Andrew Johnson skating at the San Luis Obispo Skate Park. Aaron Almeda | Photo Courtesy

Most people have never seen Andrew Johnson — known only as “Drewman” to most — outside the park.

Drewman, 23, stays at the San Luis Obispo Skate Park from dawn until dusk most days. He used to sleep there sometimes, too.

“Not anymore,” he said. “Cops kick you out at 10. If they come through, you gotta go.”

Now, he lives in a tent down the road from the skate park.

“Even if I had a house, I’d still be here every day,” he said.

Drewman says he knows everyone who comes through the park. They’re his “homies,” and he has hundreds of them. Some bring him new skateboards, others sit down for a cup of coffee. He takes videos of other skaters with his phone and has them do the same for him, compiling the footage into Instagram video edits with background music (anything but country).

“He’s the face of the skate park,” Jacob Donath, Drewman’s high school classmate, said.

The SLO Skate Park is a concrete island, encircled by grass fields, under the shadow of Madonna Mountain on one side and High School Hill on the other. Thirty-foot-tall steel “trees” provide much-needed shade. It cost more than $2 million to build, funded by the city, several donations and a grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation, before it opened in 2015. 

It even has outlets, so Drewman can charge his phone to edit skate videos on iMovie. Everything he needs.

After five years of planning, San Luis Obispo County opened a $3.5 million skate park in Nipomo this year that may rival the SLO Park. Regardless, many skateboarders still consider the patch of land behind Santa Rosa Street to be one of the most impressive skate spots between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It’s also one of the only places in town to skateboard unbothered. The city code almost treats skating as a crime, calling skateboards and inline skates “hazardous recreational activities.” The code states that skateboarding can even cause death to “spectators of such activities.”

Skateboarding is also banned at Cal Poly and in downtown San Luis Obispo, with several-hundred-dollar fines attached if you’re caught more than once.

Cal Poly’s University Police recommended that students walk instead, or take the Mustang Shuttle, to get around campus.

“If students are considering skateboarding on campus, we would ask them to consider the potential threat to their safety and that of those around them,” Officer Bryan Cox wrote in an email to Mustang News.

A 2014 Cal Poly ASI survey found that nearly 70% of students supported lifting the ban.

University of California, Santa Barbara has had a skateboard lane in addition to a bike lane for nearly 15 years. In 2016, the school reported that 8% commuted on skateboards — higher than the number of students who drove to school alone. In Davis, about 1,100 students commute on skateboards.

“Everything’s hazardous,” said Kevin Niccoli, a 64-year-old skateboarder with a white goatee, Vans and thin black sunglasses. “It’s just as dangerous as skiing.”

But the bans aren’t entirely unjustified. Two Cal Poly students have died in skateboard crashes since 2012 (one was riding an electric skateboard). In 2021, more than 200,000 people went to the hospital with skateboarding injuries, according to the National Safety Council.

Even at the park, accidents happen. In a nasty fall last year, Drewman fractured his tibia and chipped a kneecap.

“I could barely walk at the time,” he said. “But I only took four days off, then I started skating again. I feel it pop all the time.”

He paused.

“But fuck, I can still skate. That’s all that matters.” 

San Luis Obispo was not built for skateboarders. Years of harsh sun have cracked the city’s pavement, and the roads bump and wind like the city’s Spanish-tiled roofs. Where there are straightaways, they’re usually too steep for a board to maintain control.

Lena, a Cal Poly student who wouldn’t give her last name, said she gets glares and dirty looks when she takes her skateboard on sidewalks. “The old people hate it,” she said. 

Drewman said many San Luis Obispo residents misunderstand skateboarding. 

“They hate skaters. All the noise. The metal on metal. They just get mad.”

Andrew Johnson, known as Drewman, at the skate park. Mark Niggle | Courtesy

The SLO Skate Park is one of the only places in town where he can skate completely unbothered. The park, built in 2015 over an assortment of decaying wooden ramps and a chain link fence, was San Luis Obispo’s multi-million-dollar plea to skaters: stay in the park, and off the streets.

But skating is a free-for-all. There are no rules or regulations, no coaches telling you what to do. It doesn’t matter what board you have, or where you are. The world’s your playground.

“No matter how many skate parks you build, kids are still going to ride street,” Kevin Rucks, a skater since 1975, said. “That’s how skating is now. The recklessness, that’s the whole point of it.”

To the city’s credit, half of the park is dedicated to “street” skating, with rails and concrete ramps meant to imitate staircases and buildings. The other side is hollowed out with shallow pools and a 13-foot-deep bowl, which Rucks said intimidates even the most experienced riders.

“Skate parks breed talent for your community,” Rucks said with wide eyes. “So many rad guys come out of this park.”

Kevin Rucks at the San Luis Obispo Skate Park. Mark Niggle | Courtesy

Lori Silvestri, who’s lived in San Luis Obispo for 45 years, once saw a skateboarder collide with a bike — an accident that hospitalized them both. She’s wary of skateboarders who go on the streets.

“You see skateboarders with their headphones on, they’re in their own world,” she said. “It’s very dangerous.”

Silvestri thinks skaters should have to use hand signals, like bikes, and stop at stop signs.

“It would be a great way to get transportation around town,” she said. “If it was safer.”

While there are risks associated with skateboarding, Donath thinks people shouldn’t assume that skateboarders themselves are irresponsible — he thinks this is where many misconceptions about the sport stem.

“Just because you have baggy pants and a skateboard in your hand doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” Donath said, wearing JNCO jeans with a buzz cut and thick glasses. “There’s bad people everywhere. I can’t imagine how a piece of wood with four wheels would make somebody a criminal.”

Overall, the park is surprisingly peaceful. Loud, maybe — lots of clanging, clattering, skidding, scraping, screeching — but peaceful.

And there’s rarely any trouble at the park. When there is, it’s mostly caused by children — “little kids,” middle schoolers, 12 and 13 year olds, Drewman and others estimate.

If anything, skateboarding keeps the park safe. Without it, “there would be way more tweakers around. People doing drugs and stuff. Not skating,” Drewman said.

Many said the same thing — the park is a safe place. 

“It’s about common courtesy and respect,” Rucks said. “People crash into each other and both of them go, ‘Dude, I’m sorry.’ You really have to go out of your way to be a jerk, have a bad attitude or bully somebody.”

At the park, you always have a friend to skate with.

Tia Martinez, a roller skater, met her boyfriend at the SLO Skate Park while visiting from L.A.

“This park has brought me a lot of good things,” she said, despite breaking both of her pinky fingers there over the past year.

She dropped smoothly into the park’s 13-foot-deep pool, crossing her legs over each other, skating forwards — and backwards — across the bowl. For her, it’s better than therapy. 

“She’s fucking killing it,” Jude Schultz said, a high schooler from Santa Maria said.

Schultz has stringy hair covered by a crooked beanie, wears baggy Anchor Blue jeans, and rides a board with an “I heart consent” sticker plastered on the bottom. He drives from Santa Maria to enjoy the park with his friend Gavin — who didn’t give his last name, didn’t say anything at all — just offered a menacing stare before cracking a grin.

“Everyone feels like a big family,” Schultz said. “Out of my actual family, I’ve had more real friends here.”

Schultz makes the drive up from Santa Maria so often because there are no “elitist dickheads” here, as he put it.

“A lot of people don’t get into skating ‘cause they’re afraid of being judged, but in the end, nobody cares,” he said.

As Schultz resumes his kick flips on the concrete, Drewman sits on the grass with one of his homies, eating a sandwich and listening to jazz. He’s hunched over, a little reserved — but still welcomes all who frequent the park. 

Skaters grind and clash on the concrete ramps. No one pays attention to rain clouds looming above. No one can be bothered.