like to do but I just want to focus on right now and plant some roots here in NYC.
48 Blocks: Being that you’ve traveled and accomplished so much in life so far, what do you value most from your experiences thus far… what is important to you?
Lee: Learning is important to me and taking the positive from each experience is important to me as well, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I try to see the errors in my ways and to constantly grow as a person. Like my Barcelona experience, I went in to that with a negative stressed-out attitude, and I’m sure that didn’t help things at all; but at the time I was too focused on the future and had a lot of doubts and fears, too many “what if’s” in my brain. I mean after all I was making a major life decision, where as if I were to go into a situation like that now I would focus on things more on a daily basis, how can I feel good today because tomorrow is another day.
48 Blocks: Do you have any personal regrets about any of the decision you’ve made in the past? If you could redo anything what would it be?
Lee: That’s a good question, I will keep it 100 on that one. Growing up I was surrounded by some of the greatest skaters on the planet at EMB, we all grew up together and I got sponsored really young, but let’s be honest skating wise I was never on the same level as most of my friends, not even close. I think Joey Suriel said it best in the “Menace” Epicly Later’d, he said “We were good at skating, but we weren’t innovating or blowing minds, we just skated in a way that people liked” and that’s totally how I feel about myself as a skater, so if I have any regrets it would be that I should of started thinking about and exploring other dreams besides pro skating earlier in life. As much as I love skateboarding, pro skating just isn’t for everybody, and getting that next sponsor isn’t always the answer. I think the only person who ever told me that I should do this is my best friend Sam Smyth, that was about 9 years ago when we lived together. At the time I didn’t get it and even felt offended, but looking back he was so right, cheers Smyth. But I don’t dwell on that, life is good.
48 Blocks: Now that we’re moving towards the middle of the 10′s and skateboarding has progressed into yet another generation, does it still speak to you as much as did in the past? Is it still as relevant to you today as it was 10 years ago?
Lee: I love skateboarding, I’m blown away by what the new generation is capable of doing on a board, it’s incredible. And like I said I love skating now more than ever. I don’t really pay attention to industry gossip and all that, I just really can’t be bothered. But skateboarding whether I like it or not is my life, I’m in too deep! Hahaha, so yeah skateboarding is very relevant to me.
48 Blocks: Being that you grew up with guys like Mike Carroll and were on teams with guys like P. Rod, what do you think the key to success and longevity is in skateboarding?
Lee: Both Mike and Paul are extremely humble people, and I think that’s important. The ego can get out of control and ultimately it will destroy you, Forgetting how lucky you are to get paid to ride a toy well and thinking that you are a rock star will only cut your career short, and there are too many examples but no need to name names. Mike C. always quotes E-40 the rapper, “They key to success is to stay hungry and humble” and I totally agree.
48 Blocks: Since you were a part of FTC Barcelona and now work for DQM, you probably have an interesting perspective on the recession at a global level. What’ your take on what’s going on economically right now?
Lee: Well in Spain the economy is really bad, it’s very easy to see how people are affected by the economy. Maybe 5 out of every 10 friends are out of work and you hear a lot of crazy stories, it’s more in your face that things are bad, and from what I hear it’s getting worse. Here in the states you hear about the economy being bad but it’s not in your face so much, people have jobs and even if it’s not the job they want it’s still a job. Unfortunately I think the recession affects poor middle Americans more than on the coasts, but I know things could be better for everyone. I don’t really follow what’s going on in the world too much lately, so I think my view of things might not be totally accurate.
48 Blocks: You’ve had history in SF, LA, Spain, and now New York… who do you keep in touch with from your different eras and why?
Lee: Of course we are all connected and obviously technology makes that easier via Facebook, Skype, etc….The cool thing about living in NY is that everyone always visits, so I will always see everyone from my past at one point or another.
48 Blocks: Any last words you’d like to say to wrap this up?
Lee: Sure, I want to thank Markus & Yasmina, Denis, Norah, Danny Wainwright, Luke, Diego, Jessica, Aimee, Scott, Louise, Fiona & Harrison, Joanne K, Gloria, Luc, Quentin, Shahin & Madeline, Maya & Joann, Dave & the crew at Betty’s and many more people I’m sure I’m forgetting, thank you. Sam Smyth, Mike & Greg Carroll, Nick Tershay, Chris Keefe, Aaron & Shaun and the whole DQM staff, Marina Garcia & Siham Arbia, thank you, love you.