‘Object of desire’

Five years ago Chris Culotta was carving time out of his 40-hour work week to skateboard before and after his shifts at a Baton Rouge bookstore.

His passion for more than 20 years, skateboarding was like an addiction.

“You find time for it,” he said. “If you don’t do it for a while, your body lets you know it’s time to go skate. You start getting depressed. Even if it was just rolling around, I needed to have that feeling.”

When the bookstore closed in 2008, Culotta, now 38, had the option to transfer to another store and keep working in retail. Or, he could act on his dream.

“It was time to put on my big boy pants,” Culotta said, starting to laugh.

Over the next year Culotta began building HeartThrob Skateboards and made his hobby a career. On Valentine’s Day 2009, HeartThrob officially launched, marketing skateboard decks to shops across the country.

In those four years, the Baton Rouge skateboard brand has become a symbol of hometown pride, said Andrew Ingram, manager of Rukus Board Shop on Jones Creek Road in Baton Rouge.

“This is ours,” Ingram said. “This is something we own. This is something that started here.”

Tall and lanky, Culotta earned the moniker “Bird” in high school when he and another guy one-upped each other with insulting nicknames. He was like Big Bird, he was told, and it stuck. But his real friends call him Chris, he said.

Culotta has used his company to advocate for skateboarding and help out younger skaters, Ingram said. He always finds ways to get his boards to kids who need them, Ingram said, saying of Culotta, “you want to give him a hug every time you see him.”

Raised in Baton Rouge, Culotta began skating seriously at 15. A couple of years before, he received a low-quality skateboard that “barely rolled,” he said. About two years later, he saw the cover of the August 1989 Thrasher magazine. A female skater was grabbing her board, flying out over a huge ramp.

“Everything about that picture, everything about skateboarding, just drew me in right there from that picture,” said Culotta, who still has the magazine. “I had to do it.”

That year his mother bought him a new board, a Powell-Peralta professional model that, now battered and chipped, leans against his fireplace.

He and his friends skated around their south Baton Rouge neighborhood, bombing down the small hill and sliding their boards across slick curbs. To buy his second board, Culotta’s mother forced him to choose between collecting comics and skating. He sold his comic book collection.

Back then, there were no dedicated skate parks in Baton Rouge, so Culotta and his friends became imaginative in finding skate spots. Any parking lot with concrete curbs could become a hangout.

“I can’t drive down the street without seeing a curb and picture a trick going down it,” he said. “It’s not a curb to me. It’s an obstacle or something to skate on. I guess skateboarding allowed me to see the world in a different way.”

Throughout high school and after graduation, the constant in his life was skateboarding. Others saw the skateboard as a child’s toy. His parents encouraged him to give it up and focus on school, but to Culotta the board offered him things nothing else could.

“If something bad was going on in my life, a relationship breakup with a girl or something, it was there for me,” he said. “I could ride it and forget about it. If I had any problems, it was there. Even when I was happy, it was there for me. It was my outlet. ... Skateboarding was mine, my own.”

After high school, Culotta tried college, then worked around Baton Rouge at restaurants.

In the late 1990s, Culotta met skaters on a professional team that came through town on a tour. He took a job with the team and ended up in California, “just trying to live the dream,” he said. When living the dream became too expensive, he returned to south Louisiana and took the bookstore job.

After the store closed, while planning his company, Culotta decided on the HeartThrob name. That word — heartthrob — came up again and again, mostly describing teenage fans’ feelings about pop stars. He felt the same way about skateboarding, he thought.

“It’s an object of desire,” he said. “If I could have a poster of it on the wall like the kids have of Justin Bieber, then that’s how I would feel about it. It’s my heartthrob.”

He learned about the industry during his stint in California, but “when it came to me running it, that was a whole other monster. Now, four years later, I’m still trying to figure it out.”

In his warehouse, which doubles as his bedroom in his south Baton Rouge home, cardboard boxes full of boards from a factory in California wait for shipment. One of the board’s graphics features a stylized heart with graffiti-style lettering. Another has the company name in lipstick-scrawled script, a reference to an album by rockers the New York Dolls.

Other board designs have become much sought-after art by some skaters. Paul Virga, a Baton Rouge skater, collected a four-board series that depicted voluptuous female versions of a zombie, a mummy, a Dracula-style vampire and Frankenstein’s monster. He hung them on his wall, then used one for skating and could not replace it. The series had sold out.

“Anything that comes out of here like this is the greatest, in my opinion,” Virga said during a break at the BREC skate park.

Culotta’s advertising strategy remains a grassroots effort. HeartThrob sponsors four young skateboarders, giving them merchandise, and Culotta travels to skate parks and contests often, donating skateboard decks for the winners.

So far his boards are sold at every skateboard shop in Louisiana and he has added shops in five other states.

He uses his reputation as a skate entrepreneur to advocate for the sport everywhere he can, appearing before city councils in requests to build skate parks and often starting petitions to keep parks open.

“Kids everywhere need skate parks,” Culotta said. “They provide a safe spot to practice skateboarding. It keeps kids out of trouble. It keeps the obesity level down. ... Not only that, it’s a cultural bridge. You see kids from every race, creed, gender all at one park, and they’re all just getting along. They’re just being human beings. They’re not fighting. We all have one common thread.”

Nearing his 40th birthday, Culotta has ankle problems from falling down stairs and back problems (neither skateboard-related, he said), so sometimes he must rest to skate another day. He is often asked how long he will keep it up.

“Until my legs fall off,” he said. “As long as I can physically do it, I’ll do it as long as I can. ... I’ll do it until the wheels fall off, I guess you could say.”