New York City in the mid-late 1990s was a more innocent time, and one of great excitement for a downtown subculture made up of Lower Manhattan’s skateboarders, musicians, artists, actors, designers, store owners and hustlers. The rent was still relatively cheap, the blistering hot summers felt endless, and the streets that made up the Nolita, LES, and NoHo neighborhoods were bustling with life, attitude, and creativity.
This strange period makes us nostalgic for the simple freedom of meeting up to do nothing. Summer is a season to wander, party, shop, skate, dance, eat, and talk shit. In April 1994, Supreme opened on Lafayette Street and quickly became ground zero for a tight-knit crew — it was a place to hang out, work a little bit, connect with new people, and meet up before or after skate sessions.
Supreme was a skate rat clubhouse, and the crew who worked there ran the place by their own set of non-conventional rules. The staff took pride in the store as if it was an art gallery; with meticulous detail given to the folding of the merchandise on display, they enforced a strict “no touching” policy which would lead to a severe berating or dismissal from the store if violated. The music was club-level volume, the heavy scent of Nag Champa incense would cover up the smell of weed smoke in the stockroom, and non-skaters were often treated with an aloof welcome (at best). To many it was intimidating and unapproachable, which led to the cult skate store building up a fiercely loyal underground following.
For a frequently visiting Brit abroad, this skate shop and the people who hung out there, provided a welcome spot every time I was in town, much like the old Slam City Skates store in the basement of Rough Trade Records on London’s Portobello Road back home. Pre X-Games and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video games, skaters were very much considered outlaws — particularly by the security guards, office drones, and pearl-clutchers in Manhattan’s business districts that made for the best skate spots with polished ledges, smooth handrails, and marble surfaces in abundance. This group of young skaters ran the streets like their own personal playground before hitting the city’s clubs en-masse.
To this group, nothing seemed off limits and everything seemed possible. Their freedom bred positivity and creativity, with many of Supreme’s OG crew branching out into starting their own brands such as SSUR-Plus, After Midnight, aNYthing, TeamWorks, and Acapulco Gold. A young Italian photographer named Giovanni Aponte relocated from Rome in 1991 to experience and capture a genre-defining decade on film. Here, Aponte shares a selection of his images for the first time and, alongside OG Supreme staff Alex Corporan and Akira Mowatt, recounts the craziness and freedom of downtown NYC in the mid-90s.
What was your personal situation back in the mid-late ‘90s?
Giovanni Aponte (Photographer): I moved to NY in 1991, I was 27 then and had just graduated in photography from IED in Rome. Quite soon I started to work in a photo studio on the Upper West Side where I was assisting the photographer and getting to know a bit of the business. At the same time, I was working, as all the immigrant Italians did at the time, as a waiter for a few days a week to make some extra money.
Alex Corporan (ex-Supreme manager): I was in my mid-20s and in the height of my skateboarding career — all I cared about was skating all day, filming with my friends and enjoying the city’s nightlife. Making money in skateboarding on the East Coast rarely even existed back then, so I subsidised my income through modelling and the club scene before I landed a spot at Supreme. My life started to turn around from there — skateboarding was my world, but then working became my focus.
Akira Mowatt (ex-Supreme store worker/AfterMidnight owner): I was a runaway 14-year-old, so skateboarding became my chosen family. I didn’t have a place to live and didn’t eat much, but towards the late ‘90s I got a job at Supreme.
The New York skate scene was so different to anywhere else in the States and felt more similar to London than Southern California. How did it feel being an inner-city skateboarder during this era?
AC: Being an inner-city skateboarder was rebellious during the ’90s, because not only we were the derelicts of the streets but we were everything people loved to hate — a bunch of talented humans that had the key to the underground world. There were no skateparks, just the Five Boroughs all day and all night. We’d go out at night to all the giant clubs, fashion scenes, art shows and be a ball of energy that caused so much attention… no one knew what to do with us!
AM: I didn’t know much about California back then as I had recently came over from Japan, but I instantly felt the entertaining and exciting vibe of New York - the city felt so alive!
Can you describe a “typical” day in the life around this time?
AC: Go to Supreme to meet up with the crew, including one of the filmers/photographers (RB, Reda, Sammy Glucksman, or whoever was in town) and warm up in front of the store before heading downtown towards the Banks and then get our groove on from there. Once it started to get crowded we would break out, skate the Seaport and Wall Street. Make our way up to Supreme to clean up in the sink by the bathroom and grab a fresh Box Logo tee or hoody, depending on the weather. Hit up Astor Place for some more skating, 40’s and Blunts. Some of us went out to the clubs and bars and some went to get more footage in midtown after midnight, then rally back at Astor at some point for a nightcap.
AM: I mean a typical day was meet up at Astor Place, Washington Square, or Union Square then we just go skate all the way downtown to the Banks, Seaport and Battery Park. In the evenings we would head back to Astor and chill for a little before skating Midtown for the rest of the night.
Union Square, Astor Place, TSP, Ziegfeld, the Banks, etc… there seemed to be so many spots back then. What were your favourite places to skate?
GA: My favorite was definitely Astor Place, followed by Union Square which was very close to my home. The Brooklyn Banks was also a great place, but you had to watch out for people trying to steal your board!
AC: My favorite spots were of course the Brooklyn Banks and all the Midtown spots because of the smooth ledges, and all the fun stuff to hit in between.
AM: I personally liked Union Square, Astor Place, Washington Square, or Tompkins Square Park because you knew sooner or later you’re going to meet up with one of your buddies. Back then there was no cellphones, only pay phones, so we often had to make plans the night before.
How important was the Supreme store as a cultural hub?
GA: Well it was definitely the place to be if you were a skater in New York. My friend Russel Carablin [owner of SSUR-Plus/OG Supreme designer] introduced me to the guys at Supreme after the store had just opened. I was so amazed by the place and the people there, everybody was so damn cool and real. That area was becoming the centre of the new upcoming street culture. You could feel the vibe in the air... I have such beautiful memories of that time.
AC: Truthfully, Supreme was the only shop you could have really hung out at the time. Blades on Broadway was very corporate, but Supreme was our private clubhouse. Not everyone was invited, or they got vibed so hard to the point people would be bummed at us.
AM: Skate shops like Supreme were super important because they created a community for skateboarders. Back then skate shops didn’t last, especially in Manhattan.
There were other opportunities arising for your crew like modelling, acting, or starting brands of your own. What was it about that scene that created so much energy?
AC: It was our energy that attracted everyone — the “fuck you” attitude, the overall looks our crew had, and the talent of skating. We were a well-rounded bunch of individuals that just hammed-up to the camera once it was pointed at us. We were just ourselves living this lifestyle that had no label at the time, because you couldn't control the passion we all had.
AM: Manhattan was the place to be if you’re from anywhere else, especially in the skate scene. All the top dogs came out to skate the city and if you looked good on the board you might’ve got put on one of their companies. There became a lot of opportunities for decent New York skaters.
New York is seen as a party town, but hotspots change with the weather. What bars and clubs made you feel most at home back then?
GA: The New York club and bar scene in the ’90s was absolutely great — Limelight, Danceteria, Wetlands, Palladium and Club USA were the big temples of dance, but my favorites were the smallest and more crazy ones like Nell’s, Jackie 60, Peggy Sue’s, and Elements to name a few. The club scene was a real mix of different people moving between three or four places a night, but my favorite were the “Any Given Sunday” parties at the Fun, under the Manhattan bridge.
AC: It was Spoon bar, Coney Island High on St. Marks and Max Fish when it was on Ludlow. Can’t forget Cherry Tavern as it had an awesome Jukebox and one of the few places with a decent pool table. As for clubs, anywhere that Bill Spector, Bugsy, Belinda, Carlos or Duncan had their hands on!
AM: We went to all the clubs and bars in NYC, even though I was under age (haha) but the clubs and bars never really felt too much like home for me.
Who were the loudest and most outrageous characters in the crew?
GA: The whole Supreme team was outrageously cool... I remember all the kids I met, Aaron “The Don”, CPT Alex O’Corpran, Giovanni WhatEstevez, Krooked Joey, Akira, O’, Crocodile Mealy, Thin Wolf, Jason the model, Brickface, Stukko, The Spawn — everybody had a nickname!
AC: We were the live freak show of the city and hands-down Harold Hunter was the loudest! Then there were the fighters — but only to those who tried to harm us — in the crew like Pooky, Neil, Loki ,NA, Joey, Pang, Slick Rick, and a few others. FlyGuy Peter Bici would always grab your attention, Justin Pierce would always call you out, Henie would snatch something out of your hand so fast you won’t know where he came from, and the list goes on.
AM: The whole crew was loud and outrageous!
Was this the most exciting time to be living in NYC?
GA: There was an overflow of young, cool, clever, and creative people in New York during that era… and yes, it was certainly the most exciting time!
AC: The ‘90s in NYC lands as the last of the epic, raw, untouchable, unstoppable, fearless times for life. You're unable to replicate the experience of what was happening in New York during this time. Skateboarding, music, nightlife, art, fashion... you name it! 2000-2004 held onto that energy for a bit, but from 1990-1999 you grew up real fast and experienced shit in light speed.
AM: Late ‘90s through to the early ’00s for sure, that was definitely the most exciting time to be in New York.
Any specific fond memories from this era?
GA: I remember a night at Nell’s where Mick Jagger was going for it on the dance floor but none of the people there gave a damn about this huge celebrity as we were so into the music and the vibe.
AC: Every day was different, but the shit that went down in the back of [Supreme] during the ‘90s was priceless. The neverending antics — you name it, and it happened.
How do you think times have changed in terms of the NY skate scene and everything that surrounds it?
AC: The New York skate scene grew immensely around 2004, and instead of the ‘Rat Pack’ now there were huge posses of skateboarders everywhere. It’s awesome to see skateboarding in the city so huge now, but that original rawness has really faded away. That has to do with everything around us — 9/11 happened and that alone fucked up skating midtown and most of anything past Canal Street.
The birth of skateparks in the city was something we dreamed of when we were young because all we had was janky Mullally's park which was hard to skate, not only because the ramps were fucked up but you had a big probability of getting jumped the minute you walked out the fence! Now there are over 30 smooth skate parks all around the Five Boroughs. Having these parks definitely played a part of not having that rawness of street skating, but overall I’m stoked on everyone in the scene.
The ‘90s were the era we started blossoming and now there are now so many companies owned by skateboarders - clothing labels, shops, board brands; and people in position to call shots within the community and the parks department. It makes me proud to be one of the people that helped pave the way to see where skateboarding is in NYC, and I will continue to support and keep our wheels turning.
AM: For one thing everyone has cell phones now so can film themselves and get clips a lot easier. I don’t think too much has changed in terms of the downtown skate scene, but now it’s a new generation making it happen.