They say, “The winners are the ones who write history.” Well, actually, Venice Originals founder, OG photographer, and entrepreneur Cesario “Block” Montano says that. Through his life behind the lens, Block preserves the area’s history while rewriting his own, and proves that being a product of your environment can actually open up a whole new world.
Words by: Don Cheadle
Snaps by: Leah Moriyama
‘‘A rose by any other name…” and all that rot. Some know him as Cesario. Some use “Block.” He’ll answer to Mr. Montano. Still, others say he’s the unofficial “Mayor of Venice.” I feel privileged to call him my friend, as I’ve known the homie for over 30 years. These same years have seen close friends come and go, family members pass, and “Google Venice” lay his claim to the hood while yogurt and iced lattes spill out of the doors and onto the Abbot Kinney asphalt. Hal’s ain’t even there anymore? Damn. But there is a mainstay. A stalwart figure that remains ever true, ever down, ever Venice. He is a vessel of stories about his faithful subjects, both near and far. He can show you all the spots where shit used to go down and where it’s happening now. He’s still got that back room, and if trouble visits you, after a good OG ribbing, he’ll more than likely let you kick it there until you can figure some shit out. “But you better not snore… and wash your fucking feet, corn chip smelling ass.” Ah… Tough love. We ALL need it sometimes. And there’s no better combo of tough and love that I can think of than my good friend, Block (shortened from Blockhead, so the story goes. But you go ahead and call him that – I dare you). Yes, the years have piled up, but ain’t nothing changed. We’re older, wiser, and more rickety and injury-laden, but we’re still standing. And though our schedules are busy, we always make it a point to reconnect, break bread, blaze one, and ponder what has passed and what’s to come. Just like we did this morning. Why not let Tokewell come along? We just kicking’ it. So now, ladies and germs, allow me to introduce photographer, filmmaker, DJ, raconteur, party-starter (and ender) and dear friend of mine for over 30 years (fanfare time – Da-dada- da!!!), Block.
Don: I still remember when we met. It was in 1984 I went to Cal Arts and we met there. Of course, I had known of you before I knew you. You were notorious. (Laughs). How did you end up there?
Block: I had a teacher named Larry Shapiro in high school who was attending Cal Arts at the time as a student. He was also teaching at Otis Parsons School of Art and Design and he was really influential in getting his high school students to get into Art School. He really liked my work and pushed me to go to school, so by the time I graduated, I had full scholarship offers to Otis Parsons, San Francisco Arts, and Cal Arts, but he pushed me towards Cal Arts. I was into photography and shooting. Back then it was film, so black and white film, and I was just learning how to shoot. Portraits were a common subject. I would just shoot my homeboys and have fun; we just got creative with it. I was really into it at the time.
Don: You have this reputation to the point where people call you “The Unofficial Mayor of Venice.”
Block: It’s an underlying joke. I really don’t know what it takes to be a mayor but I think the name came because I was always mediating things between friends. If somebody had issues, it was always, “Go talk to Block.” I think that just came because I lived in my Venice house my whole life, and if I couldn’t help them, then I knew who to talk to. We would all get together at my house to build skate ramps and that formed a bond with a lot of people.
Don: I think your photography really grabs people because of the relationship between you and the people you shoot – even when you used to shoot me. You always had a relationship with your subjects. Was that something you were taught?
Block: The way we grew up, honesty was everything and being truthful was everything. Imitation wasn’t happening at the time, it was about being true to yourself. The visual interpretation is just the representation of the relationship you have to the subject and how honest you both are willing to be. My parents died when I was 12, so I just had older brothers and sisters. One of my brothers had gotten ahold of some cameras and I asked him for one, it was a Canon ae1. He was in a gang, so he gave me the camera if I agreed to shoot him and the clique. I started shooting my brother and lowriders and my teacher said, “You gotta keep doing this. Where are you shooting these?” I told him they were from my house and I thought I was going to get in trouble! (Laughs). I never set out to be a “skate photographer,” I just was a skateboarder myself and so were my friends, so I was just shooting what we were doing. Christian [Hosoi] was really easy to shoot as a skateboarder. Shooting with him made it seem so effortless. Christian sent me on a few trips with him as a photographer, and I was able to have a few of our shoots turned into published ads. It was crazy; the first time I ever flew was on a plane to Japan with Christian, I was 21 years old. People liked our shoots and Thrasher offered me a position as a staff photographer, but I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want anyone to own my negatives, and if you work for a magazine, that’s usually how it works. I instead became a contributing photographer and that’s how I have always done it, I don’t want anyone to own all of my work.
Don: Yeah, but you knew where to be to catch those moments. It’s that knowledge of your subjects. You knew where to be to catch those moments. You’ve gone from shooting your friends into the music thing, how did that take off ?
Block: You’re right; it’s about being comfortable with people. There was a music editorial piece in Thrasher on The Pharcyde, so I got to shoot them and that started me in the music photographer. Their manager, Paul Stewart, went to Venice so it was just us relinking in a sense. He ran a street promotions team called Power Move Promotions and wanted me to shoot the staff. So I got to know them, and eventually, they all branched off to different labels so they always kept me in mind to do artist shoots. I ended up going from shooting my brother and lowriders and homies to shooting Snoop Dogg in the studio. It was just Snoop and Daz and everybody, but shooting all the rap studio stuff was no different for me than hanging and shooting with my own friends. That’s how that took off. It was about being around, being social, having people like you and feel comfortable with you.
Don: I think you can’t also discount the fact that you are talented and good and what you do. These people are not gonna back you for anything that is to be publicized if you don’t have the goods.
Block: We all see things differently, all of us. Your reality is different from my reality. As far as talent, I view my photography talent as just my perspective. It doesn’t mean I’m super talented, I just see things the way I see things.
Don: But you’ve also never been afraid to put yourself out there and try different things.
Block: There’s a lot of death in my family. My mom and my three brothers died in that house. People are like “Block, you gotta have a plan.” I’m like, “I buried a lot of people who had plans. I’ve cleaned out their places.” Whether you live or pass early, It’s just your destiny. There are no promises. Your plans can get short at any time, so I learned that you gotta live for the moment.
Don: How did you get involved with directing the “Rising Son” documentary on Christian Hosoi?
Block: The film was something that I was close to. People don’t realize I was skateboarding for him and traveling around with him and he was always there for me and supported the things I had done. When he got in trouble, I started putting together a portfolio of all the ads; the work, his accomplishments and I had approached him in jail. I was working on a film called “Project Street,” which never came out, but Rhino films was funding that and they liked the Hosoi idea. They gave me a $5000 retainer fee to go and get funds for it, and I wanted to get him some money for his lawyers and so forth. I talked to Christian and he was good with it, so I started reaching out. The Pony athletic wear brand was coming back out and using Pete Rose and Jack Tatum in “comeback ads” like “what happened to these athletes/what happened to Pony?” They were warm to Christian and I was able to get some money for him. We did some layouts with existing photos I had of him and at the end of the day, they chose not to run them because of his drug offense. Still, it was enough to get started on the film and it was really well received. It was my first film. I also shot the music video for “Runnin” by The Pharcyde. Then I shot one for Frost and it kept going but the processes taught me about production. I worked with a bunch of talented friends.
Don: The documentary was really well done. To your credit, you did what a filmmaker is supposed to do in holding the film to the fire and making it honest and not just showing certain biased aspects.
Block: You said, “You’re a good storyteller, you really know how to tell a story”. That meant something to me, especially because I only worked with still images. The story wasn’t just about skateboarding; it was about a man; it was about my friend.
Don: You’ve had more experience than people twice your age. You’ve gone to every corner of the globe with your craft – which is even more amazing for those of us who really know you. (Laughs).
Block: Yeah, because I don’t have a car! (Both laugh). I don’t have a license; I haven’t driven a car in ten years!
Don: I know, because I still have to pick you up! (Both laugh again). It’s like “”Driving Miss Block,” and shit.
Block: I just appreciate how everybody has always been there for me. When I broke my leg skateboarding, people would come by and bring me food or juice or whatever. These guys would all look out for me. I’d have my camera set up and you would come in and I would yell, “Celebrity Food Delivery!!!” (Laughs) Working and being friends with vastly different people has definitely helped me in traveling for work though. I can remain focused on the work but still care about the people around me and pick up different things from them. My traveling has all been through photography, doors have opened and even when I am totally different than the environments, people like the work. On any set, I’m the type to get up out of my hotel room and go meet the other workers. You gotta make an effort and a lot of times that ends up helping to get you the next job. Not in a sense of being fake, but I am there to work and so are other people, why not get to know them? You’ve gotta bring something to the table and my mentality has always been “I’m gonna bring the whole table!”
Don: It has been pretty interesting just to see the progression in how some of our friends’ lives have ended up working out.
Block: Yeah, our circle has just always evolved. I remember when Don moved to Venice after school. His first role was as “Rocket” in Colors. My photography matures as their career matures and the photos have become that much more meaningful for all of us.
Don: We did an eleven-person play of Hamlet one time; with all these different professional actors and we put Block in there. (Both laugh). Let’s talk a little bit about the changes you’ve seen here. You’ve been in Venice your whole life. Now Google is down here, there’s gentrification everywhere. What’s your take on it? Is there change for good and bad?
Block: The community is benefitting from the resources and revenue coming into this. I grew up on The Horizon my whole life in the same house and the changes are for the better. My friends died, there were drug dealers on my street, pimps and hookers growing up, houses were boarded up, empty lots; it was run down. I see my nieces growing up in Venice now and having a much different experience. It’s about knowing the right people. I thought to own a home in my own neighborhood made me feel legit in Venice, but starting my own business, Venice Originals, and employing people, I got a different level of respect from other business owners that I went and supported and they started coming in and supporting my store. I’m not getting rich off it or selling Ferraris, but it’s cool to walk around and have people love my shirts. I did a whole campaign for Venice Originals and I used all people who lived in Venice. For actors, I shot you and Danny Trejo, and then I did Robert Trujillo from Metallica and Louiche Mayorga and Mike Clark from Suicidal Tendencies. I shot Peter Destefano from Porno For Pyros and Perry Farrell, too. I also shot Brandon Boyd from Incubus. They all lived in Venice and my whole concept behind that was to get my friends together. It’s not just showing how tightly knit everybody is, it’s going to be something bigger.
Don: How long has it been since you started the Venice Originals store?
Block: I’ve had the store eight years now. Venice Originals is something that is a product of the history of the place. There was a partially developed area that was a part of this oil company’s plans for a cemented community picnic and activities area. That area went through a bunch of changes and when the oil company left, they tore down the pavilion and left two million dollars for the city to revamp the place. Petitions started about what should be built in its place and since the Dogtown movie brought about a realization that Venice is one of the meccas of skateboarding, we helped raise the voice needed to make it a skate park. We all decided to pay homage to the older guys’ companies, by putting their names and companies up on it, but it felt like a great accomplishment for us to help put up a $2.5 million dollar skatepark here. I feel like, when it’s all said and done, we made our mark and it feels good.
Click here to see the entire issue.