Photo: Travis Comeau

Wood, Wheels & Wonders

Dickie Soloperto puts wheels on a dream

Dickie Soloperto’s Instagram page (@longboards_by_solo) is filled with photo after photo highlighting his skill and talent at crafting individually numbered one-of-a-kind skateboards from locally sourced Tennessee lumber. But ask him about skateboarding, and his first topic of conversation is not the equipment or woodworking, it’s Ava, his 15-year-old daughter.

“Not long after I started building skateboards, I took Ava to a skate park here in town,” Soloperto says. “There were two boys there — they weren’t really vicious, but I could definitely tell they were picking on her. They were swerving close and trying to scare her. She was really young at the time, but I didn’t say anything to them. I just walked out and stood next to a column where she was skating and they saw me and left immediately. Boys intimidate girls in every skate park in America, and it still goes on. But Ava and other girls have gotten where they don’t care anymore. They’re there because they have every right to be, and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Soloperto’s belief in skateboarding as a source of confidence and empowerment for young people, and particularly girls, is a foundation underlying his chosen means of artistic expression. A native of Miami, Florida, Soloperto discovered skateboarding during the sport’s massive revival in the mid-1970s when improvements in
skateboard designs and equipment launched a sidewalk-surfing boom across the U.S.

“Where I came from in Miami was almost completely flat,” Soloperto says. “My parents had the only house in the neighborhood that was on a hill. All the kids would come there to skate. I never got good at it. It was more a mode of transportation for me, and when I got my driver’s license, I stopped skating. I came back to it in college for a little while and then left it behind for many years. Once I started skating again, it was like, ‘Wow, why did I stop?’”

Soloperto’s impetus for returning to skateboarding was his daughter. What started as an outlet for father-daughter time, soon turned into something bigger, thanks to some Morphean inspiration.

“It started in 2014 and it was a literal dream that I had,” Soloperto says. “I had a dream one night that a friend and I started a skateboard company and it did so well we passed it on to my daughter and his son.”

A tile setter by trade — a profession he learned from his father — and a tile mosaic artist on the side, Soloperto had been thinking about alternative professions. “I was stumbling trying to figure what my next career choice would be,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t set tile forever because of my knees and back. The next day I called my friend from the dream and asked him if he wanted to get in on making skateboards. He said his band was getting back together, and he was leaving to go on the road. So I went out and bought $1,200 of woodworking tools and started tinkering around. I had very little experience with woodworking, but the tile setting translates — measurements and cutting. Within three days I had made two or three prototypes, all of which turned out to be boat anchors. I still have them hanging on my wall. I just kept practicing and practicing until I honed in on it and I was happy with what I was doing.”

Soloperto was soon crafting one-of-a-kind longboards from locally sourced Tennessee maple. Longboards vary from the standard “trick boards” used for jumps, flips, and other gravity-defying stunts in their length (commonly 33 to 59 inches as opposed to 28 to 33 inches for standard skateboards), shape, and size of their wheels and trucks. These differences allow for a smoother and easier ride over long distances, and the ability to make quick, lateral moves similar to surfers and snowboarders. He soon discovered an alternative source for wood with a uniquely East Nashvillian aspect.

“Being a tile setter, I have contractor friends who do a lot of demolition work,” Soloperto says. “I mentioned to one of them that I started building skateboards and he suggested using the wood lathe strips from plaster walls. I glue and press the strips together, and the finished piece is about an inch and half thick. I then plane it down to a half-inch. The finished wood is phenomenal.”

Made from “heart pine” the densest portion of longleaf pines, and only available from old growth trees, the quality of wood Soloperto reclaims for his skateboards is not available from modern sources.

“The crosscut grain on some of the wood leads me to believe the trees were 30-40 years old when they were cut,” he says. “If the house was 90 years old when it was demolished, that makes the wood 120-130 years old. The new pine you buy now is maybe five to six years old and there’s no comparison. I love the idea that the wood is back on the streets, skating through the neighborhood where the house once stood.”

Photo: Travis Commeau

Although Soloperto’s laminated boards are extremely popular, he also utilizes new maple wood, with a roughly 50-50 split in the types of boards he manufactures. “I make one design shape, it’s known as the classic 40-inch pintail,” he says. “The maple boards have more flex and ride smoother. The laminated boards are more expensive, so many people buy them as works of art, only taking them out for
rides occasionally.”

Marketing proved the biggest challenge for Soloperto. “When I got to number 15, I realized this could be something that might take off down the road,” he says. “Figuring out how to sell them was the hardest part for me. When I do a tile job, I’m used to going to somebody’s house, telling them what they need, how much it’s going to cost, and they hand me a check and I go to work. A cousin of mine came to visit and said, ‘You need an Instagram shop.’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do it!’ But 15 minutes after I set it up, I got an email from a professional downhill longboarder from Russia who was interested in one of my boards.”

Instagram and other social media channels also provide Soloperto with the opportunity to make friends in the skating world and promote the sport to girls, with his daughter Ava a frequent star of his posts. Soloperto’s girl-positive message led to a friendship with Patti McGee, the first woman to be inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame. McGee first came to national attention in May 1965 when she appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

“Patti has been wonderful to my daughter and me,” Soloperto says. “She is still the perfect ambassador for women’s skating worldwide, and Ava and I adore her. When I told her about building a skateboard for a young woman whose mother was murdered in my community, she asked if she could send her a package; it was filled with stickers, pins, and an inspiring love note.”

Soloperto’s devotion to spreading empowerment through skating to young girls has a direct link to the day he witnessed gender-based, skateboard-driven harassment
in action.

“When I realized what was going on that day with those two boys and Ava, a bigger awareness just struck me.” Soloperto says. “Making boards gave me a vehicle to try to help, and it’s led me to seek different mentors in my life — female mentors, because I’ve had mostly male mentors, whether in the tile business, creating mosaics, or whatever else.”

Skateboarding has also affected Ava’s worldview. “Girls can do anything that boys can do when it comes to skating,” she says emphatically. “I think it’s thought of as boy’s sport because more boys skate than girls, but you don’t have to have huge muscles to skateboard, you can just do it.”

Although Soloperto’s dream of building a skateboard empire hasn’t come to pass yet, his true standard of success isn’t measured by profits and losses. “I think having a brick and mortar shop would be pretty awesome,” he says, “but they say nobody opens a skateboard company to get rich; they do it because they love it. Ava and I have been blessed by skateboarding, and I love getting boards into the hands of youngsters, knowing a piece of wood with wheels on it has the power to change someone’s life forever. I felt it when I was 12, and I’ve seen it in Ava’s face. It’s like nothing can stop you. When we ride together I often drift back behind her. I can see her just floating in the wind, and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

For more Longboards by Solo, check out Soloperto’s Instagram page
@longboards_by_solo