TOM “WALLY” INOUYE

TOM

INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS BY GLEN E. FRIEDMAN and JON YUNKER

 

Surf to skate, skate to surf… The way it is, the way it always will be, for some. You can add snowboarding to the list as well. This is the world of Tom ‘Wally’ Inouye. Style seems an important component to the ’70s of yesteryear… something that was lost, and forgotten as the ’80s and the future made it’s way into now. Wally was what style is: looking good, feeling even better and being able to back it with talent. ‘TORA TORA TORA!’ That statement says everything Wally stands for.

“WE SAW GREGG WEAVER SKATING A POOL, BUT WALDO WAS THE FIRST PERSON I SAW GOING OVER THE LIGHT AND OVER THE STAIRS. WE WERE JUST EMULATING SURFING AND PICKING UP TRICKS. EVEN WITH THE SLASH FRONTSIDE GRIND, WE WERE JUST PICTURING THAT WE WERE SPRAYING THE GUY ON THE DECK.”

So what’s your name?
Thomas J. Inouye. ‘Wally’ is my nickname.

I was just talking to this guy and he asked me if you were the first guy to do a wall ride.
Well, back then when we were skateboarding, we weren’t thinking about trying any new tricks and getting them named. We were just hitting the top of the pool. We were just trying to do off the lips, like we’d do on a wave. In seventh grade, we were skateboarding at our school. There was a wall there that was six feet. It went up three feet, then it went 45 degrees and then it went back up another three feet. We were trying to ride up the wall and get a one-wheeler off the three-foot high part and come down. I was the only kid that did it. So my friends were like, ‘Wally!’

So your nickname is from wall riding?
Yeah. This guy named Gary Zack started calling me ‘Wally’ and then everyone at school started calling me ‘Wally’. I never related it to that trick, but that’s what happened. I was doing wall rides early on. That was right in between the clay and urethane wheels time.

I never knew that.
Everyone in skateboarding knows me as ‘Wally’. It’s hard to say who invents stuff. Who invented the air? A lot of people were doing airs. I was doing backside airs at Reseda. Jay was throwing frontside airs at Reseda. He would make one every now and then. I would make some. I first saw Steve Cathey and Doug Saladino flying out of a bowl at Home Valley. Then I started thinking, ‘I wonder if I can fly out and come back in.’ So I started working on that. I did one on opening day at Reseda, which was the perfect place for it.

Did you hit the first bowl and the second bowl?
I’d carve the first one and then cut into the second and third bowl like a loop and then hit the fourth bowl.

If you’re hitting the second bowl, you’re carving frontside. You’re regular footed. You would hit it backside and loop it like an alley-oop.
Yeah. It’s a loop-type air, not an alley-oop where you travel backwards. The Dogtown documentary came out and everyone was arguing about who did what first. It wasn’t about that. We were just trying to get airs. Jerry Valdez was the first person I saw doing a tailblock. We saw Gregg Weaver skating a pool, but Waldo was the first person I saw going over the light and over the stairs. We were emulating surfing and picking up tricks. Even with the slash frontside grind, we were picturing spraying the guy on the deck.

It was just like hitting the lip of a wave.
The 5-0 grind is just like a floater.

Skating and surfing were brothers. You skated because you surfed and that was it.
Most of my skateboarding influences were surfers.

Who were your surfing influences?
Lopez, B.K., Fitzgerald, all the Hawaiians, Reno, and James Jones. When I started pulling out of the pipe at Pipeline, I was emulating Lopez getting spit out of Pipeline. It wasn’t about the reality of flying out of a pipe. In my mind, I was surfing huge Pipeline.

That is so righteous.
It’s like that picture of me at Anaheim with the bloody knee. I was imitating Mark Richards at Haleiwa with the red-railed, yellow Lighting Bolt board. His knee was just jammed up in his chin. That’s what I wanted to do.

You developed your own style. Your influences are apparent to me. Surfing was your influence. It’s not like you wanted to skate like Bruce Logan.
[Laughs] Well, the first trick I learned on a skateboard was the cross-step. This was before we learned nose wheelies or, what they now call ‘manuals’.

They’re still wheelies. A manual is coming up off an ollie into a wheelie. It’s a wheelie. When did you start skating?
1966. I really got into it in ’69. That’s when I started surfing and really started skateboarding. We were living in East LA and going to Huntington Beach on the weekends to surf. I grew up in a very hilly area, so we had a place to skate. We could skate and pretend we were surfing.

What about surfing under bushes? A good bush is nice.
[Laughs] You’re in the barrel. Even a brick wall can be a barrel, if you ride it right. I still do that today when I’m skating down the street. I’m always looking for the barrel to ride.

I was skating to get some coffee and saw this bush on the sidewalk. It was too low to get under, so I dragged my hand and lifted it up. It was a palm frond thing and I ripped up my hand so hard that I was bloody. I was having such a good skate. Why did I try to surf?
[Laughs]

Someone said, ‘Why are you putting your hand in the bush?’ I was like, ‘You’ll never, in a million years, understand why I was skating with my hand in the palm frond.’
[Laughs]

So you’re skating and surfing. Then the surfboard was in a revolution of coming down in size.
Yes, it was. The first surfboard we surfed was 10-feet long. I carried the nose and my buddy carried the tail. Luckily, my buddy’s dad surfed when he was younger and he played linebacker for USC, so we would have him carry two boards for us. We were only ten. My first single fin short board was 7’2′.

There was a revolution going on in surfing and skating. I think they affected each other.
It definitely did. We learned how to surf shore break at Huntington Pier. We’d have our parents drive us there at five in the morning and drop us off. They’d come back at five in the evening to pick us up. That’s when I really gravitated toward skateboarding. I was watching Bobby Neishi, Russ Howell and Skitch Hitchcock.

Ed Nadalin.
Chewy was there. Everyone was skating the banks. Those were the people that influenced my skateboarding, but I saw them in the water first.

Neishi could surf.
Chewy was the king of the south side.

I know them all well. Neishi had a sick style. You both have sick style and flow. I always wondered why Asian dudes had such good style.
Well, maybe the Oriental or Asian way of being brought up is different. Most of my friends were white kids. Their parents were burly contractors and manual laborers. The kids were fighters. Most of us Oriental kids grew up learning karate. Fighting wasn’t the way to be. It was better to be mellow. I think it does correlate with the Asian flow of things.

You had sick style. Shogo had sick style. Roy Jamison had sick style. Aki Akiyama had cool style.
Back then, style mattered.

Why was style so important?
To me, style came with making things look easy. Growing up and watching these guys surf, made you want to make it look easy and cool. When Neishi was getting barreled, he made it look easy. He just stood there calmly, instead of fighting it. I could compare our styles, Olson. You ride your skateboard more on the edge, but stay in complete control. You have that surf style. In a competition sense, my frontside grind and your frontside grind are the same, but you make yours look so much more gnarly.

Um. Maybe it’s because I’m heavier.
[Laughs] It looks like you’re getting ready to fall off sometimes, but you’re always in control.

Where were you riding? Did you have a bunch of dudes that you rode with?
We had a crew that all went surfing together and then we all skated together, too. We all hung out. It was Tim Barbell, Deano, Bill Macafree and Olin Ison. A few of my friends skated better than I did. I was just fortunate that Dale Smith, the sausage man, went out with my sister’s friend.

No.
Yeah.

[Laughs] What do you mean? The sausage man went out with your sister’s friend?
Yeah.

Is he from here in LA?
He’s from LA, but he lived in Seal Beach then. He came to our house and saw me skateboarding and brought his skateboard out.

Did he dance for you?
[Laughs] He tried to get me to do a dance routine with him.

He did not.
He did. I was like, ‘That’s not going to cut it for me.’ He taught me a lot of freestyle stuff, and then he started taking me to contests. He took me to Steve’s South Bay Contest. He was the one that motivated me to start jumping off picnic tables and stuff like that.

So Dale was a coach early on?
Oh, yeah. He took me to the Vermont Drop and places like that. Before that, my friends and I would go see surf movies at the Santa Monica Civic. We’d all ride our skateboards there. I remember seeing Jay and Tony skating down there. I remember seeing all the Z-Boys skating into the Civic and going up on the stage and beating everyone. Then Super Sessions came out and everyone was skating Paul Revere. So we found that spot. We’d always heard about the Santa Monica crew being burly, because of POP pier. It was gnarly down there. The environment there was tough, so we would skate Kenter, Paul Revere and Bellagio at night.

Oh, really?
Yeah, we’d skate it at night when there was a full moon. We’d skate and then drive up to Santa Barbara and go surfing. By the time we got the courage to go skate it during the day, we had the place wired. We knew exactly what to do. We could go underneath the benches. We knew where to drop in and where not to drop in, so we never got hassled.

From my perspective, I never came from a crew of dudes, but I would see you when I was younger. I saw you hanging out with the guys from Santa Monica. I saw you hanging out with ‘The Worm’. Then I saw you hanging out with the guys from San Diego. You knew everyone. You were skating everywhere. You were able to bounce in and out of all these scenes.
[Laughs] Well, I grew up skating with Russ Howell and Skitch Hitchcock and crew. We were skating the Irvine bowl and Vermont Drop. I met ‘The Worm’ and Waldo at Vermont Drop. In ’72, we heard about this tube in the mountains. That was Mt. Baldy. It took us six months to find it.

How was it when you finally found it?
I have movies, Steve. I was barely carving up quarter of the way.

[Laughs] You had loose ball bearing wheels. It was insane. It was utopia.
I think we came down the rope to get down. There was a rope that went straight down.

We jumped, but the rope sounds much smarter.
[Laughs] We heard about pools back then, too. I was lucky my friend had a car, so we would go and search out pools.

You were seriously searching, on a pioneer level, for a pool. You may have had some weird directions with no street names.
It was like, ‘Take the third left and look for graffiti.’

[Laughs] It’s bizarre to me that we pulled off things like that in that time zone.
I think it was because we were in search of waves, too. It was the same thing as finding surf spots. All the surf movies were about surfing for the adventure. That’s where we got it.

That makes sense.
I skate a lot of my favorite places by full moon or by lantern.

Why?
We knew that we were going into other people’s territory. We knew how protective we were of our territory. It was all surf-related. You had to protect your beach. We heard stories of all kinds, but the basic idea was, ‘If you don’t live here, you don’t surf here.’ It was the same with skating. So we’d go places and skate at night. The first time I skated the keyhole was at night.

You got in on the pool scene early on.
The first pool we skated was my next-door neighbor’s pool. I was still riding clay wheels, so we weren’t even thinking about hitting the top then. Then we had these three public pools in a two-mile radius. Two were heated and one was not heated. Nine months out of the year, it would get drained and the lights would come on, so we were skating this big Olympic-sized swimming pool with lights.

You also got to ride all the ditches.
There was the Brea Spillway.

What an insane, perfectly-built thing for kids and their toys.
It’s gnarly. I left a lot of skin there. There was Suicide Alley in the Lakewood area. It’s a super narrow ditch with a super steep wall. I also skated the Super Bowl and the Toilet Bowl. I skated the Benedict Canyon reservoir. I skated all the reservoirs off Mulholland Drive.

How were the reservoirs when you came across them? I’m sure they never thought that kids would be skateboarding in those things.
I went back recently and looked at them and wondered how we skated there with the equipment that we had then. I was a barefoot skater for a long time. Skitch Hitchcock showed me how to do the gorilla grip.

I can gorilla grip with the best of them.
I used to do that at Kenter. I did it in the pools a couple of times. This was pre-grip tape.

Your foot is very vulnerable to getting slammed when you’re skating barefoot.
We rode our BMX bikes barefoot. I think I rode a pool on a bike before I rode a pool on a skateboard. That’s how you got places, riding your bike.

Bikes looked like motorcycles to me as a kid. It was a crazy cool time to grow up.
Yeah, it was.

So you were riding loose ball bearing wheels. Then it goes from clay to urethane.
It was the best. The thing about clay wheels was that you’d make marks on the street. With urethane wheels, you couldn’t see your lines on the hill when you were practicing the loop for a 360 or something like that. It was night and day though, before and after the urethane wheel.

It was insane.
I was with a good group of kids. When Skateboarder magazine came out and we saw Gregg Weaver on it, we automatically had to go over the light because he wasn’t. When the ad came out with Dennis going 40mph in the Bahne ad, we had to go over 40mph. We found hills to bomb, and we were doing 50mph. I had a motorcycle and we were pulling each other with the motorcycle and going 60mph.

That’s insane.
We did a lot of downhilling.

We rode through cones.
I was okay in the cones, but I’d lose focus after 15 cones. I’d do La Costa, but I’d much rather bomb a blank hill than ride through the cones.

What about your first pool, when you could really ride? Where you owned it? You’re at the level where you’re going over the light, and then you’re at the level that you’re on top of the coping.
I think the pool where a lot of progression happened for me was the Fruit Bowl. I was going over the light and then going over the stairs. I was doing one-wheelers and so on.

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