Buried Treasure: Joe “Butcher” Kowalski Archives

A true street riding legend, Joe Kowalski, better known as "Butcher," has inspired countless riders who are influential in their own right, including Will Taubin, Vic Ayala, Lino Gonzalez, and Ralph Sinisi to name a few. He's pushed the limits of tricks, invented grind variations, and generally opened up a lot of unexplored avenues of street riding. So this installment of Buried Treasure is both a little history lesson and a tribute to Butcher.

Barspin Grind Variation
Long Beach, California
Photo: Brad McDonald?

You can't get much more mid '90s SoCal street than the Parrick Benches in Long Beach, California. The benches at the Belmont Shore pool first gained notoriety in Dave Parrick's section in Dirty Deeds. This slide didn't have any info on it, so I don't know who shot it or when, all I can do is go off what I see in the photo (which is the same for a lot of these photos). Butcher used to ride for Kareem Campbell's skate shoe company, Axion, but it doesn't look like he's wearing any in this photo. So I'm assuming it's preAxion, so my second assumption is that Brad McDonald shot the photo—which would make this photo over ten years old. That would also mean that Butcher has been doing barspin grind combos before this generation of riders even stepped onto pedals.

Superman Seatgrab Barspin
Bethlehem, PA
Photo: unknown

Whoa! I bet a lot of you didn't expect to see something like this from Butcher. Back in the day Butcher was an awesome jumper, he rode trails, he rode in contests, and when he first started doing these superman seat grab barspins it was one of the most cutting edge jumping tricks out there.

Sign Ledge Drop-In
Allentown, PA?
Photo: Ike Taylor

Drop in from the billboard into the bank, this setup looks like it was way too good to pass up. This is another one of those photos that I don't know anything about. Although, I think I drove past this spot once in Allentown, PA, so I'm assuming that's where it is. And I think Ike Taylor shot the photos.

X-up Grind
San Francisco, CA
Photo: Mark Losey

Judging from the ramps and the bridge in the background, I think this was from the 1999 X Games in San Francisco. You can probably count the number of street legends who have been in the X Games and in a video game on one hand—Butcher being one of them. On a different note, notice his front pegs are attached to the fork legs instead of the axles. In the late '90s when peg grinds were really catching on, (especially with the younger generation who were still learning how to land into grinds smoothly), bike companies were trying to figure out how to keep axles from breaking and dropouts from bending and the pursuit of that solution lead to a lot of ideas and designs that aren't around any longer today. Although some variations of the peg bosses on the fork were better than others, it always felt strange while grinding because the peg wasn't where it should naturally be at the axle and eventually everyone realized that idea was done and they stuck a fork in it.

Grind up to Lucflip (Crankflip)
Bethlehem, PA
Photo: Jeff Zielinski

Before all of the hype turned the school into a bust and all the rails got knobbed or taken out, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was a rail mecca. But there was one particular rail that my friends and I used to refer to as the "Lehigh rail." This anomaly of rails was so mellow it was almost straight, not even stem height, and it was square. This was the dream rail to learn tricks on, so we made quite a few pilgrimages to it over the years. This photo was on the tail end of the Lehigh rail era, when we were filming for the first Animal video. Butcher probably did every grind imaginable on this rail before anyone else even knew it existed. I'd also like to point out that well before "kickflips" or crankflips caught on, John "Luc-E" Englebert had already been doing them for years, and once the rest of the BMX world caught onto it and started referring to them as "kickflips", Luc-E and Butcher tried to rename the BMX tricks that had the same name as skateboarding tricks. Luc-E invented the trick, so they coined the name Lucflip. They also renamed nolli to rev-hop (reverse hop).

Fakie Table
Venice, CA
Photo: Jeff Zielinski

Blue sky, palm trees and the Pacific Ocean… Butcher was far from his normal Pennsylvania surroundings in this shot. He and Ralph Sinisi came out to LA to stay with me and I took them along with me to a photo shoot I was doing with Rick Thorne in Venice. Rick was doing something for TV or a video and he thought there might be photo-opp so he asked me to stop by. I don't remember getting anything with Rick that day, but Butcher did a few clicked tables to fakie on this quarter pipe. A similar shot from this day ran in Ride a few years ago, but I thought I should include in this archive because it's not often you see Butcher ride ramps, even though he used to live in a house with a yard and driveway full of ramps that he shredded all the time.

Rev-hop (Nollie) to Grind
Los Angeles, CA
Photo: Jeff Zielinski

This was from the same day as the last shot. After our stop in Venice we rolled over to Century City where I showed Ralph and Butcher the FOX Plaza building, which was the Nakatomi Plaza building from the first Die Hard movie. I showed them a few spots as well, and Butcher spotted this ledge to rail and already had the trick in mind. Butcher has taken the rev-hop to new heights in street riding and this was a prefect set-up for that trick.

Wallride to Stall
Hollywood, CA
Photo: Zielinski

This is a pretty famous spot in Hollywood next to the Capital Records building. It's not the best wallride, but it's one of those spots that if you lived near it you'd probably session it all the time. If my memory serves me correct, Bucther wanted to do a wallride to icepick and this was just the feeler trick. He got into the ice a couple of times, one time he actually grinded it a little and looped out, and then parking lot attendants gave us the boot before Butcher could pull it clean. Story of your life, right?

Gap To Crooked Grind
Clifton, NJ
Photo: Zielinski

This shot is an excerpt from an article I did in Ride 96 called Old Man Winter, which was centered around a bunch of photos I shot in New Jersey when I went back there for Christmas. The photo we ended up running of Butcher for that article was a strobe sequence of a gap to x-up grind on the same setup. Since their inception, Animal has had two different warehouse spaces and they've always had ramps in one form or another in the empty space in a corner or in an unoccupied warehouse next door. Such was the case with this setup. The rail wasn't really sturdy enough to have Butcher gapping onto it, so we braced it with some weights, a package of Animal tires, and a giant spool of plastic sheet. It was a pretty ghetto setup, but when it's 20 degrees outside during the New Jersey winter, anything to ride indoors becomes awesome.