As I stepped out of the Hicksville train station, I was greeted by an unmistakable smirk standing outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts. The filmer, artist, & skateboarder brought me over to his home to hang out and talk for a few hours. For many years, Pheo has been a part of the New York skateboarding scene. From skating spots sprinkled along Hempstead turnpike to silkscreening boards at the Chapman warehouse to running his own brand (Hazel Skateboards) up until 2011, Pheo has done pretty much every role you can think of in our little world. These days, his focus is on his artwork but once a skater, always a skater. Hanging out with him for just a few hours felt like kicking back with an old friend. Maybe it was our shared Long Island roots, but it was probably one of the funnest interviews I’ve done. Going through years of paintings, used boards, and hitting his local watering hole made the hardest part of this interview sorting through and cutting out stuff. Check out the highlights below:
What was your first setup:
My first big board I got a Santa Cruz special edition 5-ply with Indy’s and OJ Wheels when I was 13.
What was it like growing up skateboarding in Long Island back then?
We had a small group of skateboarders in school back then. no one like skaters back then we were the dirtbags i guess . after a while Everyone kinda dropped off over the years but I kept skating along with a few others were still great friends to this day . I played football too for a while up until junior high and the coaches treated me like shit so I quit that and just skated more . By then it was 87 when it was booming skating was at a high theres was demos and met a lot of heads from all over the island and learn about their spots . I know everyone complains about the spots theses days but they’re a bunch of whiners , we made them work [laughs].
Which spots did you skate mostly?
Oh we had TOB, that was an underground spot with manny pads, steps and there was dip with a nice hip that would get a nice pop off of it. If you skated up to the skate shop on Hempstead Turnpike you could cruise down the turnpike and hit spots like the “3 up 3 down”. There was this weird platform thing in front of a store and a few hips. You’d eventually end up at the Levittown Library, then you head home, eat dinner go back out and skate in front of someones house. This is all when we didn’t have cars, this was just the everyday after-school thing
Did you ever go into the city at all?
Oh yeah we went into the city. I ollied the Brooklyn Banks wall on a Shut Shark. That probably dates myself [laughs]. We skated the city a bunch.
What was skating like compared to today?
It’s nothing like that today. There’s nothing out here today. We had shops. Everyone had their own main shop. We had Danny’s Rideaway and there were other shops all around the island. It made it kind of cliquey but also kinda cool. Everybody knew everyone back then from demos and contest.
Who was your crew back then?
It was me Mike Brennen, Frank Gerwer… and Mat Steiner just to name a few . We had a handful of kids who were really good. It was weird back then in like 89′ because everyone was meeting people from different towns and trying to figure out who you were cool with.
Did you start tagging before skating or was it at the same time?
It was around the same time. I liked graffiti and I liked hip-hop. Everyone on my block was wearing denim and listening to metal. Meanwhile I’m wearing adidas listing to DJ Red Alert mix tapes off the radio. I was kind of like the new kid. I moved to Long Island from Queens when I was young and then just started learning how to make friends. I didn’t really fit in.
How did you and Frank Gerwer become friends?
We rode the bus to school together way before skateboarding entered our lives. He’s like three years younger than me. In the suburbs you hang out with kids your age but our crew was different. We’d have older brothers and younger brothers in the group and we were always skating together. I eventually became friends with everyone in the town. Frank and I really became better friends when everyone in our town stopped skating and it was down to like the four of us.
What was it like when everyone started to get into the industry side of skating, did that change things? How did you eventually start making your way into the skateboard industry?
So, Powell Peralta had this artist wanted contest and I sent in my portfolio. I get a note back signed by Stacy Peralta that said “Thanks for your submission. Maybe one day you’ll be a real artist.” I was like “what?!” What does that mean… real artist, you know? So I was like fuck thisI’ll just keep on drawin. I was happy when Sean Cliver got it because he’s one hell of an artist. I don’t know, I felt I discouraged by the letter… it wasn’t encouraging at all.
I wanted to do board graphics but whatever… I was on the east coast so it was a little hard with a little amount of companies. I was about 21 when Number 9 was around and Bryan Davis told me to go down and meet Gregg Chapman. I think he liked one of my graphics but he was like I really need help in the wood shop. I was working at a bowling alley at the time and had a 17 year old boss barking orders at me so I was like yeah, I’ll work in the wood shop… sure.
He told me not to quit my day job because it was only temporary. But, I went right over to the bowling alley and was like fuck this… I quit [laughs]. I built my relationship over time with Gregg and started doing some graphics for Number 9. Over the years I’ve done a lot of small company graphics.
How did you end up starting Hazel Skateboards
I got fired from Gregg’s [laughs]. I was driving cabs for a long while and I just needed to do something creative for myself. It was 2006 and I wanted to do something in skateboarding. It started as an art project and got outta hand. It did pretty well for about six years. I should’ve pushed through but I didn’t. I had like 17 accounts and then the economy went downhill. A-lot of shops shut down Around 2011 so I pulled the plug because I only had like 2 shops left and everyone was kinda hurting financially.
What about your characters like Coffee Guy?
Coffee Guy is fun, I didn’t even name him… other people just started calling him that. It was just this daily doodle thing I did. It’s basically Garfield you know? Monday’s suck, I like lasagna, let’s go out and party, that kinda thing. It’s simple and it started to take off. People write me about it. I did one everyday for two years straight and got burnt out. I just started doing him again. If I write a status no one cares but if I put that sentence over coffee guy people get into it. It’s weird. It’s really just an everyday thought, whatever I’m feeling that day.
Do you have a favorite project from throughout the years?
Hazel was a lot of fun. There’s BootenRally, that comic book I gave you with the drunken penguin character. I did that for a while too. He was before Coffee Guy but it was basically drunk humor about hangovers and puking.
Who are your influences?
I love all old cartoons like Tom n’ Jerry, Bugs Bunny… I’m pretty sarcastic so i related to that stuff. I don’t know where that came from, maybe inner anger or inner wiseass I guess [laughs].
That’s kind of the Long Island stereotype
Yeah, It’s a finely tuned defense mechanism.
Between making skateboards or making costumes, what’s it like seeing people wear or ride something you made?
It’s cool you know, last year I designed Halloween costumes and with all the creepy clown stuff going on I saw my clown costume on the news like 10 times. You’re like awe cool man I did that! I used to get the same feeling when I worked for Gregg and all the Zoo boards we made were out there.
Do you prefer the anonymity or would you want that recognition?
I think maybe a little notoriety might help me get more work. People get what they want from me and that’s the end of it a lot of times. Over the last few years I’ve maintained a fan base and some great support from them but life trying to live off art is hard. So, I like to grow… do more things like shows. Some notoriety would be good for that I guess.
Was our pizza ramp for the adidas event last year the first time you’ve ever put art on a ramp?
No, actually Mike Lent from Northern Company made a DIY spot out in Brentwood and he asked me to come out and paint the ramps. I actually made a pizza ramp out there so when you asked me to do the pizza ramp for adidas I was like ‘oh yeah! I already did that’ so yeah, people like pizza man.
You just made these Alumnus patches, what’s behind that?
Like when we were reflecting back to the guys from back in the old days that still skate. All those guys that still skate are like the Long Island Alumni. I throw a Christmas party every year for everyone at House of Vans and this past year Frank Mare asked me what’s up with it and I wanted to do something special because there was a good chance it might be the last one. We were the last of the only kids that skated in Long Island back in the day so we came up with that idea and the patches were born. If you got a patch, you’re an alumnus [laughs].
You said you can’t really skate anymore, do you remember your last real session?
No. It came to a point that whenever I’d go skate I’d get hurt within the first three minutes and then I’d be out for a few weeks. That just kept happening and I really can’t remember my last good session. That’s sad, right?
Do you have a favorite session of all time?
We used to set up in the parking garages (TOB) over here. Make our own boxes and shit. I used to love those sessions. I guess I was about 17 then. Northport skatepark sessions were fun too. That’s when we had all our friends together.
True. You also have known the NYSB founder for a long time. How did you initially become friends?
It was an apartment party in Brooklyn on the rooftop. We were all drinking and having a good time. I’m hammered and talking to some girl. All my friends left me at the party and I didn’t even know what part of Brooklyn I was in. Rick was like ‘Yo Pheo! What’s up man?’ He tried to help me find my friends and when we couldn’t he offered me a place to crash at his apartment. We went to the deli and I had stuck these bananas in my pocket. I woke up the next morning with those bananas crushed and dripping in my fucking pockets [laughs]. We went and got breakfast and he got me to the train. He didn’t even really know me at the time but he saved me from sleeping on a rooftop and thats when we really became friends.
That’s sick haha. Let’s wrap this thing up, any last words?
Be yourself… everyone’s like somebody else these days… be yourself. Do what you’re gonna do and don’t worry about anything else. I don’t know… I don’t have any last words.
Sounds like you did. -Ed.
To view or purchase Pheo’s artwork you can visit his his website here.