Season 2, Episode 1 of “It’s a Rough Life” opens up with Johnny Roughneck, chief and commander of Roughneck Hardware, arguing with his “art director,” Jimmy Nelson. Flustered and in a sort of panic, Roughneck explains that the tour is a few days away, and they don’t even have any fucking flyers designed or printed. Nelson calmly assures him that the flyers and new T-shirt designs will be done next week. With no time in between business calls, event planning, parenting and overall chaos, Roughneck cranks out a piece-of-shit notice that looks like it belongs in a DIY zine. He knows he can’t do it all, but he feels the need to, sometimes—well, most of the time. He’s high-strung, opinionated, passionate and determined. Why is the flyer so damn important, what is this tour, what is Roughneck Hardware and, most importantly, who the fuck is this guy?
John Griffin, aka Roughneck, was just another white-bread, working class Baltimorian, jacking cars and disrespecting “your momma” in his early teens, when he discovered skateboarding. One day, a bunch of metalheads rolled through his hood, headbanging and weaving through traffic on wood and wheels. Griffin’s life was changed that instant. With a way out “da hood,” Griffin literally rolled his way out of the prison-bound lifestyle he was leading into an early adulthood filled with Cali dreams and college aspirations. Griffin packed up and moved to San Francisco, where he enrolled at San Francisco State University. When not enriching his mind, Griffin enhanced his skating skills, and eventually started to receive flow from the now-defunct Chaos Skateboards, among others. Just as things started to look bright, an injury showed the dark side of the skate industry. “Once I hurt my knee, my sponsors started acting funny. It was then I realized I had to look into something else,” he says. Knowing he wanted to make skating a part of his life forever, Griffin set out to discover his next stroke of good/bad luck.
“I took the day off from school and drove over to Oakland, and was looking around at the buildings and saw a metal manufacturer and I thought, ‘Bolts. I can start a bolt company.’” With a low start-up and product cost, this seemed like the perfect fit for a struggling student, not to mention the lack of competition being just a hardware company (metal’s metal, no matter who’s selling it). With his pockets empty and a car full of nuts and screws, Griffin drove back across the Bay Bridge and thought to himself, “This has got to be the most roughneck thing ever. I just spent all my money and quit school. This is some roughneck shit. Fuck it, that’s it!”
Roughneck Hardware became a “for the homies” company during the mid-’90s. With no packaging, Griffin began handing out samples to the local skate community. Being just another johnny from the block, he soon became know as “Johnny Roughneck,” the hardware guy. The nickname stuck, and, over time, would cause and/or resolve several altercations. With his new persona backing the brand, Roughneck began to gain recognition. “We started [assembling] a solid team that’s roughneck for life. Once you’re in, you’re in—kind of like the mob,” he says. With the sting of company betrayal still in his blood, this credo set Roughneck apart from other brands. Skaters would have to personally call Roughneck to be removed from the team—even if they stopped skating, they would still receive a box of product unless they officially quit. This loyalty would eventually lead to one of the most diverse and largest teams on record. Unfortunately, Roughneck was giving away the majority of his product, and it wasn’t till the ARS Tradeshow in 1997 that Roughneck would officially become a business.
While attending the show, Roughneck was approached by a shop buyer to ask about selling Roughneck Hardware. He hadn’t even established a selling price, but his brand was generating solid buzz. It was time to branch out. Luckily, an éS drawing for a year’s supply of shoes would be just enough funding for the road trip—legitimately, a shoestring budget. After demanding all 12 pairs of sneakers at once, Johnny was sent to the warehouse, where he picked up six pairs of Kostons and six Muskas, all size 9.5 (the most popular models and size). Over the next few weeks, these kicks would be bartered for a place to crash or fuel. What started as a short trip to Arizona turned into a country-wide promotional tour. Once the last pair of shoes were exchanged for a pillow in New York, Roughneck returned to San Fran and began fulfilling orders.