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Original Z-Boy Chris Cahill dies in L.A.

6/30/2011
Courtesy photo

Chris Cahill, a member of the legendary 1970s Zephyr skateboarding team formed in the section of Venice Beach, Calif. known as Dogtown, was found dead in his Los Angeles home on June 24. According to LA county coroner, Chief Craig Harvey, the cause of death has not yet been determined. Friends at yovenice.com report that Cahill had succumbed to a long battle with cancer. Cahill was 54.

"When we were kids, 13 or 14, we used to bomb down the steep hill in front of his house in Santa Monica," said Jay Adams, a fellow Z-boy and friend of Cahill. "That was his favorite thing to do. He wasn't really into the competition side of skateboarding like others."

Cahill, Adams, Bob Biniak, and Wentzle Ruml grew up surfing together at Dogtown's abandoned pier. Adams said Cahill was one of the older guys who looked out for him loyally, but tended to stay quiet with people he didn't trust.

Like many of the Z-Boys, Cahill was from a broken home and Adams says their moms were "hippy" survivors. Cahill was close with his mom, but "we were always hiding from my dad," Cahill told Juice Magazine. Hiding became a way of life. Jeff Ho, who owned Zephyr Surfshop, the hangout for Cahill and other kids in Dogtown says Cahill was often left to fend for himself.

Ho saw that Cahill had talent outside of surfing, as an artist, and asked him to airbrush surfboards in the shop. Later, Ho would help Cahill learn how to shape surfboards -- even building a shaping room at his mom's house. Shaping became Cahill's lifelong trade.

"Chris had a great sense of putting a surfboard together. Lots of guys are technically good, but it doesn't ride good or surf good. Chris's boards may not have been exactly perfect, but he could make it ride well," said Ho. "But his contribution to this life, his life's work, was an artist. He was a great airbrusher."

His airbrush work on surfboards, and later skateboards, were distinctly retro: bright neon colors with silky fades, his trademark three bars and "Dogtown" in a cross shape. Later he also worked with paint brushes, laying on thick chunky textures that pop off the canvas. But in all his art there is one theme: crashing waves.

In 1974, Cahill and Adams joined a surf team sponsored by Zephyr Surfshop. A year later, Cahill hustled his way onto the 12-member skateboarding crew which stormed the 1975 Del Mar National Skateboard competition and catapulted the Z-Boys into overnight stardom. Skateboarding would never be the same, and neither was Cahill.

Cahill was disinterested in the hype, attention and competition. On his website, cahillunderground.com, he wrote, "Underground was formed to remind skaters and surfers not to fall into the commercial, 'everyone looks the same' pop world."

Skateboarding was just a way to practice what he loved most: Surfing, specifically kneeboarding. While other kids dreamed of getting in skate magazines, one of Cahill's proudest moments may have been landing his first spread in Surfer magazine, and his name wasn't even on it.

Naturally, Hawaii's waves eventually drew him to Oahu's North Shore in the late '70s. There, Cahill was roommates with another Z-Boy, Ruml, while Adams lived down the street. According to Ruml, Cahill loved competing in the surf, but in the end was a true gentleman.

After Hawaii, Cahill lived for a number of years in Mexico at surf spot Todos Santos. Cahill was married at the time.

When fame rolled around once again in the acclaimed 2001 Sundance documentary, 'Dogtown and Z-Boys,' Cahill was listed as MIA. Later, when the Z-Boys' story was turned into Hollywood hit, 'Lords of Dogtown,' Cahill was left out again.

In his last days, Cahill came out of hiding and returned to the Dogtown area. Ho says Cahill worked at a surf shop, shaping and repairing surfboards, while still selling art and T-shirts with his designs.

"There's a code, ethics, there's being the man, there's being the poser, or the guy for the dollar. Chris understood the code. He stuck to his guns. In the end here he used his talent and his art, shaping and building," said Ho.

Cahill took some hard knocks in life, but marched to his own beat. On his website, Cahill writes, "I was a soldier of misfortune, when I read one of the film reviews in the magazines; it made me look like a fugitive. I thought, 'well, that's not totally untrue.' But I wasn't a fugitive. Of anyone on the team, I was the most rebellious, I don't conform to anything that society expects me to do."