Photo by Corn
Growing up, there was never a ton of footage from younger New York dudes. Most of the guys from the old Zoo videos, EE3, etc. had begun waning out of skateboarding by that point. Akira was tangibly closer to all of us in age; there weren’t a whole lot of New Yorkers you’d see in videos then who weren’t a good ten years older than you. His Vehicle ad of the ollie over the bar at Ziegfeld is still one of the sickest tricks done in this city (nobody has stepped to that spot since.) Seeing footage of Akira was cool because New York footage was still sparse at the time, and hey, “He’s not much older than me.” Except after a while, he sorta disappeared.
Fast forward and he’s been on it these past five or so years. He posts Instagram videos of himself at the skatepark at 8 A.M., puts out video parts, learns new tricks at the rate of someone half his age, and is an embodiment of the fact that nobody has any excuses. You’re never too old, too rusty or too busy. Below is a quick conversation about where he went, and where he is today.
It’s still a trip to hear you speak fluent Japanese. What is your background originally?
I’m from Okinawa. Japanese was my first language. I went to American school out there, but once I got to New York when I was 12, I was speaking a broken up Japanese version of English. Eventually I started hanging with kids out here and it cleared up.
Where did you start skateboarding?
My friends in Japan would skate a little bit, but it was more of a curiosity than a real interest. I left Japan and moved to Houston and Suffolk with my dad around 1995 or ’96 because my parents got divorced and a bunch of shit happened. My dad was psycho, so I bounced.
When I moved out here, I remember hearing skateboard wheels all around the streets. One day, I was walking my dog and heard a board snap, I turned around, and saw a skate shop called Swish, which was on St. Mark’s, near where the pizza store on Avenue A is now. I saw Harold Hunter putting his board together and was blown away that there were skaters in my neighborhood.
Harold was like “Cool dog.” I was never out here before, so I thought skateboarding was a whole different thing. I thought, “Whoa, a black dude skating? This is crazy” because I was still thinking of it in terms of who I saw skating in Japan. He asked me if I skated and I said “kinda” because I still had this board my mom bought me when I left Japan. I ran home, and next thing you know, he was showing me around Astor, Union and Washington Square.
Filmed by Bradley Cushing and Goshi Goto
Did you meet all the locals from that time through Harold? When everyone my age was growing up, you were like the one “young” dude at Supreme and everyone else was way older than us.
There was always this bonding factor with a lot of New York kids back then. A lot of them have problems at home or they’re runaways, so we’d stay up all night just hanging at Astor or Union and never go home.
I think Harold gave the word to Jeff Pang that I was progressing a bit and Zoo started flowing me boards. Eventually I started to meet A-Ron [Bondaroff] and all these people who didn’t necessarily skate, but still ran in that same circle. A-Ron took me under his wing since I spoke Japanese. He’d always have me helping out at Supreme until eventually I got a job there.
Did you ever think you were gonna turn pro or anything?
I was never worried about that, I just did it because I liked it. Skateboarding made me forget my problems when I was a kid. It was like therapy. Any footage I got from that era was spur of the moment. I never set out to film a part or anything.
It felt like you started having good little bits of footage in some Zoo videos here and there, but then you disappeared after Mixtape 2. Did you just get over filming quickly?
I was more worried about surviving and working than filming or skateboarding at all. At the time, I was also a fool, young and ignorant; partying and shit. Also, a lot of my friends who I started skating with were giving up on it, since a lot of those dudes were way older than me.
Did you start to lean towards quitting yourself?
When I was really skating as a kid, money didn’t really matter to me. I was fine being broke and skating all day. I just wanted to get out of my neighborhood and go skate. Eventually, I needed a job and all the O.G. dudes who were older than me, like Ryan Hickey, Ivan Perez, Mike Hernandez, Joey Alvarez, N.A., Maurice Key, the Keefe brothers — they all started quitting. No one I could really relate to was skating, so I ended up quitting, too. I had to get my shit together because I was getting older.
Was it just a matter of all the friends you grew up with skating no longer being into it?
I couldn’t skate even if I wanted to. I tore my ACL and ripped my meniscus around the same time. A lot of people will be like “Do it the natural way. It’ll heal on its own!” Like an idiot, I took that approach. It started to heal after some years, and I thought it was getting back to normal. I tried getting back into skating. On my first day back, I try skating a three stair, and then right away, my knee gave out. At that point, I hadn’t skated for five years.
Photo by Zered Bassett #yesfilter
Did you ever miss it during that time?
[At that time] I was back to living like I was when I ran away from home, like “Where can I find a place to crash tonight?” I started thinking back to what I was doing when when I was most happy in my life. I wasn’t really drinking or partying. I decided to get surgery, so I could get back to normal. I got so caught up with that going out lifestyle and let it influence me that I forgot a lot of the positives in my life. It took me a while. I gained a lot of weight in those years. I was like 195, which I never hit before in my life, I’d always be like 145. Everything about me wasn’t going right, I just felt heavy and unhealthy. Eating like shit, staying out late and feeling groggy all the time.
Well obviously you’re skating a lot now. How’d you get back into it?
Ariel Perl used to always push me to go skate in that time I quit. He’s from Boston but lived down here for two years. I’d always bail, but he wouldn’t give up, like calling me every day saying “Let’s go skating.” Eventually I got sick of him nagging me and went out one day. All my old memories started coming back. I started remembering why I liked skating; it wasn’t so I could be cool, or work at some store, or sell some nastiness. It’s fun — friends.
When you’re in that night life scene, your party friends aren’t your real friends. They’re all smiles in your face, but you only see those people in that world. When real shit happens in your life, your party friends aren’t going to be there for you. You need to have good friends around you. I forgot about all the positivity that skating brings. Going out partying I thought I was that dude, but eventually that dude got caught up. All I had was a messed up version of myself.
How’d you get back into filming and taking skating seriously again?
When I was looking back on skating during my recovery, I remembered that I started popping up in videos right before I quit. I’d be in 411s and Zoo videos, and just gave it all up. I wasted all those years when I should’ve been focusing on skating. I figured that there’s no reason to stop me from doing that now, even if I’m older. I wish I had a chance at that life again when I was young with no real responsibilities to turn all that negative into positive.
Why’d you start your own company?
To be honest, nobody was going to sponsor me. I had a bad rep, nobody wanted to mess with me. I wanted to do my own thing. I knew I could do it though.
When I’d be working at all these stores, the name of the store would obviously get people in there, but the things that’d I’d be wearing would get people buying it. If you wear something that is selling slow, people start buying it. So I thought, “Let me put two and two together.”
People from back in the day still remembered me and helped out. It wasn’t too late. I’m not trying to be the biggest brand or the biggest skater, I don’t need to be that dude. As long as I’m happy doing it, it’s all good. A lot of people can’t even skate like that after knee injuries, so I’m happy to be at the level I’m at.
Since you know the culture from both sides, why do New York companies do so well in Japan?
I think Japanese people are tired of their own culture. There are a lot of robotic and rule-heavy aspects to Japanese culture, so they see how people in New York dress, and they want to go against how things get done in Japan. They want to feel a different way. I don’t know that for sure, but that’s my theory. It’s not only New York brands. New York brands do well in Tokyo because they’re both cities. Quieter parts of Japan are still as up on California skateboarding as kids in America.
You can stay up with Akira and his company, After Midnight New York, on Instagram via @amaftermidnight.