Talking Imposter Syndrome, Personal Growth And The Value That Visuals Provide Action Sports With Dallas-Sprung Rollerblading Pioneer Arlo Eisenberg.
Arlo Eisenberg is an icon.
If you picked up rollerblading in the ’90s, you likely already know that. By then, the Dallas native and social provocateur had already made a name for himself as a pioneer of street skating — a type of aggressive inline skating that features tricks performed on existing environmental structures rather than skatepark fixtures.
In that time, this kind of skating was unheard of — a fact that only contributed to Eisenberg’s legend.
Even if you weren’t directly aware of Eisenberg himself, you most certainly were likely to be familiar with his family name. Though now closed, Eisenbergs Skatepark in Plano — a family-run venture opened in 1997 following Arlo’s gold medal street skating win at the 1996 X Games — was a fixture for nearly two decades in North Texas. The indoor skate facility was a centralized hub for action sports — not to mention some great DIY rock shows — until its eventual closure in 2012.
Though he forever remains a fixture in aggressive inline skating, Eisenberg has mainly focused on other creative pursuits in recent years. Through his interests in illustration and graphic design, he’s worked with skate companies like Salomon, Mindgame and USD and even served as the senior graphic designer for Paul Frank Industries in 2007.
Now, he’s back involved in the family business again, this time as the creative director at the Eisenberg, Inc. agency.
The point is, you can’t place Eisenberg in a box. The multi-faceted artist is always going to do his best to advance and move forward in whatever it is that he chooses to do.
But while you can take the boy out of rollerblading, can you ever really take the rollerblading out of the boy?
OK, so, for this chat, we’d like to deviate from the typical rollerblading questions and focus on more of your creative aspects if that’s okay.
That’s fine, although I’m all too happy to talk about rollerblading whenever I can. I’ve been talking about it a lot over the pandemic.
The pandemic was kind of like this reset for a lot of people. It feels like a lot of people were returning back to the things that they were really connected with as kids — and living, like, 8-year-old versions of their adult selves.
I mean, 2020 essentially turned us all into 8-year-olds! When you’re an 8-year-old, you’re kind of constrained by your environment. With the pandemic, we all basically became 8-year-olds again in that there was just nowhere to go anymore. So, things like rollerblading — or maybe skateboarding or things that you probably were into as a kid — might be attractive again because you can do them in your neighborhood. The easiest thing to do is to sort of think about the things that you enjoyed in your past. You get nostalgic for them again.
Recently, you were on the Mushroom Blading podcast, and you acknowledged your multifaceted creative talents — and yet you stated that you have difficulties doing “the easy and expected normal thing.” You followed that with my personal favorite quote from the interview: “I can’t help but be extra.” How do you deal with that?
It’s interesting. It’s something that I think I’m constantly struggling to balance. I like taking an unexpected approach, and I think there’s a lot of value in being able to see things from a new or different perspective. It’s more appropriate for some occasions than others but when your mind is kind of like in that mode, sometimes it’s hard to turn it off.
For example, I had lunch with L.A. muralist JC Ro. He sent me a message on Instagram afterward saying, “Thanks for meeting me for lunch, it was great to talk.” Instead of just writing back and saying, “Thanks, it was great seeing you,” I felt like I had to say something profound, y’know? I wanted to find the perfect thing that would summarize our conversation and the themes that came out of that conversation. But in the end, it’s like: Just say “thanks.” That’s all it takes.
That sounds like a tricky problem that might stem from your unique background and adolescence. For innovators coupled with very supportive families, there may be this constant need to prove yourself that spills into every facet of your life.
There are upsides to that early encouragement, and what that does to your competence, confidence and your ability to express things. Not to keep bringing things back to skating, but one of the things that I’m most proud of was deriving this very mentality that you’re talking about. When you grow up like that, you kind of take it for granted because our parents did such a good job of instilling certain values that make you comfortable in your own skin, and feeling like you’re capable of doing great things, and being ambitious enough to do great things. But not everyone gets that opportunity.
What’s the best kind of compliment you can receive?
So, there are two kinds of compliments. One is, y’know, “I crave attention, adulation and affirmation” and all those things, right? So, from my ego’s perspective, I love to hear that someone loves something that I did, especially from someone that I respect. But, from a more like soul-nourishing perspective, something a little less egocentric, it’s when I hear from someone that I opened their mind or opened their eyes to a perspective that they hadn’t considered before. This has nothing to do with talent or any of those things. It’s just the freedom to explore whatever you want fearlessly. I think it’s such a strong and rewarding gift.
Can we talk about the dreaded Imposter Syndrome? Sorry — are we diving too deep?
I think it’s an interesting kind of counterbalance to some of the things we’ve been talking about because we all focus so much on the support that we got from our parents, and all the blessings of being confident and talented and ambitious, and all these things. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a counterbalance and it’s insecurity — the fears, and the Imposter Syndrome, which is something that I deal with daily, like even getting ready for this call. With skating, it’s like, “Was my skating really ever good enough?” It felt as though everything I did was, like, smoke and mirrors. I think one of the things that make the illusion of the Imposter Syndrome so persuasive is, once you feel like you can do something, it doesn’t seem difficult — or you assume anyone can do it. So you almost take for granted the things that you spent years developing or learning. Whatever you’re doing seems to cease being as mysterious, and is therefore somehow less impressive. So the fact that you kind of know your own secret makes it feel like you’re vulnerable to the world — and that maybe everyone can see that you’re this sort of “fraud,” y’know?
As a creative, rationalizing that self-doubt isn’t always the easiest. What’s your secret?
Around the same time that I started rollerblading, I discovered skepticism. It was such a profound paradigm-shifting and earth-rattling experience for me. As creative, the entire notion of a scientific approach was foreign. I just had never been exposed to it. The more I learned about it, the more I was able to apply it to more areas of my life. But, in skepticism, in almost every case, you always try to give whoever you are engaged in an argument or discussion or debate with the most generous view of their position. Because it’s all too easy to cast someone as an antagonist and just sort of assume that everything about their position is wrong or misguided. But most people aren’t motivated by their worst impulses.
This seems like a lesson in critical thinking and avoiding confirmation biases.
There are psychopaths, and there are people who are just out to cause the most damage and be the worst example of human behavior. But that’s not true of most people. The Trump supporters that are storming the U.S. Capitol are certainly misguided, and it’s because they’re motivated by something that they believe to be real. The reason they believe the things that they believe — and, in particular in this case, the conspiracy theories peddled by the president — is because they’re not properly processing this information critically. They’ve never been exposed to the tools and the skills to help navigate information critically. None of us are. I only happened upon skepticism and critical thinking by stumbling upon them in a magazine I got before I hopped on a plane to go do skate competitions in Europe. I didn’t discover it in school; no one showed it to me. Now, I teach my daughter this.
This is a very important modern lesson.
Today, the stakes are very high. If you don’t have the tools to navigate that information intelligibly, then we’re lost. We are seeing that played out on a major scale in real-time, right now.
Like most Americans, all this critical thinking is making my brain hurt — so let’s pivot back to art. In counterculture activities, there’s this lovely intersection that takes place between the action — in this case, rollerblading — and the art surrounding it like film, photography and illustration, all of which allows outsiders to peer into the culture seamlessly. Why is that?
What the act depends on is really built into the endeavor of skating or action sports. There’s the idea that it’s going to be watched like a performative art. When it really comes to life is when it’s captured through a photograph or through a video. There’s kind of like a marriage — almost even a symbiotic relationship between the photographer, the videographer and the skater — where they’re working together to kind of create this aesthetic experience. Y’know, it’s a model that I think really started with skateboarding magazines. We had these heralded and superstar skate photographers that came out of that scene, and the magazines played such an important role in establishing the aesthetic of the sport. So when you think of action sports like skateboarding or rollerblading, you’re not just visualizing the actual trick or the raw skater on the street — you’re thinking of how it’s captured, how it looks on the video or how it looks in photographs. It emphasizes the performative and lyrical aspects of the sport like body position and composition and aesthetic value. And it becomes one of the core, fundamental or foundational principles of it.
Perhaps because of skateboarding’s massive global and mainstream success, rollerblading still seems to be the underground of the underground. If skateboarding zigs, rollerbladers zag.
Yeah, by circumstance. There’s nobody getting rich off of rollerblading. I mean, when you’re an outsider and you’ve been maligned for a long time, the numbers just aren’t there. The people that do it really just do it because they love it and they have a vision for it. I mean, a lot of these people are probably the people that would have been a skateboarder in a different era. They are just the outcasts or, as you said, they are the people that zag. I think it’s important that those kinds of activities exist, and that there are places for people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable in the mainstream.
Regardless of the mainstream, you’ve solidified your place in culture — in rollerblading, and certainly in Dallas as part of the family that brought us Eisenbergs Skatepark. Those are really big accomplishments on paper, but what would you say your greatest contribution was to that culture?
Though there was a time I felt like I was a really good skater, my biggest contribution to skating was not the skating itself. There have been much better skaters than me since my time. I think my biggest contribution was on the cultural elements and in the effort of building the industry, culture and community around skating that elevated it to more than just an athletic activity — creating a space where people could participate in this sort of countercultural activity. I am proud of that legacy and I was deliberate about it. Each of us will have to find the things that we value and gravitate toward, and do what we can to support, foster and grow the things that we value. It’s up to us to create the way that we want to participate, and the way we think would be valuable for other people, and that’s the best we can hope to do. Your time is best spent focusing on advancing the things that you care about, and not losing too much sleep over what other people are doing.
And here I said I didn’t want to talk rollerblading. Let’s at least end this on one endeavor clearly outside of that realm. What can you tell me about your illustration side project, Drug Receipts?
[Laughs.] My day job takes up so much of my time, and I probably was feeling the need to just create some space — no matter how minor or seemingly insignificant — where I can have a little bit of creative output. So when I would go to lunch, or would have dinner, I would just do a little doodle on the receipt. They were really rough, throwaway doodles. At one point, a co-worker, after going to many lunches together, said, “Why don’t you make an account on Instagram and post those doodles?” I thought, “Y’know, what? That’s not a bad idea.” Once I made an account and sort of formalized it, it gave me the incentive to keep doing them and attempt to make them better. With that, the illustrations got a little more refined. But then the pandemic happened and I wasn’t able to leave them for the servers — I wasn’t even going out to eat. I would just have receipts at home and I got to coloring them and taking more time with the outlines and stuff. They’re still on receipts and they’re still done in pen completely unpolished, but they’ve definitely gotten better. And so, yeah, that’s the history of Drug Receipts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Photos courtesy of Arlo Eisenberg.