INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY JIM MURPHY
PHOTOS BY ROBIN S. AND HANK FOTO
When I was 15, I remember hearing about a halfpipe sitting over in Fort Monmouth, NJ, about 12 miles from my house. So I hopped on my bike threw my board and pads into a bag and took off to find the ramp. After passing through the gates of the fort, and all the military housing, my heart started racing after I saw a halfpipe in a field in the distance with sounds off boards pumping the transitions. When I pulled up to the ramp, I saw three guys skating with homemade Sex Pistols shirts and shaved heads – full on punkers, back in the day when it was not cool to stick out. Jef Hartsel, Brad Constable, and Steve Herring were the most influential skaters in my life and the best friends I ever had. I owe a lot to them and it was their determination and integrity that helped make me who I was. They were the true definition of “non-conformists”. It’s great to interview one of the dirty Jersey original Fort Monmouth crew, Cherry Hill weekend warrior and Alva posse member, my friend Jef Hartsel.
“Punk rock worked for us. We didn’t have to be something to be someone. You could actually drop out of something and be part of something.”
Yo, Jef. What’s up?
What’s up, Murf?
Let’s start with your name, rank and serial number.
Well, I have lots of names, but the name that you and most know me by is Jef Hartsel, although, my birth name in Japan is Tetsuya Amano. When I moved to America, my stepfather and mother got married and I became Jef Hartsel. Even though I was born and raised in Japan, I’m of Japanese-Korean descent, so I have a Korean name too, which is Chong, which translates in the Japanese language as Zen. My rank and serial number would be low-life skateboarder, student of life and seeker of many experiences.
[Laughs.] What year were you born?
Was that in Okinawa?
No, I was actually born in Atami City in Japan. It’s the closest, largest resort town south of Tokyo. I was born and raised in a small fishing town called Manazuru on the ocean.
Sweet. How long were you there?
I lived there until I was five and a half, and then I left my real father’s home and moved to my mother’s home. Shortly after, we moved to the United States. This was around 1971.
Were you brought up speaking Japanese?
My first language was Japanese. I was born and raised in that environment in the ’60s. I remember watching Speed Racer on black and white TV when I was little. I went to a Japanese school, just like a normal kid would, and then we moved to America.
Where did you go?
The first place that we moved to was Charleston, SC. My father was in the Navy and there was a big shipyard there, so that’s where we first settled. It’s kind of ironic because in the same housing that I grew up in, decades after, Brad Constable, a good bro of ours and one of our early mentors from the Ft. Monmouth ramp days, ended up moving there. This was years later, after we had all moved away from Jersey. B.C. would send me photos of him skating in my old neighborhood. Recently, I met the artist Shepard Fairey. He’s from Charleston and he was telling me that he and his friends that were skating together at the time were mad influenced by B.C too. Even skate greats like Blaize Blouin rolled with B.C. Never forget.
Oh, yeah, big time.
It’s kind of trippy.
What was it like growing up in Japan and speaking Japanese and then coming to America? Did you have to immerse yourself in the English language?
Well, yeah. I learned how to speak English from watching Saturday cartoons. I was eating pop tarts and reading cereal boxes. I was going for the prize. At the same time, it was the ’60s and ’70s. It wasn’t too long after WWII. How was it for an Asian boy trying to fit in as an Asian American boy? Well, the first English word that I learned in school was “chink”.
Were kids coming at you like that?
Yeah. Kids can be brutal. At the same time, kids are not afraid to point out differences. Aside from etiquette, consideration and all of these things that we learn, kids are just kids. In the long run, I think that was a good thing because that helped me accept and develop who I am today. Skateboarding was a perfect match for me. I felt like a misfit from the get-go. During those days, I was the only Asian kid in my school.
Is that where you first grabbed a skateboard, in Charleston?
No. Actually, from Charleston, our family moved to the Philippines. That’s where I first saw and rode a skateboard.
Wow. How was that?
Well, I remember when the Big Thrilla in Manila was happening with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. I was there. I remember the day of that match. I was walking around in the dirt rows of the Philippines and hearing the fight going off from the radios in the houses around the neighborhood. I was excited about that. The big bicentennial year happened while we were there, too. The first time I ever saw a skateboard was in 1975 in the Philippines. An older
American boy had a Black Knight skateboard with clay wheels and Chicago trucks. It was the craziest thing. That kid’s name was the Gooch.
I’d never seen or heard of a skateboard, but the day that I saw that thing, I knew what it was. Living in the Philippines, we were so far away from mainstream America. The skateparks were just starting to boom in America and I was clueless to all of that. We didn’t have NBC and CBS in the Philippines. The Philippines were far from the level of where they could import skateboards, so my first skateboard wasn’t even my skateboard. It was Gooch’s board. I would hang out in the street and wait for this guy to show up with his skateboard so I could ride.
The first thing we did was to fill up Coke cans with sand or water and slalom through them down the street. At that point, I was playing a lot of organized team sports, because that’s all I knew. No one else was really skateboarding, so it was baseball, basketball and soccer. Then one day I met this 18-year-old dude that was in the Air Force stationed in the Philippines. I was skating on my little fiberglass board, which I ended up getting about a year after I saw that first skateboard. I immediately became a skateboarding fanatic. I was driving my parents crazy.
[Laughs.] I know how that goes.
Sure enough, I got my first skateboard that Christmas. It was a nightmare for my parents, because I was off skateboarding every day. I stopped going to baseball practice and playing organized sports altogether.
Were your parents bummed?
I think they were more bummed that I wasn’t studying.
So you were skating with this 18-year-old Air Force dude?
Yeah, I was skating by myself in front of this bowling alley. I was out there tic-tacing around and this guy comes up and says, “Hey, can you do a handstand?” I was like, “What?” I thought he was clowning me. Then he grabbed my board and did a handstand.
What went through your head when you saw that?
I was like, “Holy shit!” It was the greatest illusion that I’ve ever seen. It was weird too, because I was into practicing magic tricks when I was a kid. When I saw that, it was the greatest illusion of them all. I guess he was so stoked to see this little brown kid in the Philippines skateboarding, that he wanted to take me skateboarding. He said, “Hey, I skate too. I’ll take you and show you some skateboarding stuff.” I was like, “Yeah?” So I went with him to the barracks and then he threw the first Skateboarder at me.
I was tripping out. I didn’t even know that such a thing as a skateboard magazine existed. I had just discovered the skateboard. Then this dude blows me away doing a handstand and then he throws this skateboard magazine at me. And he had a skateboard that was just like the pictures in the mag. I was like, “Wow, this dude is the shit.”
Hell, yeah. Do you remember seeing any pool skating shots in the mag?
I remember the cover had fallen off and the first thing I saw was the Kanoa Surf ad. It had a whole quiver of boards right there. It was ridiculous. It was like 7-11 on steroids.
[Laughs.] It was cool to see all of those boards.
Yeah, that guy sparked it in me. Skateboarding has been on the foreground of my consciousness since. There were times when that hurt me more than it helped me, but there are times when skateboarding saved me when otherwise I would have been crushed. I think most skateboarders have been there and know what I mean.
Where did you go from the Philippines? Did you go skate anything with that dude?
After meeting that dude, two things had to happen. I had to upgrade my skills and my gear. The ways things worked for a military grom was that your dad got his orders and every three years you packed up and moved. I’d lived three years in Charleston and then the Philippines for three years. From there, the next place for our family to go was Okinawa.
To me, that was like moving to Hawaii. You make an association quickly, especially growing up in the ’70s, that skateboarding and surfing went hand-in-hand. Maybe a lot of that was because there weren’t many skate shops and everything was mail order from Val Surf and Kanoa Surf and those kinds of places. I stared at those pages so much.
[Laughs.] How old were you when you moved to Okinawa?
I was around 12 or 13 years old. I was getting closer to my teens and started to figure things out as far as riding a skateboard. During those days, everyone had Town and Country stickers on their boards. That’s where I made the association with Hawaii. I was like, “Oh, we’re moving to an island.” Little did I know it was an island close where I was born in Japan. I had skateboarding on the brain. I knew that there weren’t that many skaters in the Philippines, so I thought that Okinawa might be a good place.
It did end up being a place where my skateboarding took off a little more. My highlights in Okinawa were skating to see my first skateboard movie, which was FreeWheelin’ with Stacy Peralta. I went to see that thing with this haole friend of mine, Nathan Great. He was a dope skater. Back then we all looked at those mail order ads to see what kind of quiver we’d choose for ourselves and Nathan always chose a board that I thought was not my first choice, but I remember he had gotten a Jay Adams set up with Yo-yo’s. It was a blue fiberglass board. He really influenced me a lot. I think he’d moved from California to Okinawa, so he was already doing tail taps and wearing Rector gloves when I met him. It was a rad thing for me at that age. I was already reading Skateboarder magazine, and the Dogtown articles were an enigma. It didn’t look like an ad. It didn’t look like a contest article. It wasn’t a profile. It was some other shit.
It was lifestyle.
Later on, I figured it out. Stecyk has become one of my mentors and major influence in my adult life as an artist, and he was the guy writing those articles and infecting my brain with it. With the Dogtown psyche in place, I saw my first half pipe in Okinawa. Every day, I would take this bus to school and see this one building that had a half pipe on top. The weirdest thing is that it was on the roof of this seven-story building. I kept trying to find the place, so one day I was exploring and ended up at a surf shop in that area. That little shop was amazing because they stocked one set of blue Kryptonic wheels and I used to go there just to smell them and look at them. After I met the guys that worked there, it was obvious to them that I was into it, but I had no money to buy shit. I used to go there all the time, and then one day they said, “We’re going to take you somewhere.” And they took me to that building with the half pipe.
It was crazy, because it wasn’t actually a half pipe. It was a U pipe with no flat bottom. In your mind, you know you want to get to the lip, but there’s that dilemma of how to do fakies and how to get speed. The ramp was kind of thrashed and the guys that took me there were mostly surfers, but I ended up meeting a couple of guys that skated. Then I heard about a ditch that was a 40-minute bus ride away, and that became our main spot. To this day, that’s still one of the raddest skate spots I’ve ever been to. The craziest thing was that this ditch was a run-off ditch from a mortuary. There were days when we couldn’t skate because there was this weird embalming fluid running down through the bottom.
It was some wild shit. There was a local Okinawa kid that was a surfer and his name was Kenjo. He looked just like Shogo Kubo. He had long black hair and was one of the first Asian dudes I’d seen shred. He used to shred barefoot. He was definitely a surfer. The only Asian dude I’d seen in the mags back then was Shogo and Wally Inouye. I couldn’t really differentiate between Japanese, Korean to Filipino then, but I saw that brown skin people were into skateboarding, too. It’s ultimately a youth thing. It captures the imagination of some of the youth, regardless of race. From Okinawa, we moved to Jersey.
[Laughs.] Oh, yeah. I used to hate that place and then I learned to love it.
Did you have any concept of where you were going when they told you that you were moving to Jersey? Did you have any idea what you were getting into?
Well, Okinawa was a beautiful place. I grew up free diving in the ocean, surfing and boogie boarding, but ultimately, I was a mad skateboard head. I was at that age where I was just getting into music too. I used to love KISS and Parliament Funkadelic. I grew up with a mix of music. I was smart enough to start looking at the addresses of these places where I wanted to buy a board in the skate mags. I was looking at the names of the cities that had skateparks. I had never been to California, but I knew about places like Alameda because of the photos in the mag. Back then, you couldn’t just Google shit. All you had was the yellow pages and you started your way from the skate shops.
We had the mags and that’s what we lived on. Were you dialing in on Jersey and what would be there?
That takes me to the Monster Bowl. I knew before I moved to Jersey that there was a placed called the Monster Bowl and a place called Fiber Rider. These were places that you and I ended up skating later on.
That was pre-Cherry Hill, right? You showed up in ’77 or ’78?
Yeah. The year that I got into Edison Junior High School in Jersey, I remember walking to the gym and I bumped into this black kid. He had a Muir Bigfoot with wide ass Indys. Back then when you saw a pair of Tracker Full Tracks they looked like monster trucks, but then I see this dude with the Bigfoot set-up. It just showed me that skateboarding progresses and moves quickly. In the time that I had moved from Okinawa where I was riding 7-inch boards and watching guys like Jay, TA and Stacy, suddenly, skateboarding had gone full blown with the pig boards. That guy was the first one to mention the Monster Bowl to me. He ended up taking me to this quarter pipe with a long runway. These guys were already doing hands down tail taps and things like that. I was riding the ditch in Okinawa and figuring out how to do frontside rail grabs and tail taps, but these guys in Jersey blew me away. I had to front like I was on their level. I was like, “This is America. This is the real shit. I’m not a kid anymore.” I had to stand out. I had to represent.
Were you based in Fort Monmouth at the time?
No, we hadn’t even moved to Fort Monmouth yet. We first lived in Edison, right across the street from Rutgers University. I think Mike Vallely grew up in the same hood.
Is there a base in Edison?
No, a lot of times, we didn’t live on base at first. There was always a waiting list. We would live in the real “economy”, so we really got a taste of these places we lived in. It was rough on my folks, too. You had to move from base to base, and then as a family, you had to go from town to town and check into schools and things like that. Functioning was kind of hard. In Jersey, skateboarding wasn’t that popular then. There were skaters, but we were at the age where none of us had a car, so we went everywhere on bikes.
That’s right. We’d ride our bikes 20 miles to go skate a quarter pipe.
A 20-mile bike ride sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. We would do that in the snow, rain and sleet.
You had to do what you had to do to ride trannie.
I just recently went to a pool here in Hawaii that Gary Owens took me to. It was a sick amoeba. It was bright as hell in the middle of the day with the Hawaiian sun. I was telling those guys, how it’s still trippy for me skating a pool in broad daylight. Growing up in Jersey, we were already into skating pools, but I can’t remember one pool that we got to skate before 10pm. Do you remember all of those night sessions?
[Laughs.] Oh, yeah.
You couldn’t even see the coping. It was more by feeling it. We were more worried about getting busted than anything else.
We were watching out for the security guards with baseball bats.
Dude, what about the cops? They would beat your ass and then shoot you.
That was Long Branch style. It was old school Italian style.
Exactly. You don’t see any Domino’s pizza in that area.
[Laughs.] That’s right. They’ve got Luigis there, and you’re going to like it!
Exactly. As a matter of fact, that’s where I first got a job. I started working at Italian joints. I was making sauce, cutting cheese and spinning dough for pizza, just like our man Russ and Dean of Underdog in Belmar Beach. Those guys had it going on with their punk and skate scene. Russ’ family used to own the kill pizza joint. I think for all of us, it was all part of adapting, evolving and part of survival as youth. In retrospect, skateboarding was evolving too, but every one of us skaters was separated. I think punk rock music helped keep us together then, because there were no skateparks or venues for us to meet. If you were lucky, you’d meet up with someone at a half pipe, but we all definitely met at the punk gigs or the record store. That was mainly because those musicians skated too.
Well, let’s talk about when you moved to the Fort Monmouth area? How did you meet Brad and Steve?
There was this black skater named Leon in my school. He was a tall, skinny dude that used to ride a red, black and green Shogo Kubo board. He introduced me to those guys. Once we all got together as a crew, it just grew from there. We skated everything too. We were already skating on the banks of rooftops, bombing the heaviest hills and street skating all through the day and night.
I know you guys worked with the military to get a half pipe built on the base, right?
Yeah. Steve’s father was an engineer for the Army at Ft. Monmouth. Brad’s dad was in the Navy. My dad was in the Navy. We all lived in the same neighborhood. I remember Steve’s dad used to drive us to Cherry Hill a lot. Steve’s step-dad had something to do with connecting with the Core of Engineers and, eventually, had the half pipe funded for us. Our whole point was, “There are basketball courts, tennis courts and baseball diamonds, but there’s nothing for us to skate.” Once we got that ramp up, it was on.
You guys got the U.S. military to build you a half pipe on a U.S. military base. That’s nuts. I don’t know of anyone else that was pulling that off at that point.
It was probably one of the first, for sure. Now every military base all over the world has beautiful skateparks on them.
As a kid that had just moved to Jersey from Okinawa were you blown away by that halfpipe?
It was unbelievable. And we got to design it, pool coping and all! Actually, I think we stole the pool coping and put it on ourselves. We really have to give it up to Steve Herring for having that vision. He always had that vision of building ramps and having a skate commune where we could share land, farm, build, skate and be self-sufficient. We were like that movie Into the Wild, but with skateboards. We were digging trenches in the woods so that we’d have some place to hang out when we weren’t skateboarding.
Well, when I rolled up on your scene, I literally rode my bike ten miles to get there. I pulled up on my bike and saw three guys with buzz-cuts with homemade Sex Pistols t-shirts. I was like, “Holy shit!” I was so stoked. You guys were punk.
[Laughs.] We were definitely the byproduct of what was going on in America and the world at the time. Also, being military kids, we didn’t want to be labeled as all of the things being thrown on us. Punk rock worked for us. We didn’t have to be something to be someone. You could actually drop out
of something and be part of something.