Skateboarder Levi Hawken on fear, art and the search for the 'perfect flow'

At seven years old, Levi Hawken jumped on his first deck and was hooked. It took four years to learn the basics before he was skating in the city but soon the feeling of cruising the urban streets of Auckland on a skateboard meant to him more than any other hobby. 

Over the years since, riding has grown to be entwined into almost every aspect of his life. 

By working day jobs, the desire to skate new terrain took him to various places around the world before he became well-known for bombing the steepest hills he could find. 

"You weren't always accepted but your skateboard will always accept you."
"You weren't always accepted but your skateboard will always accept you." Photo credit: Supplied.

Skateboarding is interlinked with his daily routine, acting as a way of transportation, an outlet to recharge and inadvertently gives him huge inspiration for his art direction. 

"You spend so much of your life being a sponge and soaking up aesthetics - things that later influence your work."

'Total rush'

Hawken started out by emulating the style of the older kids he knew from around Auckland and his Grey Lynn neighbourhood before building his own individualised skills and style.

He says the older skaters weren't always kind in those days, but when they shared knowledge it was quickly put to use. 

"You weren't always accepted but your skateboard will always accept you. It might hurt you, but it will always accept you," he tells Newshub. 

These days Hawken can be spotted flying down hills and steep streets at huge speed - that's when his mind clears, becoming completely focused in the moment. 

The buzz offers a form of clarity nothing else can. 

"It's a total rush, it's a feeling of confidence, growth and connection," he says. "That feeling of flowing, and looking around and seeing the cracks and stones in front of you - little obstacles you need to overcome, and you overcome them. 

"It's in that simplicity and in the flow that you can rise out of the mental issues that you're dealing with. I think a lot of the time, it's actually getting you out of the house." 

Since the introduction of e-scooters, Hawken says skateboarders have gained more acceptance than when he was a kid with each generation now having ridden a skateboard at some point in their lives. 

"I think there's a lot more appreciation than if you can just stand on something and press a button then go - it's become respected as an old-fashioned discipline." 

Any day the weather permits, Hawken is likely to be seen skating in the city, cruising on soft wheels, sliding over every driveway hump while hitting the obstacles on the path and avoiding anything that comes his way. 

"I'd also love to be out on a big winding open road on my proper fast slalom board, just carving it up, trying to get as aerodynamic as I can and try and get that perfect flow."

Overcoming nerves

Developing skill around his favourite pastime has been like learning anything else - really hard until you put the work in to learn what it takes. 

Taking a cautious approach, Hawken says starting from halfway is a good tactic to avoid hurting yourself and learning the surface of the road.

"The hardest thing about bombing a really gnarly hill is fear that you don't know how to do it but that's the thing, every time you go to a new hill you get that because you haven't ridden it, you doubt yourself, and it's the self-doubt that gets you.

With the consequences of bailing so high, each ride requires immense focus. Hawken says this is the key to not becoming complacent or blasé.

"I'm older now, so I tend to take it easy at first. Once you do it from the top and then you're like 'oh, I can do it, I know how to skate this, that's right', then you have the confidence."

He says once the self-assurance is there, it's easy to relax and that's when the enjoyment really kicks in. 

Art imitates life

From learning new tricks to conquering a previously-unventured slope, the different experiences are a constant source of fresh creativity for his art over the last 26 years.  

The brutalist and modernist architecture seen around Auckland like Aotea Square, the medical school and Auckland University have been embedded in Hawken's mind leading to a heightened appreciation for the environments portrayed in his work.

"The more I've done art and the more I've skated, it keeps surprising me how they're connected." 

"It's in that simplicity and in the flow that you can rise out of the mental issues that you're dealing with."
"It's in that simplicity and in the flow that you can rise out of the mental issues that you're dealing with." Photo credit: Newshub/Supplied.

Working as a landscaper for the past five years gave him the skills to make concrete structures from scratch, and understand moulds and formwork. 

He now makes sculptures and three-dimensional tiles with forms adapted from wild-style graffiti and soaking up the architecture work in the urban environments.

While some pieces are stocked in art galleries around the country, one recent project can be found at west Auckland's Te Atatu at Jack Pringle Skate Park. 

A delicately-crafted concrete relief adds a bold element to the side and back of the skate ramp that can stand the test of time. 

"After spending so much time doing graffiti that's been painted over or removed, it's good to finally create something with longevity." 

The opportunity came about when a friend looking after the park's update reached out looking to create something inspired by the streets rather than just a plain concrete wall.

Using similar designs from a 45-metre painting he did in the tunnel wall along the Leith River in Dunedin, Hawken transformed the piece with the help of a three-dimensional program to bring it to life. 

"It was nice to do something of my own rather than be working and building someone's design."

With more projects on the way, looking ahead, Hawken says he is keen to hone in on more artwork in commercial spaces, skateparks and interactive public sculptures. 

"In the future, I'd just like to keep taking it in the direction that I'm going and keep doing what I enjoy."