With the contest season and other projects on pause, Sean Malto took the opportunity over the last few months to travel home to Kansas City, Missouri, with his good friend Curren Caples.
Though Malto has been living in Los Angeles full-time for about six years, he’s been proudly showing off his hometown to other pro skaters ever since his Girl Skateboard teammates first came through in 2006, and says his new web series, Back to KC, is all about paying tribute to the spots, skate community, and city that shaped him.
With the first of six episodes in the series dropping today, we caught up with Malto to learn more about what makes Kansas City special, how he’s been focusing his energy in 2020, and why it’s been important to him to give back to his hometown skate scene.
First of all, how are you doing? What a year!
I’ve just been hanging out, trying to navigate all these restrictions and rules. Here in Los Angeles, restrictions are starting to wind back to how it was at the end of March, which, to be honest, is probably a good thing, so we can get this pandemic under control. I’ve just been trying to do the responsible thing and do my part to slow this coronavirus down and flatten the curve a little bit.
Have you been able to keep skating?
Luckily we have our private skatepark, so we’ve been able to skate through all this, but I actually broke my hand five weeks ago, so I haven’t even been to a skatepark in the last month.
I know Kansas City has always been close to your heart, a defining part of who you are, and a place you’ve always represented really intentionally. Can you tell me a bit about how this Back to KC project came about and what your goal was for it?
Like you said: I do love Kansas City, and I feel like it really shaped who I am as a person and who I am as a skateboarder. When I was talking with Mountain Dew about trying to do a project this year, I wanted to do something that, one, we’re all safe in terms of social distance and all that, and, two, that was really special to me. I felt like in Kansas City, I could do both of those things and use people I knew in the community of Kansas City. This filmer I’ve been working with for pretty much all my skateboarding career, Ryan Lovell, is living in Kansas City, and it really came together naturally.
I know that you’ve had a chance to show off Kansas City to a lot of people over the years. Did this feel like an extension of that, an opportunity to share your hometown with a bigger audience?
Yeah! Kansas City is a small market, it’s a small city right in the middle of America and really far from the skate meccas in New York and LA, so it’s awesome to be able to go there and showcase how awesome the skate scene is. When I was growing up, I had people who brought photographers to town and really gave me a platform to be able to grow in this industry. I wanted to do the same thing for the local kids: showcase Kansas City, the amazing talent, the amazing DIY skateparks, and skate shops. We have a cool scene! I’m really proud to be a part of it. This was a chance to really showcase why it’s special.
What are some of the main things you hope people learn about Kansas City from this web series?
Obviously, skating is what I love to do – I love to show off skating and skateparks, the skate scene – but Kansas City has a lot of cool things. There are great art museums, I love the food there: BBQ is a big part of the Kansas City culture, and they’re also a lot of really good, progressive restaurants because it’s a little easier to try out ideas there. The sports culture is huge: the Chiefs, Royals, the Sporting Kansas City soccer team… it’s really fun when people come to town and there are games, to show them how the city comes together to support our teams. People really trip out about that.
Do you still have a lot of family out there?
I do. My mom and two of my brothers, who both have families live out there. So I have a big family there that I still get to hang out with and see. I have some nieces there who are getting older and just starting to skate. I’m psyched to show the younger generation of Maltos the skate life!
Do we need to do a spoiler alert here? In one of the episodes for this series, you revisit a big gap from your past, where you got a huge 360 flip that landed you on the cover of Skateboarder Magazine early in your pro career.
It was on the 2006 Badass Meets Dumbass Tour with the Girl & Chocolate Skateboards teams, which was my first big tour with Girl. It hurt a lot less than, I remember that! The most special thing to me was to do it there in Kansas City and to have those people there at that time in my life. I mean, Brian Anderson was there, watching cars for me! I was 16 or 17 years old, skating a big gap, losing my mind. To be able to tre flip it in front of Brian Anderson, Mike Mo, Eric Koston, Rick Howard, Mike Carroll… I mean, it was so cool to have them in Kansas City, period, and to be able to tre flip the gap? I was so psyched. Two months later, a friend of mine sent me a photo like, “Yo, dude, check this out.” And that was the first I heard of it. Like, “What? I got the cover of Skateboarder? This is insane!” It was a really surreal moment, especially being that young. I’m grateful to have that.
Can you walk me through some of the spots in each of these episodes? Let’s start with the warehouse park in the first episode.
That’s our private skatepark that Mountain Dew helped us get going a while back, achieving our dream of having a private, heated place to skate because it does get cold for a lot of months in Kansas City. We run it as a membership thing so our friends can have keys and skate it any time they want. For this episode, we also called Ted and Andrew Habiger, the owners of a great restaurant called Room 39, because we wanted to showcase Kansas City style barbecue. When we asked them, there was no hesitation: they were like, “I’ll grab the grill, I’ll set it up, I’ll teach you how to do it, I’ll bring my own sauce, I’ll bring my own rubs, we’ve got this.” That’s kind of how this whole project worked: whenever we talked to somebody about doing something, they were almost more excited about it than we were. To have that kind of support from around the town was incredible.
What’s the story behind the Harrison Street DIY park in Episode 2?
Harrison Street was a cul de sac that was just empty, a piece of land in the city that no one really looked at, so it kind of created a little bit of a problem, I guess. Some weird things were happening there. Then some skaters just started digging a hole into the ground, poured concrete, and made this amazing little bowl. People came along and thought, “Oh, we can add a little extension here, a little bank here…” It just evolved into taking over the entire spot to make this insane DIY. I travel all around the world and look at all these cool spots, but that place still amazes me. It’s really well built and amazing. When I think of the backstory of it, the grassroots funding, and how it all came together, those guys worked their asses off just to build a place to skate that was cool to them. It’s a testament to the skate community how much these people care about skating and care about providing for the community there. They got a Tony Hawk grant to help fund it, and Mountain Dew chipped in to put a bump-to-bar up while we were there. All these cool things have come together to create something incredible. It’s a very core select group of people that put in a lot of hard work to make it happen, and I’m really proud of those guys.
Curren Caples pretty much slays every spot you bring him to in this series. What was it like being there with him?
I love that guy! Just hanging with him is super cool, and the guy is unbelievably talented, so to be able to take him to the street spots where I grew up skating, and to see his take on things, was wild: he was finding brand new lines at spots I’ve skated forever. He ripped so hard. The weather was not on his side – I’m from KC, and even I was cold – and he was freezing, but he skated every spot.
He especially shines in the episode with that really elaborate DIY Barn Bowl.
He was tripping out on the Barn Bowl! I know how talented Curren is, but that spot is tricky: there are all these intricate things, sprung from this guy Joel’s mind who built it, so to have Curren in there ripping around and seeing the lines he put together was special. Then, looking out the window and seeing snow just pouring down… it was amazing to have one of the best pro skaters in the world skating a barn bowl in Lawrence, Kansas, while it’s snowing. It was a trip.
There’s also the really steep handrail in another episode, with the crazy robot camera.
That was another cool local connection. That rail is outside of RW2 Productions, and the owners, the Wade brothers, invited us out to film with their BOLT High-Speed Camera Robot. Everywhere we went in KC, we found cool people with their own connections to the local skate scene who wanted to get involved in our project.
When you go to that gap spot in the final episode, the owner of the warehouse literally comes out and cuts the rail down so you can skate it. It must feel wild to be at a place in your career and in your relationship with your hometown to have earned that kind of privilege.
Ryan Gale, the owner, is an amazing talented jack-of-all-trades guy. If you go to KC, check out Panthers Place, a really beautiful bar he owns. He put that rail up to keep random civilians from walking off the edge of the building, but for skaters, he’s always been down and not just for me: as other pro skaters were in town and wanted to skate the gap, he did the same thing for them. For me, not only did he cut the rail down, he blocked the road with some signs he had then sat out in the cold and watched me try to switch flip the gap for over an hour. To have someone like that on my side made things so much smoother and easier. I can’t thank that guy enough.
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What’s next for you after Back to KC?
I’m just trying to film and be out in the streets as much as possible, and right now, a lot of it is about figuring out what this world is going to let us do. It’s a bit of a wild time right now with this pandemic! I have some ideas and some things going on, but it’s all dependent on how all these unknowns in the world play out. We have been talking about some really cool projects in the works!
In addition to the pandemic, I wanted to ask about the other big thing in 2020 because I know you were one of many skaters who were using your platform, on Instagram and otherwise, to be a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you speak a bit about why it became important to you to use your platform in that way as things were heating up this summer?
It was a crazy time, and it just got so sad with everything happening. It’s not like it’s the first time police brutality was in the news. It’s just been happening again and again. I just felt it was and is important to use my platform and my voice to stand up for what is right. I was in town in Kansas City for Go Skateboarding Day, and it was cool to see that platform used to support Black Lives Matter. It was amazing to plan an event and use skateboarding as a support system like that and get to be a part of some other protests, participate in some campaigns with Nike and my other sponsors, and use my social media to support. It’s really about education: it’s about knowing, listening, trying to figure out what exactly is happening and how to have these tough conversations. It was really important to me and a lot of people around me, including my sponsors, to learn and try to figure it all out. It’s terrible, all the things that keep happening, but it’s also been amazing to see so many people and groups come together around finding solutions to something that’s been happening way too long. I am hoping for better days ahead.
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Do you think 2020 will go down as some kind of important turning point on that front?
Absolutely. I think there were some historic protests this year, communities all across the country coming together towards a shift of change. For me, I felt like I learned a lot about the history of what was going on, and I think the world has learned that this isn’t right. We have to figure this out, we have to come together. It’s not going to change overnight, and it’s not going to change from just a few people. It’s going to take a really large community to induce change. It’s something I’m proud to have a little part of, with the event in Kansas City, with some events and protests in Los Angeles, and just to see a lot of skaters involved. Everywhere there were protests, there were skateboarders.
Is there anything else you wish people asked you about in these kinds of interviews? Anything on your mind that we haven’t covered?
Not that I can think of, but thank you for asking some questions about the world. We do a lot of cool things in skating. It’s cool to recognize some of the things going on outside of skating as well.
What are you most looking forward to, as contests and other things hopefully start to happen again in the coming year?
I look forward to seeing everybody again when we can!
Watch Sean Malto in Back to KC Episode One: The BBQ Lesson here.
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