Eric “Tuma” Britton teaches kids how to rip the right way.
Story —Liza Ryan
Images — Imani Lanier
When you think of Dogtown, those renegade boys of the Venice Boardwalk, it’s hard to imagine them holding hands with four year olds, handing out Band Aids and taking juice box breaks. But that’s exactly what skate mentor Eric “Tuma” Britton does every day. The lead organizer of Roll Model Skate, a program that teaches kids how to rip the right way, is a steady guy. When asked how we would describe himself, he says, “honest, hard working and committed.” Always calm and confident, he’s the jeans and T-shirt-wearing type. To the disappointment of many, he no longer sports the ’fro that he adopted for his role as Marty Grimes in Lords of Dogtown.
Britton started skating when he was five and, according to him, has only bought one skateboard in his entire life. Most of us mere mortals can only dream of being so outrageously talented that by eighth grade we were signed by iconic brands like Dogtown and Santa Monica Airlines. But while “normal” pre-teens were sitting in footie PJs watching Cartoon Network, Britton was busy skating with pros like Julien Stranger and Jesse Martinez. “At 12, I was riding for Dogtown. In 1990, I left Dogtown for SMA. A year later, Kareem Campbell told Skip [Englom] to turn me pro and that's how it went,” says Britton of his path to the pro-ranks.
From there, he was inducted into his second family, the variety pack of skaters that were Venice by definition. “Eric Dressen, Aaron Murray, Block … taught me how to rip. They taught me about style.” It was this microcosm that Britton says allowed him “to see the world without ever having to leave home.” But when the word “icon” sneaks into the conversation, Britton balks. “I don’t know … am I really an icon?” Instead, he deflects all props back to his native territory: “Venice has taught me how to navigate through life … you have to be responsive to changes, not reactionary, and that alertness helps me while I’m skating.”
With such gritty stardom on his resume, what would cause him to launch Roll Model Skate, which teaches kids the finer points of skating, surfing and boarding? For Britton, a new dad, it was organic. He saw a need for mentorship and decided to fill it. “Skateboarding has been one of the greatest forms of artistic expression in my life. I wanted to give back what skateboarding has given to me.”
Now, Britton has gone from grom to grom-wrangler while managing a crew of instructors who encourage and inspire kids to a higher order of the sport that he himself has helped shape. With work to be done first thing in the morning, he can no longer paint the oceanside streets by night. But he quips that he is “still a wild child. I’m just in bed by nine.” The whole “early to bed” thing probably has to do with Taj, the newest shredder in the Britton clan: “Taj tells me when and where [we skate],” Britton says. “It’s always a choice, we don’t push it.”
As a newly self-proclaimed family man, Britton is spreading the love of the sport to other families, namely Westsiders who want a safe place for their kids to learn. But according to Britton, it doesn’t matter who mommy and daddy are when you eat it. “It’s all the same,” he comments. “You’re either a skater or you’re not. After you take your first major fall, you will know if you have what it takes.” Always the shrewd businessman, he refrains from naming Hollywood names.
To him, true gratification comes from doing what he loves to do and seeing “children overcome physical and emotional fears and believe in themselves.” Without question, he does more than just teach seven year olds how to ollie and air. He shows them how to be responsible for themselves and be aware of their surroundings, even though Venice isn’t quite the same concrete jungle it used to be.
But who knows? There may be some future ambassadors of the sport, the new P. Rod or Eric Koston or Shaun White, among Britton’s current crop of pupils. Only slam will tell.
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