upper waypoint

How Low Key Became the Coolest Skate Shop in San Francisco

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A white man with a red beard stands outside a shop front wearing a green windbreaker. Another man, with long half-bleached hair, stands to his right with his back turned. He is wearing the same windbreaker. It says 'The Tenderloin.'
Justin Marks (L) and Zachariah ‘Turtle’ Dawson (R), co-owners of Low Key Skate Shop in the Tenderloin. (Courtesy of Low Key Skate Shop)

Skateboarders do not look at the city — any city — the same way that non-skaters do.

Skateboarders have brains that make instant calculations using principles of geometry and physics, and are hardwired to evaluate ways around obstacles and over gaps. Present a crew of skaters with a patchwork of hostile architecture — objects specifically designed to keep them out of a space — and the problem-solving that spills forth would put professional architects to shame.

So what happens when a lifelong skateboarder gets a degree in architecture? Low Key Skate Shop owner Justin Marks can tell you. For seven years, the 35-year-old worked for Hornberger and Worstell, a San Francisco architecture firm. Marks had grown up in the Lower Haight, both immersing himself in skate culture and nerding out over urban landscapes.

“When you’re skateboarding, you’re at a 1:1 scale with the city and your built environment,” Marks told me on a recent visit to Low Key. “I’ve always been interested in architecture, and I’ve been advocating for skateparks since I was in high school. I would go to community meetings and wait for public comment and talk about how positive skating is for the youth.”

Eventually, opportunities arose that prompted Marks to leave office life behind for good. After Hornberger and Worstell, he worked with the San Francisco Planning Department, eventually becoming a contractor to help build out the skatepark Playland at 43rd Avenue. (The site has since been developed as affordable housing for San Francisco teachers.)

Sponsored

In 2016, he was invited to take over the day-to-day operations of Everyday — a Tenderloin skate shop that’s since moved downtown. The move made sense. Even while working as an architectural junior designer, Marks was running his own skate company Left Side, selling his skateboards and shirts around the city at stores like FTC, DLX and Mission Skate Shop.

By 2019, Marks was ready to strike out on his own. He wanted to open a storefront that would serve as both a skate shop and small art gallery. Marks’ first choice for a business partner was Zachariah “Turtle” Dawson. (“If you use my actual name,” Turtle quips, “no one will know who the fuck you’re talking about.”) At the time, the two were both volunteering at Playland. Not only was Turtle a beloved sponsored skater, Marks knew he was also an SFAI graduate who would see Low Key’s potential as an art space. The pair quickly opened the shop on Geary Street.

A white man with glasses and scruffy beard stands in the doorway of a small shop front. He is wearing a black beanie, sweater and pants.
Turtle, one of the owners of Low Key Skate Shop, hanging out in April 2024. (Rae Alexandra)

The impact the tiny new store had on the local community was immediate. From day one, Low Key has been a gathering place for skaters, as well as an outlet for local small businesses whose products are frequently handmade. (“We try and keep everything as homegrown as possible,” Turtle notes.) Low Key’s on-site screenprinting equipment is used by the shop, as well as friends and associates who have their own creative projects. (When the corner store up the street wanted to start selling its own shirts, Low Key printed them.)

More importantly, the skate shop fulfills its art goals by hosting monthly shows to coincide with the Tenderloin Art Walk. Artists and photographers who reflect Bay Area street culture — the likes of George Crampton Glassanos, Tod the Bunny, Eric Broers and most recently Austen Zombres — take priority.

One of the many who’ve directly benefited from Low Key’s existence is skateboard photographer and videographer Theodore Maider.

“Low Key has given me a platform to film and photograph the skaters affiliated with their shop,” Maider says. “But they’ve also given me a place to put my artwork on display, and promoted my work on social media. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m currently in if it wasn’t for Low Key.”

Outside of the store, Marks and Turtle have kept mindful about donating merchandise to skateboard events around Northern California, as well as to local fundraisers, like a recent Tenderloin Museum campaign to stage a play about the Compton’s Cafeteria riot.

A Black man with long locs stands with his arm around a white man with beard and glasses inside a skateboard shop. They are both smiling.
Karl Watson, San Francisco skateboarder, video director and author, hanging at Low Key with owner Justin Marks. (Courtesy of Low Key Skate Shop)

From Maider’s perspective, it’s the duo of Marks and Turtle that makes Low Key such an impactful place.

“Turtle is very much the presence in the streets,” Maider explains. “Turtle has spent so much of his time lurking at the spots that are considered the proving grounds of the city, and because of that, he has a reputation and presence that people love and respect. And then Justin is very much the red-tape guy,” Maider continues. “He gets parks built and makes sure the skate community has a voice in a meaningful way both socially and politically.”

That’s not an exaggeration. In 2011, before Marks had even received his Architecture B.A. from California College of the Arts, he succeeded in getting a corner of Waller Street established as a designated skatepark by working with landscape architect John Bela (one of Marks’ teachers at the time) and Phil Ginsburg, now the general manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department.

“We came up with a simple design that used repurposed granite ledges from the city yard at Waller,” Marks says, adding that later, in 2022, “working with Rec [and] Park we teamed up with DLX to make Waller what it is today — a newly paved skatepark plaza with more found skate objects.”

Five years into its existence, Low Key stands as a business that goes against almost every stereotype about skateboarders being destructive and hedonistic slackers. By all appearances, Marks and Turtle constantly brainstorm new ways to be of service. Currently, Marks is putting together a skate jam at the new U.N. Plaza skatepark, near the Civic Center, to be held this summer. Turtle is excited about the imminent release of a skate video that Low Key has spent years putting together. (When I ask him how many local skaters were involved in the making of the film, he half-smiles and says, “I’d say the whole city.”)

“Skateboarding made me an explorer of the city, its history and people,” Marks says. “But what first attracted me to skateboarding was the sense of camaraderie and creativity. I’d like to continue advocating for skateboarding, the arts and public spaces that encourage creativity and” — negative stereotypes be damned — “healthy recreation.”


Sponsored

Low Key Skate Shop is located at 679 Geary Street. Austen Zombres’ ‘Corner Store’ exhibit is currently on display through May 2, 2024. 

lower waypoint
next waypoint
‘Naked Ambition’ Brings Bunny Yeager’s Photography to a 21st Century AudienceAt BottleRock, Kali Uchis Beamed Fans Up to a Club in the CosmosMistah F.A.B. Drops ‘N.E.W. Oakland’ Music Video, Nearly 20 Years LaterIn ‘Free To Be,’ A UCSF Doctor Dispels Myths About Trans YouthPHOTOS: Megan Thee Stallion, Ed Sheeran and More Light Up BottleRock‘The Last Murder at the End of the World’ Is a Story of Survival and Memory20 New Books Hitting Shelves This Summer That NPR Critics Can’t Wait to ReadTaquerias Come and Go, but La Vic’s Orange Sauce Is ForeverThis is Her, Now, in Space: J.Lo Heads to a New Galaxy for AI Love Story in ‘Atlas’10 Collections that Stunned at Bay Area Student Fashion Shows