Jaakko Ojanen interview

Jaakko Ojanen. Ph. Fred Mortagne

Skateboarding has been part of my life for 35 years now, with about 20 years of it being a professional, in my own field, by creating still and moving images to share with our worldwide community. Working with some of the best and most stylish skaters has been the best treat, and I really feel fortunate that despite all these years passing by, I still get the chance to hang and shoot with the new talented generations, again and again. Watching a young gun popping out of nowhere and going all the way to the top is such a rad experience. I could mention, just to name a few, people like Arto Saari, Rodrigo TX, Lucas Puig, Bastien Salabanzi… I think it’s fairly safe to add Jaakko Ojanen to that list, although he is still in full ascending mode. I like that he links back to the top of that list with Arto… Finland is in the house.
I first heard of Jaakko from Alex Deron, Element Europe’s team manager, who, just like in poker, was ready to go all-in. He knew. Despite Jaakko’s surgery-requiring back problems that took him out for some consequent time in his early twenties, Alex still knew.
As soon as he was back on the board, Jaakko blew everyone’s mind in a matter of months, on his own, and well, with a little help from Instagram also. You have to be very smart and talented to get noticed in this era of ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ and absolutely bombed with information and images on all fronts at all times. To be one the very, very, very few, like Mark Suciu, to always get good treatment and praise on Skateline, is also one hell of a hint. Gary knows. Free Skate Mag knows. Now, if you don’t already, it’s your turn to know.

Interview by Fred Mortagne

It’s the middle of winter right now so I’m guessing you must be pretty far away from home… Where are you?
Jaakko Ojanen: I’m actually at home right now, in Finland. It’s freezing and snowing – crazy weather here. But usually I’m somewhere where I can skate outside. Last winter I was living in Barcelona so I wasn’t home when it was snowy, but this winter I’ve been home like a few months already.

So what’s your skate routine there in the wintertime?
I go skate indoors, but not that much. Maybe three times a week or something like that.

So you only skate indoors in the wintertime?
Yeah you can’t skate outside as it’s minus 15 and snowing. Simon Isaksson skated outside when he went to Sweden, I saw an Insta clip. He was skating outside like slappying some curbs. I’m not that extreme of a guy.

Do you go snowboarding?
I haven’t been snowboarding for five years. Kind of wanted to go this winter but I still haven’t. But I should because I used to snowboard a lot. For five years I haven’t gone snowboarding at all. Would be fun to go try again.

Switch nosebluntslide, Barcelona. Ph. Vesa Ritola

I’m asking you about snowboarding because I’ve noticed a tiny bit of snowboarding style when you skate, in the way you move your body… I’m not saying this in a negative way though.
Nobody has ever said that.

Nobody has ever said that? Because it’s not like I notice it all the time when you skate…
I mostly notice it when you goof around, the way you rotate your body when doing 180s, allowing you to quickly improvise, get out of tricky situations and stay on your board… People wonder where your quick-foot action comes from… I think the way you move your upper body because of snowboarding might have a lot to do with that.

Yeah… I used to go snowboarding every winter, skateboard every summer – It was like 50% of each. I was doing both just as much. But yeah, I guess it must help. I never thought of it like that.

Maybe if you go snowboarding again you will snowboard like a skater.
Ha ha. That would be sick; I have to go try.

Shortly after I met you, you couldn’t skate for a very long time…
Yeah I broke my back… Or three times I hurt my back, like back to back, and every time I had to heal it for a year so the recovery was pretty long. The first time it broke, I was one year without skating. Then it healed. But I don’t know if it healed because I hurt it again after two months. And then I was again not skating for a year, or nine or ten months. Then I guess I skated like three months and I broke it again.

What do you mean ‘it broke’? Describe it.
Well the vertebrae disk in the spine… I don’t know how to explain, but the disk pushed my nerve in my left leg so the pain was in my leg and the first month I couldn’t walk at all. I was just lying in bed in pain. And then I started to do little exercises after a few months or something. It took a really long time to recover every time.

So it created like a sciatic nerve?
Yeah so over a four-year period I was not skating for three years.

Backside Smith grind, Tampere. Ph, Vesa Ritola

Did you need surgery to fix this?
The third time it happened the doctor was like ‘OK maybe it’s good to have surgery’. And I had the surgery and again, a one-year recovery from it. But now it’s been OK!

So it’s not a problem for skating anymore?
No, no it’s been OK. And they said it wouldn’t be happening again because they’d fixed it. But it’s not perfect. I still have some pains every now and then but nothing that crazy though. It’s good for skating at least.

Is there stuff you don’t really want to do, like jump down big stuff?
Yeah I don’t like jumping down big stairs or steep handrails or anything like that because of the impact. I feel like after the injury I didn’t ever want to do that stuff anymore. That’s why I probably started skating all weird… Doing different stuff.

Like focussing on the more technical side of skateboarding… And what did you do when you couldn’t skate for that long?
I started doing physio a bit. At that time I started taking photos I remember. I bought a new camera. I just went out with my friends when they skated, which wasn’t that good of an idea because when I was with them I wanted to skate myself too but I couldn’t. So that wasn’t fun. But at the same time I was filming them and taking photos… But it was kind of boring to be honest.

So it was boring and frustrating?
Yeah for sure it was. I mean when I just started skating again it (his back) broke again. So that was like… I knew immediately that it’s going to be another year not skating. I was worrying if I could ever skate again. It was really bad. I remember thinking about all that stuff like: maybe I can’t ever do this skateboarding thing again.

Boardslide, Barcelona. Ph. Gerard Riera

So you considered the possibility of having to quit skateboarding because of it?
Yeah for sure. I was regularly thinking to myself ‘I can’t do this anymore with this kind of pain’ and my body doesn’t… I don’t know… I was thinking of quitting for sure. That was on the worst days… When It happened back to back, that was like a really, really hard time for me.

Seems like having health problems just as you’re starting to become a sponsored skateboarder is becoming a trend these days… Like Arto (Saari), he had to have heart surgery shortly after becoming famous…
No it wasn’t any trend it just happened. I’d rather not have experienced that injury.

But the good news is the body is strong and back is as strong as ever! Speaking of Arto Saari, what do you think was his impact on skateboarding in a country like Finland, where skateboarding might not be the hugest thing for kids?
He’s the biggest skater that comes from Finland. Everybody always talks about him. We watched his videos a lot when we started skating. He had a big impact on Finnish skateboarding.

Being from Finland, do you think it was important to have a figure like Arto showing others that it was fully possible to bring skating to another level?
Yeah… He shows that it’s possible to be professional skater from Finland even though the weather here is not nice. I mean I never thought it would be possible, but then Arto made it, so why not someone else too?

Ollie over the rail to the bank, Barcelona. Ph. Gerard Riera

So Samu (Karvonen) has told me that you kind of blew up outside of Finland before you even became a household name in Finland. Like you were not really known so much in Finland as a skateboarder but like you became more internationally known first?
Ha ha. Yeah, I guess.

How did it happen?
I dunno, probably Instagram. That’s probably the reason… Maybe also the fact that I wasn’t skating that much in Helsinki, but always just in Tampere (Jaakko’s hometown). And then I started to go on trips with DC and I still didn’t go to Helsinki that much.

So you had local sponsors at the time?
Yeah in Tampere I rode for this small company for quite a long time.

And how did you move on and get on DC and Element and stuff like that?
I was on DC Finland and then luckily I got on some Euro trip once and started going on DC Europe trips a few times and then it kept going. Then I was offered to ride for Element Finland and I said ‘I dunno I like this Tampere company’ so I stayed on this small local board company for a while. Then I went on more trips and then Element Europe contacted me. Maybe the Finnish guy had told them something. Then it just happened; I was on Element Europe.

Ollie up frontside pivot to fakie, Bilbao. Ph. Brian Gaberman

So what is the scene like in Tampere?
It’s really good! It’s tiny, but it’s good. Everybody is friendly with each other, they make cool stuff and they skate a lot, even though there aren’t too many good spots. There are a few good plazas we skate, and now recently there has been some new skateparks built, so it’s really good.

You never wanted to move to Helsinki – to go to a bigger scene?
No not really. I don’t know, I like Tampere more, because I’ve always lived here. I dunno it’s easy to go to Helsinki but I never really wanted to live there. I don’t have a reason for that. I just feel comfortable living in Tampere. Helsinki has better spots and better opportunities to skate, but still it’s… I dunno I grew up skating in Tampere and it’s still really nice.

Your brother rips too right?
Yeah we started skating together and he still skates. He’s really good.

Has he ever come with you out of Finland to skate?
Yeah we’ve done a few trips to Europe too. Recently we were in Barcelona filming, Luxembourg too.

Were your parents supportive about you wanting to skateboard all the time?
Yeah they were. Sometimes when I was still in high school they’d always tell me to think about something else too. They were supportive, but they were like ‘maybe you should think of a ‘plan b’ or something.

Frontside 5-0 grind, Barcelona. Ph. Teemu Heljo

So what was your ‘plan b’?
I had nothing, ha ha. I tried to think, but I couldn’t come up with anything good I guess. I maybe would have tried to go to some university or something but I don’t know. I really didn’t have a good plan.

What do they think now because they must have been stressing a bit because of your back surgery and problems right?
Yeah. Now they’re super supportive; they are happy for me.

Have you ever met Gary (Rogers) from Skateline? He likes you very much. You are part of the very small circle of skaters he doesn’t talk shit on, but instead praises your skills and great skateboarding.
I haven’t. But I think there will come a time when he talks shit on me for sure.

Maybe by the time this interview is out he will have already talked shit on you for skating in both hot dog and banana costumes…
Hopefully that video is not going to come out, ever.

It’s coming out today or tomorrow.
Oh really? Damn. That’s a funny video. Yeah he’s going to talk shit on that for sure. Thanks Fred for making me do that, skating in a banana costume.

That’s not my fault, not my idea. I’m not responsible for that.
He’ll probably be like ‘this guy sucks!’

Ollie to fakie, Luxembourg. Ph. Vesa Ritola

Do you think Instagram has had a big impact on your career? What do you like about it?
Yeah for sure, but it’s not intentional. I didn’t ever put videos on there that I thought would gain some views or whatever. I just think it’s nice to film stuff and share videos every now and again.

What do you like about Instagram?
Um… I don’t know it’s nice to put something out right after you land the trick.

It brings you more creativity right? You can just do something that maybe won’t be in a normal skate video.
Nah. I don’t know. It could be in a normal skate video too, but sometimes when you don’t have a filmer with you and you’re skating a spot you just get the idea that maybe you can do this (trick). And there’s no filmer and then it’s just like ‘hey want to film this with my phone?’ And then you land the trick and you have it on the phone so why not put it on Instagram? Many of those tricks on Instagram happen out of nowhere. I get the idea, try to do it, then it happens and I’m like ‘wow’. That could have been a clip for the part or whatever, but I don’t know, I don’t want to come back and do it again.

Yeah yeah, so let’s imagine Instagram didn’t exist. And people didn’t have smartphones. So maybe there are some tricks you wouldn’t have tried because this technology didn’t exist. You think it’s an extra motivation?
Yeah for sure. When you have your phone with you, you have a filmer, kind of. And you have more motivation to try something you don’t usually do. When you have a filmer everybody knows that when you’re filming you try harder sometimes than just skating around. So if there wasn’t smartphones you would have a filmer with you and then you might not try these kinds of tricks.

So it’s kind of directly linked to the progression of skating we’ve seen. I really like it. It creates a lot of inspiration. Like skaters inspiring each other all the time – all this creativity…
Instagram is a huge part of skating nowadays I guess.

So all the stuff you put on Instagram. Do you do it as a job, or a hobby?

Because you’re a sponsored skateboarder do you do it as a job or just as a hobby to put stuff on Instagram?
Hobby for sure. I never think of it as my job to film a trick.

Where do you get your inspiration from for all these crazy tricks you are doing?
I really don’t know. I just think of something weird and then I try the trick. I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe the spot inspires me? Because I never think of a trick before I go there. I just skate the spot and I get the idea.

So very spontaneous?
Yeah very spontaneous… I’ve been trying to think where I get the inspiration from, but I have no idea.

The funny thing with you is that we can joke about impossible tricks, but instead of keeping it a fantasy, your brain starts processing it, then you actually try it, and eventually do it.
Maybe that’s the inspiration: me trying to make it real.

Pole-jam hippie jump, Milan. Ph. Fred Mortagne

They’re going to use the picture of that pole-jam hippie jump in Milan. And when we went to that spot we were kind of just joking around and I told you, ‘eh maybe try do the pole jam hippie jump?’ And for me it was a complete joke, but like you made it a reality.
That spot, when you said that, it was perfect for it. There’s no other spot to do it. It was a unique spot so of course I had to try it. But at first it felt like it wasn’t possible. Even trying it felt impossible at first. But that’s how it is usually. When you’re stuck trying something super weird you feel like it’s not ever going to happen. Then you keep trying a few times more and then you might have one lucky try every now and then – then suddenly you realise it is possible.

You’re kind of like a video game character. I can tell you crazy stuff and then you just do it.
I can’t do everything. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not. There are many tricks I’ve tried that didn’t work out for sure.

Like last week in Barcelona I was really happy that I inspired you to do tricks from the past, like those slappy noseslide to crooked grinds…
Yeah I didn’t steal your tricks, you inspired me to do your tricks, that’s how it went.

That’s cool. But it’s not my trick you know, I think Mike Carroll was the first one to do them, back in 1992, in the Plan B Questionable video. Have you been watching old skate videos like I suggested to you?
So you got it from him! Not lately, but I’ve seen them for sure at some point – maybe not the full video, but some parts.

Did you watch stuff from the early 1990s? Like those H-Street and Plan B videos…
Yeah I watched them on YouTube. But when I started skating, I watched videos that recently came out that weren’t that old yet.

But I mean nowadays. What do you watch? Do you watch old videos because I think it could be a good source of inspiration for you? Like bring back some old tricks and maybe bring a new twist to them.
Yeah for sure. Nowadays when you see someone do a trick and you’re like ‘wow nobody’s done that ever’ – and then you watch like some really old video and some guy does it there perfectly. You thought it had never been done. But it was done even better in the old days. It’s surprising sometimes when you watch the old videos you realise that they were super good back then too.

Frontside boardslide, Barcelona. Ph. Gerard Riera

I think it’s also cool to see new skaters doing old tricks that people were doing 20 years ago that we forgot about. But they’re still good you know. Still interesting, but fun!
Probably many of them don’t realise they are doing old tricks. They are just doing them because they thought of it. I dunno, but yeah the old videos are a good inspiration.

Are you working on a video part right now?
Yeah. I’m filming for the Element video that’s coming out this year I guess.

And what’s your approach to it? Are you treating it separately from the stuff you do on Instagram? Is it like a different process?
Yeah it’s like filming for real, kind of. I’m slightly unhappy that I don’t have that much weird shit in there, like funny tricks. But recently I got a few mess-around tricks in there that look cool to me and they’re going to be in the video. So I’m happy about that. Sometimes it’s hard to do those weird tricks for a real filmer… They’re like, ‘What? Is that a clip for the video or is that for Instagram?’ I don’t know but I want the same kind of stuff for the video part too.

Yeah because don’t you think it’s important?
Yeah I want to get more stuff like that for the part for sure.

Because the stuff on Instagram is a big part of whom you are right?
Yeah I think people will be shocked by my video part because there’s not much stuff like that – yet!
I think you should put some of that stuff in the video part to make it personal and unique. So it represents you.
Yeah I’m happy I got a few tricks like that lately in the video part. And I hope they’re going to use them! Because maybe they’re going to be like, ‘what is this?’ And not put them in.

And also some kids who don’t know you yet will first discover you with your video part, so they might miss something that is part of the way you are, you know?
Yeah that’s true. I don’t know; I like skating normal too. I’m not just a weird guy that only does stupid shit.

I don’t think any of that stuff is stupid or weird it’s good; it’s creative.
Yeah for me it looks cool. It’s better than doing tricks perfectly or jumping down a big stair set or something like that; that’s just not that fun.

Backside 50-50 grind, Tampere. Ph. Jouko Piipponen