This article appears in The Incarceration Issue, a special edition of VICE Australia
Tas Pappas is a classic Australian larrikin, reminiscent of characters like Paul Hogan, Chopper Read, or Bob Hawke, but the skateboard version. It's an impression he may have cultivated a bit, but he is a natural storyteller and charmer. I told him this as we were sitting in his living room talking about his time in prison. "You're not so bad yourself, mate," he said with a wink, not missing a beat.
For the uninitiated, Tas is an incredible vert skater from the western suburbs of Melbourne who, along with his younger brother Ben, became an international star in the mid-90s, then sort of fucked it all up and ended up in jail for attempting to traffic a kilogram of cocaine from Argentina to Australia between a pile of longboards. For a more detailed version of Tas's story, check out Eddie Martin's 2014 documentary All This Mayhem. For a few wry observations about being in jail, see below.
"The first stint in American jail was in 2006. I was one of two white guys in a wing full of hardcore LA gangbangers getting shipped back to Mexico and El Salvador and Colombia. That was sketchy as hell, but I felt safer in an American prison than I do in an Australian one.
Before I went into prison in the States, a mate told me to go straight up and ask who the white rep is and introduce myself, because over there you have to belong to a gang. The rule in there was if one guy fights, everyone fights, so when the screws look at the footage they see everyone fighting, they can't charge just one person. So I found the rep and told him, 'Look, please don't ask me to stab anyone. I've got a family to get out to and I really have to get out on time, but if you guys are going to fight, I'll fight with you.' That's how it works in there.
It was just weird, like I'd be talking to some black blokes, some brothers who skated, then we'd get a couple of eyes on us and we'd have to chill for a bit and not talk. It was strange but that's just the way it is in there. You better abide by the rules because prison isn't a place for heroes. Power is in numbers and if you're a dick, you cop it.
In Australia, I went in November 2008, for three years. I asked who the white rep was and they just looked at me and said, 'What are you talking about?' In there, there are only two gangs: the Kooris and the Lebanese. The Aussies and the wogs are just floaters—they don't team up like they do in America. If some guy wants to stand over you, they can. You don't have the backup of a gang, not until you get to know people.
People in prison aren't stupid; it's all about feeling the vibe. If you look away, is it because you're a coward or are you an informant? They'll sniff that out and have you up for that. If you show a bit of backbone and be honest, you're OK. Prison was the ultimate rehab. It's what I needed.
When I went in to Long Bay [near Sydney] I was spun from the drugs. I was talking to myself, a full fried unit. One day I saw this massive wall in the yard and I imagined it was a mega half-pipe. I walked up to it and started spinning 1080s while flipping the board and pretending to grab it, and then I landed the trick and walked off. Because these guys knew nothing about skating, they just thought there was this fruitcake spinning around in the yard playing with his hands and feet. The entire yard was looking at me.
I used to think it was the speed making me think the world was out to get me, but I ended up getting diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. My doctor reckons it could've been sparked from my babysitter bashing me, and the fact I was sexually abused as a kid. Anyway, when I start to slip into paranoia, I get really angry. Training and doing jumps in prison wore me out so my thoughts wouldn't trip. It got me super fit but at the same time I was in full psycho mode. I used to do a lot of jumping onto tables in the yard, and occasionally I'd clip my toes then rip my shins on the table. The crims would see this lunatic jumping around with blood flying all over his pants, but I was imagining I was free and I'd just slammed. It was just another day on a skateboard for me.
Then there was the home gym I made in my cell. I cut the hems off three or four bedsheets, then plaited them so they were like skipping ropes. I threaded the rope through the bars on my bunk, then through the bars on the window which was up near the ceiling, then down the wall. I got a stack of garbage bags and put eight liters of water in each one, tied them off, and made dumbbells. I tied about 20 liters to the ropes, then bang! I had a gym. I thought of that myself. I'd never heard of anyone else doing that shit.
They had a gym in prison too, don't get me wrong. I'd go there during the day, but you were locked in your cell every day from three in the afternoon until seven in the morning. What else was I going to do? Sit in there bored shitless?
There's nothing worse than being in a cell with someone and they say, 'Face the wall, I've got to have a wank.' Oh Jesus! So you're like, 'OK, go for it, ah fuck.' You'd wait for a minute then start talking out of nowhere, like, 'How do you like doing that to a man's voice?' and they're like, 'SHUT UP!' You'd have laughs in there, you know what I mean?
When I finally got down to minimum security, I worked out how to keep my cell to myself. When I knew a new busload of prisoners was coming, I'd buy myself all this ice-cream, chocolate, tuna, and cabbage and I'd have the most fucked-up meals. Some bloke would come in to share my cell and I'd say, 'Listen bro, you seem like a cool bloke but everyone who comes in here I end up having to fight them. I just want you to know bro, I have a flatulence problem. I can't help it, I fart like a maniac and people can't handle it'. They'd come in for one night and I'd be seeping out these deathly farts so even I was nearly chucking. These guys would be like, 'Fuck, you're not wrong bro, that was fucking hectic,' and I'd be like, 'Yeah man, hopefully one day a doctor will be able to fix it.' They'd go straight to the screws and request a cell change. Then I'd get my cell back to myself, sweet.
Asics is the brand they run in there. If you show up in the yard in a fresh pair of Asics, you're someone! I told [my wife] Helen and she came up to Long Bay with my stepson Nick in these brand-new Asics, the top-notch ones, not the budget ones you can buy in jail. I walked up in my crappy runners, then me and Nick did the shoe swap. After the visit the screw frisked me; he pulled off my shoe and it said: 'Footlocker, two hundred bucks,' or some shit like that. Bloody Nick had forgotten to take the sticker out of the inner sole. I just looked at the screw and he looked at me, then he said, 'Go on,' and I walked out of there. I just got lucky. A lot of guys get drugs in that way. But I just got some sick Asics. They're for sick cunts, mate.
When you get on minimum security, you get day release to start easing you back into society to become a normal person. Helen found a ramp in Albury, so she'd come and get me and we'd stay in a hotel and I'd go and skate vert. I taught [my son] Billy to skate when he was one and a half. I did a varial 540 on that ramp, after being locked up for three years. Thank you God, and a lot of training.
Toward the end, we'd get to the end of the weekend and Billy would realize I couldn't stay with him and he'd be really upset. After that it was hard to click back into jail mode. Some guys in there would be jealous that I'd been out with my family, especially some of the older crims who've been in there for 10 or 20 years. It's a lonely, sad place, prison. It's bloody lonely and it's sad. They try putting it in your head that you're going to get fucked over, because they were. It's a real mental test, but luckily Helen put up with my shit and I'm still with her. It's been eight years now."
As told to Max Olyjnyk. Follow him on Twitter