Darren Ho interview by Steve Olson
Photography by Jim Goodrich
Nice & easy does it, stylish & committed, pioneering individual… When it was discovered, one of the first to get it, for the love, and then some… Realizing the feeling, spreading the stoke, bringing T&C to the World, the World loving T&C, the skate world that is… From Dogtown to San Diego, and around the planet, it was to be had, Darren Ho had it, brought it, and split, never to be duplicated… Aloha my friend, an original if ever was, Thank you cuz… – INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Tachikawa, Japan. My dad was in the service and they had an airbase there.
Your dad was in the Air Force? Did he fly?
He did quite a bit. He did two tours in Nam.
My dad flew 91 missions in the Korean War.
Wow. My dad was up for 25 years. He didn’t want to retire, but they pretty much forced his ass out.
When did he get stationed in Hawaii?
He was stationed in Hawaii several times. On his last tour of duty, they gave him the choice to retire in Hawaii or Germany, so we stayed here. He became a mailman and we’ve been here ever since.
How old were you when you came to Hawaii?
I’d say I was about 10.
So you spent that much time in Japan?
Well, we were all over the place – Japan, California, Florida, Texas… We bounced around.
As a kid, did you play sports?
I did, off and on. I was an underweight little kid, so my dad put me in martial arts at a young age. He didn’t want to see me getting my ass kicked, because I would get jumped a lot on our travels, so martial arts became second nature to me. I’d rather lose a fight then go home and face my dad, so I took it seriously.
When did you start martial arts?
My dad put me in at age 5. Everywhere we’d go, my brother and I would get into trouble, so fights were secondary. I was small, so I needed to learn to fight.
I started off with Karate and then went to Judo and Taekwando, and finished off with Kung Fu. I went to Hong Kong a few times, and I was going to be in a martial arts movie. I did some things with the guy from Enter the Dragon. I did a lion dance and stuff.
What is a lion dance?
He does the head of the lion and I do the body. It was right after Enter the Dragon, so his popularity was huge. He was the villain and everyone recognized him. I was in awe when I met him. I was going to Hong Kong and learning under some famous people. I thought I was going to be the next big martial artist. I was deep into it.
Right. You were nimble too?
I was flexible. You have a lower center of gravity, when you’re tiny, so it just looks good compared to watching some six-foot tall guy do the same thing.
Were you competing too?
Yeah. Quite a bit. I had a really good thing going and a lot of opportunities that most people wouldn’t have gotten offered and I ran with it. It was great.
You were a badass martial arts kid before skateboarding?
Yeah. I think skating came on when everything came out in the magazines, with the Gregg Weaver cover, which was life-changing. It’s one of the most epic covers of all. Back then they used to show surf movies, like Five Summer Stories, and the skating in that movie was life-changing. I saw Roy Jamieson, who was a local skater, and his moment riding at Stoker Hill. I was like “I’ve got to do this.” When I saw the empty pool skating, my free time went from practicing martial arts every day to escaping to some drainage ditch to skate.
Did you ride clay wheels?
Yeah. I went to Logan Earth Ski when I saw Alva and Jay riding for them. Town & Country was the surf shop that had exposure to urethane. The first time I got exposed to urethane wheels was Stoker Wheels. We went up to this hill in Pearl City, they called it Cadillac Hill. The owner of Stoker Wheels took us up in a van and we were all getting wasted.
How old were you?
I was 13. We went up there and took the clay wheels off our boards and put Stoker wheels on and we were hill-bombing and trying to slide. It changed the whole game.
How did you get hooked with T&C?
I would see Roy Jamieson in freestyle skate demos.
Didn’t Roy ride for Stinger at one point?
He rode for Stinger, T&C, Hobie and California Pro. T&C was the one picking up the tab and sending him around. Roy was a legend and he had great style.
He ripped. I don’t know many people who know about Roy Jamieson.
He doesn’t get the kudos that he deserves. That’s why I’m trying to get him into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame. He deserves to be recognized.
Larry Bertlemann had a huge impact on a certain element of it too.
If you take it back to Bertlemann, Buttons, and Mark Liddell, and the whole surf thing at Kaiser Bowls and Ala Moana Bowls, these guys had style. The essence of it all starts over here in Hawaii.
How did you get hooked with T&C? You were a kid that showed potential?
Basically, Roy was a freestyler or slalom guy. When it came to vert, he wasn’t as comfortable. He was realizing that the contests were changing, and the parks were vert, and the contests were going to be vert. There was a pool in Pearl City, near Town & Country, maybe five minutes away. Town & Country used it as a testing ground whenever someone came from the mainland or pro surfers came over. From Gerry Lopez to Shaun Thompson, they all came to the Pearl City pool, and T&C would show off the local talent. Luckily, that pool was friendly to me and I got a good hang of it, so I was showing these guys. Roy told Town & Country, “If you want to go to the next level and stay in the game, give this kid love and let him represent you.”
Who were you skating with then?
I was doing the Z-Flex thing because I was living with Jay Adams. Kent Sherwood had picked me up.
Where were you living with Jay?
Santa Monica. I was living with Jay and Philaine. I went over there to ride Skatopia in an amateur contest. I did pretty well and caught some eyes, especially because I was from Hawaii, and it just worked from there. From Z-Flex came Tunnel and, with Tunnel, came Tracker. I was getting wheels and trucks and then I started getting shoes from Vans.
I never got any shoes.
Right place, right time. The changing point was when the Hester series was being thrown around. You knew that the sponsors could only have one or two riders. They weren’t going to carry me, Shogo, Jay, and all of them, so everybody had to go their own directions. Shogo went one way, I went one way, and Jay went one way. I was just lucky that Roy had thrown in a good word for me at Town & Country, so it worked out perfectly.
With T&C, everyone loved that sticker.
They would send me everywhere with huge boxes of stickers and shirts, and I would hand that stuff out like it was candy. I couldn’t go places without people begging or offering. It was great. Derek Ho helped a lot too because everyone thought I was him. It was when he was doing his world champion run. Everyone said, “I saw you in Surfer magazine.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?
You never surfed?
I did, but I wasn’t at that level. My brother surfed with Vince Klyn and I skated with Vinnie, so we were tight. When I got married, he was in my wedding party. I always enjoyed skating with Vinnie.
Pearl City was the pool.
There were other pools, but Pearl City was there and open. The lady took a liking to me, so I definitely got opportunities others wouldn’t. It taught me how to hone in on certain ways. Some of the people that were coming here were like Mike Weed. He was the first guy that I’d ever seen do a fakie. I’m like, “How does he do that?” Then we went to Stoker Hill and I was impressed. There were Sims riders, like Lonnie Toft, Wally and Strople, that came through to Pearl City pool. It’s like going to Del Mar and watching Tony Hawk. If you ride it all the time, you own it. Everybody would go to Town & Country, pro surfers and skaters, so they would always bring them to that pool. That’s how I met Rory Russell and got the invites to go hang out at his house.
They have good irrigation ditches in Hawaii too, because of all the storms.
Yeah. With all of the new homes they were building, they had to have them. Wallows ditch was the first thing that they had to put in before the homes. When they first put in the new concrete, you went to see it. You didn’t ride Wallows at the bottom, like you see people doing now. You rode it from the top and they called it Panics.
Why did they call it Panics?
It didn’t have the same Wallows transition. It was more of a knife edge, truck-breaking transition. We didn’t know how to ollie, so we’d just ride it at a good angle and hope, but most people wouldn’t even try it. When you rode it from the top to the bottom, you were flying, going over the big drainage holes. By the time you got to Wallows, you were at a speed that you can’t even fathom. You were banking on two sides, not just one. It was gold. It was packed with people and it was nuts. It was like going to a football game. Ulawatus ditch was another giant hangout where guys would park their cars and turn on their stereos and everyone was getting stoned and drunk. If you were lucky enough to go with Bertlemann, they treated you like royalty. Doors were opening and guys would tell you about pools or ramps. It was a great time.
“By the time you got to Wallows, you were at a speed that you can’t even fathom. You were banking on two sides, not just one. It was gold. It was packed with people and it was nuts.”
Obviously, skateboarding was hitting all sorts of places in the world, but, in Hawaii, from my perspective, there was a scene.
Wallows doesn’t get the love, but it’s probably one of the fastest. You could start from way back and come flying in there at an unbelievable speed. The transition was forgiving enough for you to really fly. You just had to dodge the little drainage holes. Unfortunately, if you were going really fast and got caught, it was serious injuries. There were a lot of drainage ditches too. There was one behind Cammy’s that I used to ride with Jay. We’d go up there, pick mushrooms, get higher than a kite, and ride Cammy’s all day, and then try to sneak back down without the guy shooting you with buckshot because he’s pissed off you are on his farm. There was an actual pool at Sunset. If you were lucky, you knew Rory and he’d let you hang out, and Rory’s house was a whole new level of crazy. Rory had Gerry Lopez there, and their girlfriends would be out there sunbathing. It was a new level of privilege. You’re like, “How did they get this?” It was great.
Who did you skate with in Hawaii?
Besides Roy, Art Dickey was my neighbor. He lived right down the street, so I had a thing going with him and his sisters. We even got hijacked.
What do you mean you got hijacked?
We had to ride the bus back then because none of us had a car, so we would take the bus to the North Shore. One time we were out there by Navy Road waiting to catch the bus and these guys jumped out wanting to steal our boards. Art had a new Logan Earth Ski with Tunnel Rock Wheels and Bennett Trucks, and so did I. My dad had just bought it for me, so I wasn’t going to give it up. When the guys came by, I was looking at the odds of four to two, but when I turned around and made the stand, I noticed the guy was brandishing a good size knife. I’m thinking this might not go down as a fair fight, so we had to forfeit the boards. Art was crying and I was like, “Either we give them the boards or someone is going to get hurt. Is it worth it?” I remember coming back home and telling the police. They threw us in the squad car and took us to a low-income district in Halawa, which is a sketchy place. You wouldn’t walk through there without the right protection. We are riding in the back of the squad car and the cop is saying, “Do you see anyone that you recognize?” I’m like trying to hide so no one recognizes me. [Laughs] It was hilarious.
Did you guys get your boards back?
We never did. I had a paper route, so I worked and eventually bought another board. I think Art’s dad got him another one, so it’s all good. Art was a good friend. There were other guys I rode with like Vince Klyn, and Chris and Gary Owens. Gary attracted trouble by just the way he looked. It was hard to walk around with this haole guy with freckles, smoking a cigarette, that looked like he was just asking for someone to kick his ass. [Laughs] There were a lot of other good skaters. I was lucky to go to the mainland because that turned on everything else.
How did you get to the mainland?
I met Jay up in the North Shore, and we got along great. I’d seen him in magazines, and he already had his fan club. I let him know that, if you do cross a line, you will get your ass kicked, and he respected that. I think he liked the fact that I wasn’t the norm, and I had an opinion. We became friends and I paid my way to California to do that thing at Skatopia, and they took me to Skatopia the first time. It was the whole Dogtown crew, from Biniak to Muir. They traveled in a huge pack. It was crazy going to the pro shop to get my ID. I’m in a whole different world because these guys are somebodies and I got a chance to ride with them.
You were the Hawaiian that could ride vert.
Luckily, I saw Jay a lot in Hawaii, so I was already picking up on his style. I applied that to what I knew from watching Buttons and Bertlemann. I also knew how much these guys criticized people on style. They were just brutal. I learned fast that you needed style. I’m not saying I’m style king, but I’m conscious about it. Your style reminds me of Mark Richards. Roy Jameison had that same stance. I always thought Roy’s style was cool and that’s why I thought you had great style. Not only could you do the maneuvers, you had style while doing it. You did well at contests too.
I was a competitor. When it was time to compete, it was time to step up.
I saw you at Lakewood and I was impressed. I was in the same column as Jay and Tony, 15 points after five contests, but I had more fun skating with friends and doing photo sessions. I didn’t like competition very much and it showed.
Well, competition wasn’t everything. There’s the other side of it where you would get pictures in the magazine, which were just as important because you have a full page, which is like a full-page ad.
It was important. It was the only thing keeping your sponsors still loving you.
You got love.
I was lucky.