This feature was originally published in Issue 16. You can order here.
Briana King’s energy is boundless. The morning we meet up at her Echo Park house, I’m greeted with a radiant smile and a genuine warmth as she invites me to sit down while she laces up some new shoes. As she skateboards around the neighborhood, stopping for a quick coffee and a few photos here and there, I realize she could do this forever—wake up, skate, get coffee, skate. This is when Briana is happiest.
The trajectory of King’s life up until now is anything but conventional. Raised under the overprotective and watchful eye of her mother, who didn’t allow King to have friends, run around the neighborhood, watch TV or participate in things like skateboarding, King inevitably grew up in a bubble. She eventually escaped to Australia where she started to establish a fruitful modeling career, until she was forced to leave the country because of visa complications. At what seemed like the lowest point in her life, King went to New York, where she met Yasmeen Wilkerson, and was re-introduced to skateboarding. Skateboarding not only became her therapy during this transition exposing her to a close-knit community of women skaters but also served as a catalyst for her creativity and ultimately put her in a place where she felt like she could be her authentic self. As a model, Briana always felt like she needed to look or act a certain way, but when she’s skateboarding she beams with realness and her convictions are unwavering, which has given way to a whole new chapter of her life: helping, empowering, and teaching other women to not only start skateboarding, but find their own tribe and sense of belonging.
Tell me about your upbringing. You were born and raised in LA, right?
Yes, I grew up in Boyle Heights. I was somewhat trapped in my house forever because I was like the only Black person in East LA, and my mom would rather keep me sheltered in the house than have me exposed to things like discrimination. I spent most of my days in the house, playing music; I was a band geek. I didn’t even have a TV growing up. I remember I skated for like two months in 7th grade. I always had to skate right in front of the house and then one day I escaped on Halloween and was like, “Yo, this is a party day. Let’s fuckin’ ollie off these dumbass stairs,” and I broke my ankle. My mom took my board, snapped it, and was like, “You’re never skating again.”
What was it like growing up as a Black woman in a predominately Latinx community and neighborhood? Was this the reason your mom sheltered you so much?
Yes, I didn’t understand it. Everyone in my family is Mexican or Puerto Rican. I didn’t even notice that I was Black. I’m like, “Oh, I have an afro and no one else does.” But I didn’t know what was going on until I left to Australia at 18, because I was trying to get away from my mom. When I moved she told me, “I sheltered you because you’re Black and I wanted to keep you safe.” But I didn’t know that my whole entire life. I was just confused. I thought my mom was crazy.
Yeah, you thought she was just being unfair. But in her mind, she was trying to do you a favor because she knows what kind of discrimination you could face.
Even my family members, while growing up, like my stepmom and others, wouldn’t talk to me because I was Black. I didn’t understand what it was or what it meant to be Black, and my mom didn’t understand either because she’s not Black. So I grew up very confused. My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is half Black, half White. He tries to identify as a White person whenever he possibly can.
When do you think you started to come into your own identity and began to understand and accept your Blackness?
Not until I was 23 or 24 and moved to New York. I didn’t identify with anything up until that point. I was confused because my family is hella Mexican and then when we moved out of Boyle to Monterey Park when they torn down the projects we were living in, all of my friends were Asian. Then I went to Australia and everyone is White. Then when I got to New York there were hella Black people. All of my homies there are Black and essentially just put me in the loop and taught me everything. That was the first time I felt like me. I was so great.
Tell me about that transition. You get to New York and you have new friends showing you what life’s all about.
I felt really uncomfortable at first because I knew they were going to realize that I didn’t know anything about their culture or my culture. But my friend Yasmeen [Wilkerson], the same girl I started skateboarding with, was like, “Bitch, I’m filling you in with everything.” She made me feel comfortable. I finally had this feeling of, “these are my people.” Not even because we had the same color skin, but more so because she went out of her way to teach me so much.
Why do you think she was so open to bringing you in and teaching you? Is that the kind of person she is?
No, actually she’s super closed off usually and doesn’t open up to anyone. I don’t understand why she chose me, but I’m incredibly grateful. When I moved to New York, I stayed in a hotel for a month and a half. I ordered takeout every day and didn’t do anything. Yasmeen was the one that got me out and was like, “Bitch, come outside. I know you’re depressed as fuck.” She didn’t know anything about me; she just followed me on Instagram. And for some reason, we connected and made each other happy.
When do you decide that you’re going to take off for Australia?
Right when I turned 18. I had moved into my own place here in LA and my mom was still pulling up trying to dictate every move I made. I didn’t even order my own food until I was 18. So I was really nervous to do normal daily things. When I got to Australia and went to McDonald’s, I was scared to order chicken nuggets. I’m a full-grown adult that flew across the world and I’m scared to order nuggets because I was never allowed to do anything or go anywhere on my own.
What were you pursuing when you were in Australia?
Right when I get off the plane I was approached for a modeling job. You didn’t see many mixed Black chicks rocking a big ass ‘fro there, back in 2010. I would model, go to the beach, feed the seagulls, go home. I lived right across the street from the skate park and I would watch everyone skate all day.
What caused you to leave after being there for five years?
I decided to go work and live in New Zealand for a little. My agents in Australia call me and say they know that I don’t have a work visa in Australia anymore but that they have a job for me that will pay cash and that I’d be ok. I’m flying to Australia and I get stopped at customs and they’re like, “Hey, we see that you’re usually coming in on a working visa. How come you’re coming in with a holiday visa? How do we know you’re not going to work?” I told them I was visiting my family and my friends.” But they decided they didn’t believe me and weren’t about to let me in. They took my phone, laptop, everything. I sat there for hours. They come out with stacks of papers that they printed out from my laptop and text messages. They start pointing out conversations about jobs. They’re like, “This is fuckin’ illegal. We’re going to have to detain you.” I sat in a detention center for four days and had no idea what was going to happen until they kicked me out of the country.
You get kicked out and are you’re like, “Where do I go now?”
I felt like I had nothing to live for. I didn’t give a shit about anything. I was leaving my best friends, and what seemed like my perfect life. I saw the US as somewhere that I was always trapped. So I decided to go to New York.
When you get to New York you start hanging out with Yasmeen and start skating again. What is it like to be reconnected with the board?
Amazing. I skated for a couple of months and got tricks down right away. It was like kickflip, DINK. Okay, “I got this.” I remember at this time I’m was still mad depressed. But the second I got on my skateboard, I was like, “I’m skateboarding. That’s all I’m thinking about.” I didn’t work for the first year I was in New York. I didn’t go to school or do anything. Instead, it was 6 am, get up, skate, nap, skate until 11 pm. Every day.
You didn’t have to think about all the external shit.
Originally, I started doing it because it took my mind off of everything. Then I just fell in love all over again. My whole mindset changed. I saw my skateboard and I’m like, “Yo, this is my life. This makes me happy.”
What do you think skateboarding has taught you?
It’s forced me to be around different kinds of people and different energies. It’s a whole community so I had no choice but to be friends with people and challenge myself to open up. Skateboarding taught me to not be awkward. Everyone sees me a certain type of way because of what they see on Instagram, but really I had no confidence. Skateboarding taught me to be myself. I never thought that I could achieve this amount of happiness or could be this comfortable. I’m so happy with my life—the way I grew up, the way everything happened—because I get to appreciate everything so much more now. Every day I put my headphones on and push, and every day I get chills.
Let’s talk about your community. You’re a huge advocate for teaching girls to skateboard and making the skate world a comfortable place for women; especially with your recent string of “skate clinics.” Why is this important to you?
It’s so easy to change your perspective on life through a skateboard. Or bring people together through a skateboard. I want people to experience the love that I’m experiencing. A lot of these girls that end up showing up to an open skate event have never skated with other girls. After an event, everyone leaves with a new posse. I’ve helped create a platform for new groups of girl skaters. It’s easy to make people happy.
Tell me about some of the girls you meet at the open skate events you have been hosting.
One girl in particular in New York just started crying. She came over from New Jersey, took a train, and lied to her parents saying she was at work. She was like, “Thank you for this. I could have never imagined this.” It’s so sick. Girls that are basically pros show up. So it’s not just girls that are there to learn. They actually just want to be around the energy with all these girls skating.
What do you think makes you authentic?
What makes me authentic is me being so uncomfortable being me, but I’m still me. I’m always nervous. I’m always scared of being myself. But then I’m like, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m just going to do it.” It’s growing on me, just being myself. I always tell other girls that there’s always more. There’s always room for change. You’re not one person forever. You never know what to expect because I would have never, in a million years, pictured myself skateboarding still. It makes me so excited for the future, like what the fuck else is going to happen?
For more from Briana King, follow her on Instagram.
Photography by Kris Evans.