The State Of Gray
“What makes Costa Mesa different from other places in Orange County?”
It’s the question we ask in every, single interview we do. And while the answers have varied from, “independent spirit,” to “lack of that cookie-cutter vibe,” to “blue-collar history,” to “the Segerstrom family” – one theme keeps coming up over and over again: passion.
That thankless, penniless, knuckle-down, bootstrappy kind of passion that’s so much a part of who you are, it takes more effort to reign it in than it does to go out and act on it.
The passion comes in many forms: caring, enthusiasm, zeal, generosity, fervor – or as one person put it, “When people are crazy about Costa Mesa, they are really crazy about it.” Call it what you will, passion is clearly the cultural je ne sais quoi that sets our city apart.
You can’t even think about fired-up locals without today’s featured Costa Mesan coming to mind. From the moment we met this feverish tornado of contradictions – brimming with ability yet absurdity, irreverence yet intelligence, bedevilery yet badassery – he’s had us on our toes. (And we think he likes it that way.)
We’re talking, of course, about local skateboarder turned brand pioneer, turned skate advocate, turned print shop owner – Jim Gray.
Colorful Gray: The Serious (and Smart-Ass) Side of Jim Gray At Inkgenda, Costa Mesa
We weren’t initially going to focus on Gray, or passion. We were strictly going to write about his screen-printing operation, Inkgenda. But as soon as we sat down in his Westside office, the conversation shot off like a runaway skateboard. It was all we could do to hang on.
“Some people call me the Ambassador of Fun and Skateboarding because I’m all about the fun and I’m all about the skateboarding,” said Gray. “I always say, ‘Make it fun, guys. Don’t suck the life out of it!’ In truth, I’m a multi-faceted guy; but the surf and skate thing is my personal culture where I operate most often.”
Gray never set out to run a print shop like Inkgenda, which is more like a business-of-necessity scenario that found its way into his lap.
“I started out printing as part of my skateboard company, Acme Skateboards. Acme was my brand and then ABC Board Supply was our big manufacturing plant off 19th Street and Placentia. We made skateboards here, in Costa Mesa, from the 90’s until 2008. I employed hundreds of people and made millions of skateboards – not just for the Acme brand, but for other companies. It was great.
“But China destroyed all that. They undermined it. Brands were getting cheap decks from China without “Made in China” written on them – which is against the law, by the way. The boards were so cheap, Acme couldn’t compete. Eventually, we had to close.”
While the decks could no longer turn enough of a profit to support a business, the screen-printing arm still could. So Gray separated that portion of the business out and made it its own entity.
“We moved to our current location in 2009 and became Inkgenda. I brought Tom Lukasik over from Acme, made him my partner, and now he does all the production and stuff. We’ve been here ever since.”
Inkgenda mostly prints stickers and banners and mostly for surf and skateboard companies.
“That’s really our forte,” said Gray. “We do print for other people, like Mini Cooper is a good example, but even that business came as a referral from Tony Hawks’ company. Ultimately, skateboarding is the glue that holds this all together – along with surfing and snowboarding, which are closely related.”
In Gray’s world, connections = customers, and he has plenty of both.
“Back in the 80’s I was on the skate team sponsored by Gotcha,” said Gray. “Now all those people who used to work at Gotcha are working at Salt Optics, Quiksilver, Volcom – they grew up, spread out and still use us for printing.
“Almost 100% of our customers are through word-of-mouth. So we don’t really have a salesperson or run ads. It’s all industry connections and I post to Instagram every once in a while. I just shake hands, kiss babies and let people know what we do. Grassroots, right?”
Stick It: Costa Mesa’s Inkgenda Is The Go-To Print Shop For The Skate Industry (And Now I Heart Costa Mesa, Too!)
While Inkgenda may be the decal darling of some seriously big brands – thanks to quick turnaround times, high-quality printing and street-cred service with a smile – printing is not what gets Gray up in the morning.
“I lost my heart to skateboarding a long time ago,” said Gray. “For me it’s only about one thing: motion. That sensation of the lean, the feel, the g-forces on your body as you go fast through a really tight corner – grinding on something as you go by. It’s like you have this magic carpet under your feet and there’s no other feeling like that in the world. It’s surfing on concrete.
“I mean, with surfing, I might get lucky. I might paddle out and get a good wave. I might get that feeling if conditions are just right. But skating’s always there for me. It never lets me down. If I have a perfect little bowl, I can just go drop in right now – any time of day – and get that slash across the top as fast as I want. I can surf concrete anywhere, anytime without the limitations of being on water.”
Gray was a pro skater in the 70’s and 80’s and then, as he got older, that passion for skateboarding blossomed into advocacy. If you or your kids have ever enjoyed the Volcom Skate Park over at Costa Mesa’s Tewinkle Park, you have guys like Jim Gray to thank for it.
“I’m an active advocate for skateboarding and, as one of the more clean-cut guys, I get pushed out in front sometimes,” said Gray. “The skate park at Tewinkle is a good example. That park was born out of frustration with the world’s take on local skateboarders and the misconceptions people have about us.
“Back in 2002, there was this guy named Tod Ridgeway who was the mayor of Newport Beach at the time. He had some incident with a skateboarder and wrote something for the Daily Pilot to the effect of, ‘There will never be a skate park around here as long as I’m alive. Skaters are a defiant subculture, blah-blah-blah.’ Well, that got me super fired up.
“So I wrote a rebuttal letter to the Daily Pilot, essentially saying, ‘I’m a skater and if we’re such a defiant subculture, why do I coach your child’s team instead of you coaching mine? If you’re the community giver-backer and I’m the rape-and-pillage, evil dude because I skateboard, why give over your kids to my evildoing ways?’ Side note, Ridgeway’s son was on a soccer team I was coaching at the time.
“Anyway, I was just not appreciative of the disrespect. And it’s such a tired meme, you know? Skateboarders run the gamut. I know doctors and plumbers who skate. We’ve got valedictorians and derelicts alike. There is no one kind of skater.
“And you know what? Maybe that skater you think is a derelict – the one giving you attitude – he’s giving it to you because he has no other place to skate. He’s got to ride in the parking lot of Ralph’s – pissing you off – because you haven’t given him a better place to ride. And maybe he has an attitude because he’s sick of getting yelled at for just doing what he loves. He loves it so much he’ll never, ever stop. So when you tell him to stop, he takes it very personally.”
Skate Pro Turned Provocateur, Jim Gray, Costa Mesa, California
Gray and his friends had been circling the idea of a local skate park for years – and when that piece in the Pilot came out, something clicked.
“It was the catalyst,” said Gray. “I was like, ‘F this BS,’ and I got together with Paul Schmidt and Marty Jimenez and Network 17 and we started a group called the The Skatepark Coalition of Newport-Mesa. We started making stickers and flyers and building momentum. I became the self-proclaimed leader because someone had to be.
“Luckily, around that same time, the City of Costa Mesa was redoing the Recreation Master Plan. They were having meetings asking for public input. Let’s just say the city got a major wake-up call when they found out how many skateboarders they have here. It’s pretty eye-opening when you have one guy showing up on behalf of baseball, one guy who loves soccer, one football coach – and then we walk in with 95 skateboarders.”
Still, the coalition had a lot of work to do – changing hearts and minds to officially embrace skateboarding at the community level.
“They were probably thinking, ‘Oh great, a rebellion,'” said Gray. “But, that’s not really how it went down. These local kids came out – and they were 10-years-old or something – and they went park by park, giving input into what was needed. They would say things like, ‘That park needs new drinking fountains, that one has really bad bathrooms and, oh yeah, we also need a skate park.’ The kids participated in the whole thing and I think won them over.”
Eventually, the community didn’t just get their skate park at Tewinkle, but support for the park from Volcom. It was a big win for Gray and Costa Mesa skateboarders at the time, but now, more than a decade later, they’re prepping to march up that hill again.
“It’s been, what, 12 years since we did the original skate park and the skate community is bigger than ever,” said Gray. “But still people act like, ‘Oh, this is just a trend that will go away soon.’ Um, I’m 55 years old and I’ve been skating since I was 10. Skating is not going away. You’ve tried to kill us in every way you could, but you can’t kill us. If you won’t build it, we’ll build our own stuff. We’ll keep doing it forever. You can’t stop it. The only move is to get realistic and embrace it. Skateboarding is here to stay.”
Gray has recently been rallying his community, yet again – this time encouraging the City to expand the existing skate park to better accommodate the large number of people who use it, and/or find an additional, Costa Mesa location for a second skate park.
“The last time I saw the new city budget, the skate park expansion was there,” said Gray. “But somehow, between then and now, someone line-itemed it out. When we asked about it, they said, ‘There is no funding for the skate park at this time.’ But it was in the Parks and Recreation budget three weeks ago. So what happened?
“I found out the night before that a meeting was taking place, so I put out a call to my people. I said, ‘Here is what is going on. I need older guys, 40-and-up, who live here, work here, own businesses here. I want the city to see these are real citizens they should care about – people who own stuff and spend money here – who want the expansion.’
“And you know what? The skate community is really strong in Costa Mesa. The brothers of love came out and we got, like, 30 people to attend that meeting with just a day’s notice. So I’m feeling hopeful. We’re going to get the expansion we need. We just got to keep going after it and showing our strength of numbers within the city.”
Jim Gray: “The Skate Community Is Really Strong In Costa Mesa.”
When he’s not fighting for skate parks or printing stickers, Gray’s finding his way back into the skateboard business again – as long as he can do it locally.
“I actually restarted an old ’70s skateboard brand called Powerflex,” said Gray. “I’m selling skateboard stuff again, just wheels for now. But it’s good to be back at that.
“I’m open to opportunities but I really value working for myself and staying close. I live in the Heights so it’s not much to just jet over here to the office. If my kids had a 4th-grade walkthrough on California, I could just zip over to school at ten o’clock, high-five some kids, take a few pictures and get out. It allowed me to be a ‘mister mom’ in a sense – because all the guys working for other people in Tustin or Irvine or whatever, they can’t so easily come and go from work to school the way I could.
“I also like to roll around town for lunch. Just here on 17th Street, I can go to Baja Fish Tacos, Greenleaf, Burger Lounge, Wahoo’s, Catalina Fish Kitchen is just around the corner – the deliciousness in Costa Mesa is never-ending.”
“I honestly love Costa Mesa,” said Gray. “But sometimes I want to shake the people in it and say, ‘Pay attention!’
“Not too many places in the world can say they’ve got the best little greasy taco shops alongside five-star restaurants. We’ve got creative industrial businesses, huge action-sports companies next to little, independent retail. We have this amazing variety of little cottage-y shacks and condos – and then crazy, expensive housing. We’ve got one of the hippest community colleges around. We’ve got a theater district. We’ve got Volcom and Hurley and RVCA exporting cool and youth culture around the world.
“We’re a very eclectic city. What we have here is special and it’s hard to duplicate. I don’t think there’s too many ‘Costa Mesas’ out there. This kind of magic doesn’t happen in every town.
“So don’t take it for granted, Costa Mesa. Stop expecting so much. Costa Mesa isn’t just you. Costa Mesa isn’t just me. Costa Mesa is all of us. Wake up to the fact that we really do have a great thing here and just appreciate it already.” ♥
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