Illustration by Lenny Miller/Coffee or Die.
Stereotypes exist for a reason. When special operators leave the military, they often choose new career paths that stem from their service. This usually involves some form of government contracting, shooting or tactical instruction, public speaking on leadership, and even continued government service. Tribe Sk8z breaks out from all of that noise.
Tribe Sk8z is a skateboard company founded by DJ and Cole, former U.S. Navy SEALs who spent the better part of the past 15 years together. They attended and graduated from the same BUD/s class, served in the same units at SEAL Team 10 during Operation Red Wings, and later worked side by side at Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG) on arduous deployments all around the world. Along with their mad scientist “Joey Nobody,” a historic tattoo artist from New York, DJ and Cole are using art therapy — a new-age method of healing post-traumatic stress (PTS) and other traumas — to help the veteran and military communities.
“I’m the business person, so he (DJ) knows to send them to me because he will just give stuff away, like a 501 (nonprofit) instead of an actual business,” Cole said, also admitting that he gets more therapy out of punching numbers than from art. While DJ has a commanding presence not unlike the Norse god Thor, he has the heart of a teddy bear.
Obviously, Tribe Sk8z isn’t your average skateboard company.
DJ grew up on a rural farm in Chesapeake, Virginia, with animals ranging from peacocks to ostriches, cows, ducks, and chickens. His only outlet was skateboarding.
“I’d wake up at 4 in the morning, from the time I was 5 or 6 years old, and after slopping hogs, I’d run next door where we had a little cul-de-sac where I had my ramps and shit, and I would skate for two hours before the bus came,” he told Coffee or Die during a recent phone interview. “Then I’d get on the bus and do terrible in school because I hated it, I’d come home and not do homework, and skate for four or five hours, come in, take a shower and go to bed, and do the exact same thing again.”
This routine continued into his late teens when he skated in local contests and even earned a sponsorship from a nearby skate shop. He wasn’t the best skater, but he was consistent because of relentless practice. “I can remember being 12, 13 years old with a little notebook with a list of tricks that I had to do 100 times in a row until I moved onto the next one,” DJ said.
His plans were to move to San Diego and turn pro. However, bad grades and getting in trouble changed that, and he was presented with an ultimatum: He could either go to military school, drop out and get a GED, or join the military. A year after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, DJ enlisted in the Navy. He was 17 years old and had the 140-pound frame of a skateboarder.
“I went out to BUD/s in San Diego, and that was a hard thing,” DJ said. “Right across from the Coronado bridge was a beautiful skate park, and all I wanted to do was ride, but you couldn’t — you roll an ankle out there and you’re out of the program. So that kinda sucked.”
When they met at BUD/s, DJ gave Cole a 12-pack of Corona, a welcoming gesture after being rolled for “pool comp” during dive phase — an underwater and procedure-focused evaluation that simulates the violence of the surf. DJ said that Cole, a Virginia native with a sarcastic and dry sense of humor, was a natural during the difficult SEAL training.
“He’s a world-class skydiver, world-class shooter,” DJ said. “Everything in the teams aside, if we cut that part out completely, everything else — he’s a super talented dude, and it pisses me off because he doesn’t have to try.”
An athlete who grew up playing hockey, swimming competitively year-round, and surfing, Cole turned to skateboarding when the surf was absent in Virginia Beach. When he got into the SEAL teams, he remained an active surfer. He later traveled to Hawaii to try big-wave surfing, which Cole humbly suggested wasn’t a big deal.
“This dude’s got a picture of him that’s hanging up in our shop, surfing the biggest wave that I have ever seen two weeks after shoulder surgery,” DJ said, countering Cole’s claim.
Once they made it onto the SEAL teams, skateboarding took a back seat for both of them. DJ, who had gained nearly 100 pounds in muscle, couldn’t participate out of fear that his aggressive skating style would lead to an injury that would cause him to miss a deployment.
“Now I’m 230 — and, you know, you can’t really skate the way that you used to at 145 when you have gained 100 pounds,” he said. “I still cruised around, I always had a skateboard in my locker at the team and cruised down the hallways doing that kind of stuff.”
Years of consecutive combat deployments to keep up with the highest operation tempo in US military history took their toll on DJ and Cole. Marriages failed, teammates and close friends died, and injuries were a regular occurrence.
“I got banged up overseas a bunch. [I was] self-medicating, doing what everybody does, and got hooked on painkillers. I got really jammed up overseas and came back and contemplated suicide,” DJ said, adding that the bomb blast he endured led to a serious case of amnesia. “Luckily, I had a really good troop chief at the time and a really good therapist, and they essentially saved me.”
DJ spent a month at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) in Bethesda, Maryland, where again he linked up with Cole, who was dealing with his own set of problems. Cole had emotional and anger issues, as well as physical injuries from the stress of repetitive deployments.
“We’ll make it completely organic, we’ll base it around art therapy, and we’ll start something completely different.”
“When we were at NICoE, I got introduced to art therapy, but I was still super angry when I was going through there,” Cole said. “I literally signed my stuff ‘GFY’ — which is ‘Go Fuck Yourself’ — and that wasn’t really constructive.”
While art was therapeutic for DJ, Cole found enjoyment in numbers. “Numbers, analytics, studying, and forecasting was more therapeutic than art therapy just because I’m running numbers in my head while I’m painting, and that wasn’t really enjoyable,” Cole said. “I literally tried to make the art therapy center better by raising money and getting donations, and the art lady is like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ That’s more therapeutic than drawing or painting this thing. For whatever reason, numbers are more calming than painting.”
But for DJ, art therapy was his savior. “I had a new doctor now, and he looked at the amount of meds that I was on and all the different types of meds, and I guess it was a fatal dose,” DJ said. “We had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment, and he’s like, ‘Hey man, you should have been dead the first time you took this.’ They looked back on it and see I have been taking it for five years. I had to go to a neurobehavioral ward, essentially a madhouse, and they locked me in there for over a month. I did a full med washout and came off all my meds.”
DJ’s body was completely broken, and he could no longer tolerate pain medication. He was in agonizing pain and needed another form of healing.
When DJ medically retired last year, and as Cole currently prepares for his transition from the SEAL teams, they needed to search for a new avenue. The idea for Tribe Sk8z came about when DJ was sitting in the tattoo chair of Joey Nobody, a legendary tattoo artist who helped bring the tattoo industry to Virginia and has tattooed warriors for years.
“He’s got the count in there for bone frogs he’s done — I think he’s done like 1,500 bone frogs,” DJ said, referring to the unofficial logo for the SEAL teams. “This dude has tattooed everybody — everybody who has been in special operations has been touched by this guy at some point. His Rolodex is pretty substantial.”
Joey swapped his tattoo gun for an iPad and now makes custom designs for the bottoms of Tribe Sk8z’s skateboards. DJ also fracture burns some boards using electricity to create unique patterns in the wooden decks. This process can be dangerous, too — he was nearly killed by electrocution in a freak accident on Father’s Day. “My machine didn’t have any safety nets, and it was accidentally left on, so when I grabbed it, 60,000 volts went through me and shattered my left collarbone into 20 pieces,” DJ said. “It should’ve killed me for sure. If it’s got no danger in killing you, it’s not really worth doing.” He rode the lightning for his skateboarding company, and now continues to hone his craft.
“We didn’t want to slap a bunch of tridents on it and a bunch of dumb shit, like, ‘What does a Team guy know about skateboarding?’ Nothing, so let’s just do this. We’ll make it completely organic, we’ll base it around art therapy, and we’ll start something completely different,” said DJ.
Since starting the company in 2018, they’ve made a huge impact on Gold Star families, military charities, and first responder communities, and they aspire to change the norms at skate shops. The team at Tribe Sk8z has donated custom artwork to foundations and events for years, doing so anonymously and without recognition. They’ve worked with JJ Watt and Reebok to create a custom shoe to benefit the Navy SEAL Danny Dietz Foundation. They have donated custom skateboard decks to the cast from the hit CBS TV show SEAL Team. Their works also hang as wall art in places like Sorinex, in firehouses, and they’ve even worked collaboratively with actor Tom Hardy. Their products are silently paraded at concerts by musicians like Zac Brown Band and Keith Urban.
Cole gets his therapy from doing the business side, I get it from making the boards, Joey gets it from the art, but the end user, especially for the military guys and all the Gold Star stuff we do, it’s their outlet,” DJ said. “They don’t have the ability to do this, but they can dump all their emotional baggage on me via email or via phone call or Instagram or if they walk in the shop, and they pour their fucking heart out. We take all the notes, sit down with Joey, and he draws this thing. He’s got pieces in here that’s taken him 70 hours to do. We charge them fucking peanuts and slap this thing on there — if it’s Gold Star related or a memorial, we just do it for free. It’s art therapy for everybody — even if you’re not physically doing the art — and to have those families come in here, it’s super rewarding. It’s something completely different, and I really dig it.”
Over the last year and a half, they donated 125 custom skateboards to Gold Star families, Cole said. That’s in addition to the 15 percent of total sales that they dedicated to fundraisers and organizations in 2019, such as All In All The Time. Meghan Valentine, the Gold Star daughter of Tom Valentine who was tragically killed in a parachute accident, is one of Tribe Sk8z’s signature artists. All the proceeds from her designs go directly back into All In All The Time, which her mother operates. The nonprofit’s mission is to “fill the interim needs of the surviving spouses and children of our fallen warriors.”
The Tribe Sk8z shop in Virginia Beach offers an “open door policy” for anyone to come in and receive art therapy. Gold Star families with kids interested in skateboarding are encouraged to stop by the shop. The children whose fathers served alongside Cole and DJ, those who came home in a casket, can learn more about their fathers in ways they previously hadn’t.
“They can hear funny stories about Dad, and you’d be surprised how many of these kids, even the wives, don’t really know how their husbands were at work,” DJ said, “or they don’t know certain sides of them because they compartmentalize it so much at the team and on the road that they never really get to hear some of that stuff.
“So when the kids come in here, there is no filter with me or Cole. I don’t give a fuck,” he continued, laughing. “I’m not watching my mouth in here. I’m telling stories — whatever they want to hear, I’m telling them.”
In addition to helping the families with stories of their loved ones, sharing those memories is also therapeutic for the storyteller. “I get to relive all those moments overseas or wherever it was,” DJ said, “and I get to see the expression on their faces because now they feel more connected to their dad, and for that kind of stuff, you can’t put a price tag on that. That is some of the coolest stuff I ever got to do, just to be able to see them come in here.”
Tribe Sk8z goes out of their way for those who gave everything in service to this country; it is their way of thanking the families of the fallen. Gold Star families are their top priority and always move to the front of the line. Their tireless work doesn’t go unappreciated.
“We had somebody hit us up on the 23rd of December that wanted a Gold Star board for their kid, and she was like, ‘Hey, I totally dropped the ball. Do you think it is possible?’ — and anything is possible in this crew. SEND IT!” DJ said. “Joey was on it, and he got it knocked out in 12 hours. I ran over to the print shop, laid it, poured resin on it, sealed it, and had it to her in 24 hours.
“They can hear funny stories about Dad, and you’d be surprised how many of these kids, even the wives, don’t really know how their husbands were at work.”
“We will bend over backwards and give them anything they want because you guys know the deal, man. You’re playing for keeps over there, and you lose the love of your life, your dad, you’ve paid enough. So whatever we can do, even if it is 10 minutes of relief for those kids, for the wives, that’s enough for me. Whatever they want, we’re in.”
Each customized deck acts as a memento, a story, or a symbol. When an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) sailor who Cole and DJ served alongside died, they made his son a skateboard he could hang on his wall. “Some EOD guys hit me up and said they found this thing in his bag, it was notes, writing to his son on how to be a better man,” DJ said. “His son is super young, and he was like, ‘I’d like to get this on a board — I don’t want dates on there, I don’t want anything weird, I just want this on a board with an EOD crab up top and ‘love your uncles.’ That kid will have that hanging on his wall, and every morning when he wakes up, he will see the last thing his dad wrote to him.”
Tribe Sk8z has their own collection of team riders, too, called the Tribe Sk8z Crew. They have big plans for 2020, including growing their team of skaters. DJ enthusiastically described how they’re working on an indoor skatepark for their riders that would operate like a 24/7 fitness facility. It would give their skaters the opportunity to practice whenever they wanted by using badges to check in and out. This access allows them to experience the same outlet he had when he was growing up.
“I want the kids riding and progressing and not doing dumb shit,” DJ said. “I want to give them an outlet to get off the street; don’t be driving around, don’t be drinking or doing drugs, come here and skate and make this thing your community where everyone wants to come and hang out.”
There is no “angle” with Tribe Sk8z — they believe in giving with no expectations of receiving anything in return. DJ purchased a black and red van and keeps skateboards stashed in the back. He often rolls up unannounced to random skate parks and places where he used to ride and hands out skateboards, Vans shoes, Stance socks, and other gear that has been donated to them.
“When I was younger, I used to ride for a local skate shop, and I thought that was the coolest thing,” DJ said. “It was kind of like a flow deal — it wasn’t a full sponsorship, but I could go in there and get whatever I wanted when I needed it. And I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, to be able to walk into a shop with a bunch of older dudes and bring them my broken board and they hand me a new one.” Now, under the umbrella of Cole, DJ, and other mentors, the Tribe Sk8z Crew is receiving the necessary guidance to make their dreams come true.
“To see the excitement on their face, that’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. To be able to bring a 10-year-old into the skate shop with a bunch of Navy SEALs and tell that kid like, ‘Anything in this place is yours; whatever you want,’” DJ said. “They’d ask, ‘Can I take a deck?’ — take 10 of them, bring back the broken ones, bro. I don’t care. You snap a truck, drive up to the surf shop and call me. I’ll drive up there and swipe the credit card and buy you whatever you want.” The Tribe Sk8z team, though relatively fresh on the scene, are evolving into a community, which keeps the young riders out of trouble because they have a positive support system of friends, skaters, and mentors.
In addition to their own spot to shred, Tribe Sk8z is working with a group of local skaters to make an old-school skating video — the kind they watched when they were young skaters that have since disappeared in favor of YouTube and other new-aged social media sites. The boards they will ride will showcase pop-culture nostalgia with a Tribe Sk8z twist.
While starting a skateboard company may not seem like a logical step for former operators, they’ve used this unique path as a platform for philanthropy within the military, veteran, and first responder communities. From creating memorial decks for Gold Star families to fostering an environment for youth to develop themselves and stay out of trouble, the men behind Tribe Sk8z may be retired Navy SEALs, tattoo artists, and skaters — but, most importantly, they’re just really good dudes.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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