DUTY NOW FOR THE FUTURE: JIM MURPHY INTERVIEW by JEFF AMENT PHOTOS BY JONATHAN MEHRING
Jim Murphy is 100% East Coast ripper. A true gentleman with a big heart, an artist who paints with his pick and shovel, a humanitarian who backs it up with action and a skater who rolls with g-narly commitment and passion. If you doubt any of this, get in a car and drive to the Pine Ridge skatepark on the Lakota reservation in South Dakota that Murf was the catalyst in building. One of the seven skate wonders of the world towering over nearby Rushmore, brought to skateboarding by Murf, Monk, Walt and friends. – JEFF AMENT
I want to cover a few basic things, and then we can talk about Wounded Knee and New York.
Let’s go, bro. Shoot.
Tell me how skateboarding changed your life. At what point did you realize that you were going to be skateboarding for the rest of your life?
Skateboarding came into my life right when my dad left my family. He broke up with my mom and left all the kids high and dry. Skateboarding was the one therapy I had. I would be in the basement rolling around for hours and hours, just trying to figure things out, after my life was turned upside down with no dad. Skateboarding was something that became therapy. It became something more than playing basketball or football. I just rolled. As years went by and I kept skating, I realized that I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life. Nothing is as fun..
Where was this?
That was in Eatontown, NJ. That’s where my family is from. I was brought up on naval bases. I was born down in Florida and we traveled around a bunch, but we, eventually, ended up in New Jersey.
You were born in Florida?
Yeah. I was born in Pensacola, Florida, on the naval base.
There are a lot of skateboarders and surfers that came out of Florida.
Oh yeah, man, Kelly Slater.
Jimmy the Greek.
Yeah, Jimmy the Greek. Buck Smith. Chris Baucom. Billy Beauregard… Did you ever see Billy Beauregard skate?
No, that’s probably in the era when I was least connected to it.
Those Florida guys killed it. They still do.
Yeah, they’re tough.
They’ve got good surf style too.
When you’re not skateboarding, what are you doing?
Right now, I have a full time job where I do stained glass restoration, so my days are basically doing that ten hours a day. When I have time off, I’m doing Stronghold Society non-profit work, doing interviews for Juice and working on Wounded Knee Skateboards and getting decks to the kids out at Pine Ridge. I skate on the weekends when I’m not working and travel and hang out with friends and do a little snowboarding when the snow hits. I go to gigs. I go to a Pearl Jam gig or two and check out guys kicking ass.
With the stain-glass work, did you go to school to study that?
No. After I was pro in the ‘80s, skateboarding completely died and we all got kicked off our teams because we weren’t street skaters. My ex-wife worked at Elektra Records back in the early ‘90s. That’s when skateboarding started to die and then she got transferred to Charlotte, NC. So I’m down there, ex-pro skater, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do because I was broke and skateboarding wasn’t happening. I needed work and this guy said, “Are you afraid of heights?” I said, “Hell no, what do ya got?” He said, “Do you think you can take this window out with me?” I said, “Sure.” So he took me to this huge church up to this scaffolding and we took the window out and then he taught me how to cut and build windows. Then we moved to Boston with Elektra, and I did the same thing up there. It became a skill that I got paid pretty good to do. The whole time I was skating, it was something that paid the bills. Eventually, when we came back to New York City, I hooked up with a high-end studio and we work at The Met at the Cloisters. We do all these high-end museums and cathedrals across the country. It was a new kind of career, and it was cool. I’m still doing it today, since 1996.
That’s so rad. There are so many churches in New York City too. You can’t drive two blocks without seeing a giant gothic cathedral.
We do all the Sotheby’s art auctions too. We do the tiffany windows and high-end stained glass lamps. They contact us to do the repairs to get them ready for the shows, so I’m constantly busy. I’ve had that solid work since ’96, and I’ve just been living in New York City. In ’98, I hooked up with Kessler and we started Wounded Knee Skateboards. We wanted to do something for the boys because everything was popsicle sticks. It was like, “Screw this. We have to make some big boards.”
Where did Wounded Knee come from?
Well, it’s funny. I don’t know if you ever met Kessler, but he had a pretty good sense of humor. We were up at 108 Street and we’d just built this metal park, and we were trying to come up with a hardcore name for a company. We were talking about how we were all banged up. We’re vert skaters. We’re old and we’re all banged up. Kessler looked at me, and he giggles, “Why don’t we call it Wounded Knee?” It was a play on words for a hurt knee. He wasn’t even thinking about South Dakota. I was like, “Whoa, man. That’s a cool name, but it’s a heavy-duty name. If we’re going to use that name, it’s got to be about that massacre that happened in South Dakota, and we could do something with Native graphics and basically educate kids.” Kessler was down with that, so we talked to a lot of people about it. They said, “That sounds cool. Go for it.” So we hooked up with an artist and got some Native graphics going, and the rest is history. Andy and I were completely conscious about using the name, Wounded Knee, and we would sit around and say, “In using this name, we definitely want to give back to those people in memory of those that died at Wounded Knee.” We never knew if we could pull it off, but we thought it would be cool if, someday, we could get some skateparks built out there on the reservations, because skateboarding did for me, the same thing it did for Kessler – it saved our lives. Back in ’98, no one made vert skateboards. They thought what we were doing was cool, but no one was buying it and we weren’t selling a lot, but we just kept doing it. We never thought that we would be able to afford to do anything, as far as building a concrete skatepark. We just always kept that in our heads as a cool fantasy.
When was your first connection to the people in South Dakota?
In 2005, someone told me there was a gathering in the Black Hills and Arvol Looking Horse, the Holder of the Sacred Pipe, was going to be there. I was like, “I can’t keep doing this company without making a connection to the people and I’m still not sure that it’s cool that we use this heavy duty name.” I just decided to go out there and meet Arvol Looking Horse and ask him if he thought I was doing anything disrespectful. I just wanted him to know what I was doing. So I went out there and asked him. He said, “It seems like you have a good heart and what you’re doing is good. We need help with our kids, so keep doing what you’re doing and keep your word to what you’re saying here today.” He made me get up in front of this huge group of people that he was giving a speech to. He said, “You have to go up and talk to these people.” It was crazy. I got up there and told people my story, and two hours later, we just did a beeline right to the Wounded Knee gravesite. I brought a bunch of boards and t-shirts and we went right to the site. They were having a cookout out because it was summer solstice, so all these kids were there. We gave them skateboards and shirts and then the kids took me by the hand up to the Wounded Knee gravesite and told me the whole history of what happened to their people. We’re talking kids that are 10, 11, 12, 13 years old, and they were totally schooling me on what was going on. I saw the whole skateboarding thing and the looks on the kid’s faces and the looks on the parents’ faces and how happy they were that someone cared enough to hook their kids up. It was mind-blowing. I had no idea what to expect going out to the reservation. I knew it was going to be heavy, but from then on, I’ve been working hard out there to get something going.
It’s amazing how it all stemmed from you and Kessler just standing on the ramp and talking about what you were going to call your company.
It came from the fact that it’s skateboarding. Kessler was a recovering addict, and he was helping friends get through drugs and addictions. For him, skateboarding literally saved his life and he knew this could help all those kids out there. Hats off to Kessler. He’s not around anymore.
But he’s around.
Yeah. He had a big heart. I just wish he could still be here today to see what went down out there.
Yeah. You wish he could have rolled around in that bowl.
You just have to pull a Kess move every time you go there.
Yeah. You have to do a slash grind and call somebody a pussy if they’re not grinding. He was good like that.
[Laughs] Was he friends with Sean Mclean?
He probably met Sean Mclean.
Sean has that same thing going on. It’s that East Coast thing, like ‘Don’t be a pussy.’
Totally. That’s the Boston attitude.
‘I want to see that kingpin sparkin’ or get the hell out of the bowl.’
Hell yeah. Total attitude. Get up on there and take the copers off and grind those Independent Trucks.
[Laughs] So you’re talking about giving these kids a chance and giving back. When you started skating in New Jersey, was there an older guy that kind of took you under his wing?
It was a pretty cool scene. I was pretty isolated because I had moved around so much. By the time I got to Jersey, I had moved at least eight times from different Navy bases. Then my dad was a traveling salesman after getting out of the Navy. When I finally got to Jersey, it was all about trying to make some friends and I was a skateboarder, so it was really punk. I heard about these guys who had a ramp over at Fort Monmouth on the army base. I pull up there and it was Jef Hartsel, Steve Herring and Brad Constable. They had the Army build them a halfpipe. Those guys had shaved heads and they were wearing homemade Sex Pistols t-shirts and I pulled up on my BMX bike. I probably rode about ten miles to get there and those guys were totally cool and open to me, and that became my family. I just wanted to skate.
What year was that?
That was ’78 or ‘79. Those guys were so punk. We’re talking punk when it was totally uncool to be punk. If you showed up to school wearing something punk rock, you were going to get beaten up or in a fight. Those guys just opened my world, and that’s where I first saw Skateboarder. Those guys told me about Cherry Hill and we road tripped to Cherry Hill and then we met Groholski. All of a sudden, this killer New Jersey family got together and we’re all skating Cherry Hill. We were taking three-hour bus rides just to get to Cherry Hill on the weekends. It was that camaraderie that blew me away. I’d go to high school and I did not have that camaraderie at all. I was heckled for being a skateboarder and listening to weird music, and I was called all kinds of names for doing that. You probably experienced the same thing to where you were just an outcast but you didn’t care. It’s like, “Whatever. We’re skateboarders.”
That can be empowering too, especially if you’re a kid that’s looking for an identity or some individualistic thing. I think only certain kids have that, like skaters and punk rockers, and people attach themselves to that. For me, I wanted to do my own thing, even though it was pretty easy in a little town. I sort of liked being heckled. I appreciated it. I was like, “Yeah, I’m not you, asshole!”
[Laughs] Yeah. Would people freak out listening to the punk rock that you listened to? People in my world were like, “What the hell is this crap?” Everyone was listening to Zeppelin and stuff and we’d come out with Fear and some Circle Jerks or Black Flag punk rock. People were looking at us like, “What the hell is this?” Did you do the punk rock look and get the shaved head or Mohawk going?
You know, it’s crazy. In the town that I was in, it was so small that there weren’t any cliques. I was already playing basketball and football and there were only 800 people in my town. So we were just doing it because we were bored and we just wanted to hang out with our buddies. At the same time, I had a ramp in my yard. I built my first ramp in ’77, so I’d come home from football practice and ride my ramp for three hours. That’s just what I did. Nobody really gave me any crap about it. By the time I was in junior high school, we were listening to the Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks in the back of the football bus. We might have been one of the only football teams in the country that was listening to that sort of music. We were also listening to AC/DC and that kind of stuff, and there wasn’t a whole lot of difference when you put those things back to back. It was all heavy music.
It was hard rockin’.
Yeah. My senior year, I got my whole basketball team to shave our heads. Our coach’s nickname was Chico, so we made these shirts that said “Chico Punk” on it and I drew this picture of him and put a safety pin through his face.
We sold like 150 shirts in this town of 800 people, so one out of every five people in this town had this purple Chico Punk t-shirt. By the third game that we sold the shirts, the whole gym was covered with people wearing these shirts. I was like, “Oh my God, I pulled off the biggest caper this town has ever seen. This is insane.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s bizarre. With all the traveling you’ve done around the world, being in a town like yours and not be getting into fistfights over that stuff is just bizarre.
That came when I went to college. In college, you find your handful of bros and everywhere you go, people are yelling and throwing shit at you, and that’s when we started fighting.
Were you following punk rock and skateboarding in Skateboarder, like we were?
We’d see Devo in there and then on Saturday Night Live you’d see the B-52’s and you’d be like, “What?”
Remember that show “Fridays”? I was totally into that. This was a time when magazines ruled the day. I also subscribed to Creem magazine, which had punk rock. That’s how I ordered the first Black Flag and the first Minutemen single. They had a little ad in Creem magazine. It was a way smaller world then. Everything took three weeks to get to you. If you ordered a skateboard from Val Surf, it took forever to get it.
[Laughs] Yeah, man. Do you remember when things turned to Action Now, and there were photos of a chick on a horse jumping a rock.
Yeah. I didn’t know what was going on. Our world wasn’t California, but I’d been to California, so I looked at that magazine and it made me mad because we didn’t have girls that were that hot or beaches or access to BMX tracks or any of that stuff. I just put all my apples in one basket, and that was this ramp I had in my yard. The fact that they were doing other sports, I was like, “I don’t know.” That’s when I tuned out a little bit. The next few years I’d buy a Thrasher magazine, once in a while, but I didn’t really buy magazines that much then.
So you weren’t in there when Thrasher came out?
Yeah. I have until about ’84, where I bought Thrasher here and there, but I moved to Seattle in ’83, so I didn’t have the money to spend on magazines. I had a Caster Tom Inouye board that I just kept chopping down. It was probably only 26 inches long and barely had a kicktail. It had the Sims street wheels. That was my board until I saved some money, by the end of ’84, and I got a Blender.
Was it a G&S purple metal flake Blender?
It wasn’t metal flake, but it was lavender with the guy falling off the building.
That was sick. I loved the shape of that board.
That’s the first time I skated big ramps around Seattle. I skated with Hubbard, but those guys were like little kids. There was Tom Peha and Ryan Monihan, who ended up being a New York boy. Wez Lundry was there.
Was Red on the scene?
No, Red was in Oregon. It’s crazy to think that all those guys were little kids, all the guys that ended up becoming the big Seattle rippers in the ‘80s. When I met them, they were all 14, like Mike Ranquet.
I just skated with Wez. He was up at Attleboro.
Oh wow. Where is he living now?
He’s in between Arizona and Massachusetts because his girl’s family lives up there. Sounds like he’s back and forth. Wez Lundry and Davey Rogers were up there and we skated Attleboro. It’s a small world. He was killing it. He was ripping doing boneless ones to tail and grinding the hell out of the ramp. It was sick.
What is the future of Wounded Knee? What’s next for you?
Right now we’re just trying to build up and stay strong so we can keep supplying these kids on the reservations with quality boards and help finish off the Pine Ridge Skatepark, that you helped hook up big time. Thank you, Jeff.
What we’re trying to do with the skateboard company is to continue to educate people, inspire people and just get big enough, so we can give every kid on the reservation a skateboard.
We just want to keep doing our Stronghold Society non-profit and just keep working with these communities to get these concrete skateparks built. I just try to instill in everybody that we need to get these kids quality boards, good trucks and good wheels and just make sure these kids are staying focused and having fun. That’s what it’s all about.
How did you hook up with Walt?
Well, I was working with an organization down in Albuquerque. We were doing the All Nations Skate Jam and Walt hit me up. He saw that I was using Wounded Knee and he’s from Pine Ridge. He grew up out there. He said, “Hey, man, what are you doing with this name, Wounded Knee? It’s pretty interesting.” So I called him up and we talked. At that time, I was frustrated because I wasn’t able to make the right connections in Pine Ridge to get a skatepark built. I was hitting dead ends left and right. Walt helped me and we found the right path to get something done. Walt was great and his family took me out to the reservation and, eventually, we found a spot where we could build that first park. It was cool. Walt grew up out there and he knew the whole nine yards. He was a skateboarder and he knew about the struggles on the reservations because he grew up around all that gnarly shit. He knew exactly what we needed to do to secure that first skatepark.
We have to get Walt back on a board.
Yeah. I know. He went and skated Mott’s pool, and he slammed so hard that he kind of swore it off. I don’t know if he knocked himself out, but he flipped over or something. Mott’s pool took him out.
That thing looks kind of mellow, but that deep end is no joke. It’s a gnarly backyarder style deep end.
Yeah. You better know what you’re doing when you come down that waterfall.
It’s all tight trannies. It’s a tight wall.
I love that thing. That thing is fun.
It’s really unique. It’s not like anything I’ve ever skated. It’s pretty cool.
It’s just great to grind. It’s not about doing tricks. Just get up there and grind the hell out of it. With all the skating you’ve done, when you go to Denver, what’s your reaction when you see how big skateboarding is getting with all the concrete parks?
Well, you know what’s funny. Colorado is in the third wave. They had their first wave in the ‘70s. They were building parks right after Burnside started. They built parks in Ft. Collins and Crested Butte and some of those places in the late ‘90s. Then they sort of fell off and they didn’t have much going on for awhile and then, three or four years ago, it just started blowing up again with Team Pain building stuff. They quickly went from being the third or fourth best company to now, you could argue that they’re even with Grindline and Dreamland in terms of quality and unique designs. Skateboarders are building stuff and they care. They know the history and they know design. That Arvada park is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in my life. How do you get $2,000,000 to build this skatepark? That is crazy.
Yeah. Just when you think that skateboarding is going to level off, and they’re not going to build any more parks, you see Denver getting park after park. You’re up in Missoula and you’re starting to help build parks on the reservations up there. How do you think this will be able to sustain itself? Do you think building all these parks will keep growing skateboarding or will it level off and fall?
I had someone tell me a few years ago that because snowboarding is here to stay, there will always be skateboarders that want to ride tranny, and there’s always going to be guys that want to roll around. I think because the lower middle class is growing right now, skateboarding is always going to be there too because it’s a pretty cheap thing to get into. If you can scrounge up $100, you can have a blast for a year. You can ride the shit out of that thing for a year, if you’re not stupid and focusing your board every two seconds.
That’s what it was for me growing up. I would make the wood last for a year.
Duct tape and shoe goo, right?
Right. You’d wear down the tailbone and then you’d throw epoxy on the nose. You’d do whatever you had to do. Paint it and make it look like it was new.
Here’s a question for you that people ask me. When I tell them that the bass player for Pearl Jam helped us build this skatepark on the reservation, it takes a while for them to get it. People don’t understand why you’d do that. I’m like, “He’s a skateboarder.” They’re like, “I don’t get it. Why on Native land?” What would you tell people? Obviously, where you grew up in Montana, you were exposed to some reservation life. What inspired you to build on the reservations?
Well, I don’t think it is race specific for me. I think it’s more kids that are isolated and faced with alcoholism in epic proportions. The Native people, the numbers are horrific in terms of suicide. I witnessed the same thing growing up in a small town in Montana and being ten miles from the Chippewa-Cree Reservation and we had the Flathead Indian Reservation. I mostly saw kids that were bored and they’re kids, so they’re hyperactive. They have things they need to work through, and skateboarding is just one of those things. If you learn how to roll around and you learn how to toughen up and fall a few times, and you work through that whole process, it’s so empowering. You try it a few times and then one night you finally make the move you’ve been working on and it’s like, “Whoa. I’m kind of doing that thing that I saw in the magazine.”
If that hits you at the right age, it can turn into anything. That little teeny bit of self-esteem that you created, you didn’t get it from anybody else. If you figure how to do that at an early age, it will last a lifetime. There’s nothing that can hold you back.
When you were young, did you go out on the reservation and interact with any of the kids?
Oh, yeah. Starting in fifth grade, when I was playing basketball, we played the two towns up on the Chippewa-Cree reservation. There’s Box Elder and Rocky Boy and we played both of those schools. I ended up being friends with a bunch of those kids, and they’d have a pow-wow every year and we’d go up and hang out at the pow-wow and play basketball. To me, they were just kids that liked to play basketball. They were kids that were the same as me. The only place that I got the prejudices from was from the older adults, and I was already leery of them, so I didn’t really buy into it.
Would they vibe you when you were on the reservation with their kids?
It was both ways. You’d get vibed by the older people there and then you’d come back and if you said something about being on the reservation, you’d get vibed here. People in your town or somebody’s parents would say something derogatory.
I know from talking to the people at Pine Ridge, they say the racism they face when they go off the reservation is similar to Mississippi-style racism. Was it the same way where you grew up?
From the stories I always heard, it was more to do with welfare and jealously over welfare. It was like, “Why are we paying taxes to support those people?” It always came down to that. You’d hear people say, “I make half of the amount of money that person makes on welfare.” I lived in a really poor community and there were a handful of big farmers that made money and everyone else was struggling. My dad was making $15,000 in 1980 with five kids and that’s poverty, basically. It’s just small town jealousy and not understanding the big picture. They’re just seeing what they’re seeing and they’re frustrated by it. My dad was friends with a ton of those families. My dad was a barber and they all came in to get haircuts from him and they’d have frank conversations about things. It was great to have my dad to look to for that because he had a really positive take on the whole thing. For me, I want to help kids in those areas and it’s not just on the reservations. You can finds kids like that anywhere. What better place than Pine Ridge, which is in the middle of South Dakota, in the middle of America? The closest city is Denver, which is seven hours away. It’s a hard place to get to and, in the winter, it is brutal. You want people in those areas to have something to look forward to, you know?
Talk to us about the first reservation park you helped build at Saint Ignatius. How did that come about? At what point in your life were you like, “I want to help build a skatepark on a reservation?
That was because this lady, Kristie Nerby, and her husband had two kids that liked to skateboard in their driveway. She got it into her head when she realized that there were a handful of kids that skateboarded and she saw that they were starting to build parks around the state. They had just built our park in Missoula, and she wanted some version of that. She got a few people involved, like Chris Bacon and Ross and the guys that I worked with to help get the Missoula park built. They were on board from the very beginning. That’s usually what you need. You need one person with the enthusiasm to get it done. That’s all it takes. If that person goes around and talks to 100 people, you’re going to get 50 of those people to donate because it’s going to be infectious. Most people want to help kids, so it’s a pretty easy sell.
Did you go to a tribal council meeting?
I didn’t, but she did. That was about 40 miles north of Missoula. Once they said they’d been talking to Dreamland and they were going to build a pool, I was like, “I’m in. I’ll buy the pool block for it.” I tried to do things to make it unique and a little bit better.
There are all kinds of places around the state and sometimes it’s hard. You have to go and do what you did and get up in front of the tribe and tell them what you want to do. You have to make sure they know that you don’t want anything back, because people are leery. They’re like, “What are you getting out of this?” I’m like, “Nothing. I just want to go skateboarding.”
Yeah, you’re a skater. You want to skate it too. What was the reaction? Did you have any of the elders or the Indian families come up to you and ask you questions or say good stuff to you? What were the reactions?
Yeah. For the grand opening, you sent us a bunch of boards and Bones sent us tons of wheels. Shrewgy sent me a bunch of trucks and we had a sticker toss and the whole thing. Basically, you’d see a little kid rolling around on a Walmart board and you’d go over to him and give him a whole new set up. Maybe you’d help him put it together, so he could pick up on how it worked. Then if something actually breaks or goes wrong, he knows he needs a wrench and all that stuff. There were tons of people that came up to us that day that thought it was so rad. They couldn’t believe it happened in their little town of only 1,200 people. I have a sense of pride with that, because that’s the sort of town that I grew up in. I’m like, “What if someone would have come to our town and built a skatepark? That would have been mind-blowing.”
[Laughs] Heck yeah. Do you see things evolving now at that park and are you seeing more generations of kids continue to skate?
Yeah. There is never not a handful of kids there skating. We go up to Flathead Lake all the time, so we stop by there and there are all these kids there. There are at least six or seven kids that are just flat out rippers. We’ll get you out there. We should just pencil it in for next summer and we’ll try to get some things going with the Blackfoot and try to get things moving.
I’d be honored to go out there. I want to check out the Montana scene. It’d be killer.