Sitting in the garage workspace of his Outer Sunset home, George Rocha grabs an old skate deck from a pile of hundreds of boards stacked against the wall. Rocha reads the deck like a palm, feeling its worn textures and grooves. But rather than telling its fortune, he guesses its past.
"If you look at the bottom," Rocha begins, pointing to the scuffs with his hands, which are strong and calloused from years of skate-park building, "it's sort of like art in itself." The graphics peek through the blemishes and splintered edges, and he admires every marking for the story it tells.
The placement and angle of each scrape reveals the skater's style and abilities. They indicate whether the owner preferred frontside to backside rail slides, or if the skater attempted nose slides, and how often. He concludes that the board was loved.
"To me, that's worth hanging on to right there," he says, placing it back on the stack.
The deck is one of many that is to be layered, glued, cut, and integrated into a new board. Iris Skateboards, Rocha's handcrafted rainbow-marked gems, are constructed entirely from used skateboards collected from S.F. skaters and shops. He salvages the materials that would normally end up in landfills and repurposes them to create new decks.
"I think that is everybody's responsibility on this planet: to reduce your waste by reusing. That's my version of giving back to the community," Rocha says.
Rocha, 38, moved to San Francisco 10 years ago — just for the skate scene. His career of skate-park building has supported him for nearly two decades.
So when — like many skaters — Rocha slowly acquired a stack of old, loved boards, he didn't want to let them go. Inspired by the skateboard artist Haroshi, who carves skateboards into 3-D sculptures, Rocha decided to take a crack at the art himself. He chose to make more skateboards.
Rocha realized that some people may not need the luxuries of a high-performance deck. Some people are just trying to get from point A to point B. And skaters create a byproduct that would normally be waste. So Iris Skateboards aren't your modern-day trick decks with kick tails designed to perform flips and spins. Rocha makes his boards flat. He models them after '70s-era cruisers.
The purpose of Iris Skateboards isn't to be the next competitive player in the industry. Rocha believes in skateboarding, and he believes in the companies that are driving the skate scene today.
"The skateboard doesn't need to be reinvented, I think we've got it right," Rocha says.
The Rip Ride, or "R.I. Pride" (Rocha was raised in Rhode Island) was his first shape. Modeled after his memory of his first deck as a child, the Rip Ride is pointed at the tip, round in the middle, and square at the tail — like a mini surfboard. Six other shapes followed.
"My boards, the intent is to cruise down the street, because I think that's still fun," Rocha says. "Cruising down the street, I think that's the first thing you fall in love with when you fall in love with skateboarding."
To salvage enough material for his boards, Rocha made a deal with skate shops FTC and DLX.
"People buy new boards and they leave their broken boards with us, so we stacked them up," Kent Uyehara, owner of FTC skate shop, says. "You can't recycle skateboards because they have a grip-tape adhesive, so thankfully George came up with the idea to [repurpose] the boards."
Rocha also travels to Santa Cruz and throughout the Bay Area to shops to collect boards. Occasionally, he gets boards that still have life in them — and even brand new decks that companies didn't want anymore. But Rocha doesn't throw those decks into the Iris boards.
"I get involved with skateboarding in any way where kids are involved, because I think they need guidance," Rocha says. "I go to the skateparks and give boards to kids that look like they could use a new board, and I do a lot with the San Francisco Skate Club where I save boards to donate to them."
Currently, Rocha works with the kids at SF Skate Club and teaches them how to peel grip tape from old boards that'll be recycled into new ones, and shows them the DIY process of skate culture. In return, Rocha awards new decks to the kids for their help.
"Skateboarders who have the means to do things their way is really inspiring: It's really DIY, and it's cool when the skateboarder decides what's good for skateboarding — that's how it should be," Shawn Connolly, instructor at SF Skate Club, says. "It's really cool for the kids to be involved and see their work pan out."
Rocha's life has been built around skateboarding, and as he gets older, riding is starting to hurt a little more, he says, laughing. It is the love for the ride that hooked him and keeps him contributing to the skate scene.
"This city is a skatepark... Iris headquarters is here," Rocha says. His eyes widen as the excitement overwhelms him and the inner child that fell in love with the sport comes out. "I'm just worried about putting out a quality board, and I'll let the rest figure itself out. Right now, I just love making them."
Go to blogs.sfweekly.com/exhibitionist to see our video of George Rocha's boards.