There was a time in skateboarding when what you said and did off the board was almost as important to your career as the tricks you did on it. The intense and colorful personalities of guys like Mark Gonzales, Jeff Grosso, Jason Jessee, and Neil Blender captivated my entire generation as much as any skate photo of them. Characters like that are rare in modern skating. The new mantra is smile, don’t say anything, and let your skating speak for you. The problem is every kid’s skating is saying the same thing, making it a very boring conversation.
San Jose’s Jerry Hsu is one of my all-time favorite human beings and definitely one of my top favorite skateboarders. Jerry possesses all the things that used to count for something as a skateboarder: creativity, style, integrity, an opinion, and a personality. He is also, of course, an unbelievably gifted skater. His part in Enjoi’s 2006 video Bag Of Suck remains seven and a half minutes of the smoothest, most stylish, and gnarliest skateboarding ever. Let’s watch.
Since then, though, Jerry has battled every manner of sidelining injury imaginable. During his recoveries he has become quite the prolific photographer, appearing in numerous VICE issues and photo annuals over the years. I rang up Jerry as he drove down to Dr. David Sales, physical therapist to the EXTREME stars (I find the thought of little Jerry working out next to Chaz Ortiz or Ryan Sheckler quite hilarious) to ask him about his three recent photo books and what the hell made him leave Enjoi after all those years.
VICE: When did you get the photo bug?
Jerry: Probably in high school, because when you’re a kid you just want to film and shoot your friends skating. My mom let me borrow her camera and I began shooting photos of whatever. Then I started hanging out with people who shot photos of skating and they taught me stuff and it snowballed after that. I went on a tour with Dimitry Elyashkevich one time and he had a Yashica T4. I got one of those cameras and started shooting all the time with that thing, and I still do today.
Which skate photographers inspired you?
Definitely my friend John Old, who shot skating in San Jose. The first skate photographers I worked with were Lance Dawes and Gabe Morford, and they were happy to answer any questions I had. Ed Templeton was also a huge inspiration. He made me realize the things going on around me were worth taking pictures of. When you start shooting photos you don’t really know what to shoot photos of. You’re shooting fire hydrants and railroad tracks… but then I’d see Ed’s photos and realize it was cool to shoot people around me and whatever they’re doing.
Are you aspiring to be a pro photographer and leave this painful life of skateboarding behind?
Well, I guess someday it would be nice to make that transition. My body is pretty worn out and I have to think about what I’m going to do later. I love shooting photos so I would love to do that, but not quite yet.
With the amount of footage I’ve seen from you in the past few years I thought you would be able to skate forever.
Yeah. It’s crazy the amount that I put out. It’s… uh…
Jerry eating poop in Bag of Suck
Yeah. It’s overwhelming and doesn’t seem like I’m affected by my age or health. Still, though, I’m constantly thrashed. I try but I’m always crashing and burning. I just got over a torn arch in my right foot and now I fell on my back and I’m trying to get that fixed.
As an Asian, when you go on vacation how many cameras do you have around your neck?
Three or four. Isn’t that normal? That’s what my parents taught me.
You didn’t have a part in the new Emerica Made video, but you curated all the photos in the DVD book. How did that come together?
They asked me to curate it early on. I contributed some photographs but asked the photographers that the guys worked with the most like Atiba [Jefferson], Mike Burnett, Joe Brook, Brian Gaberman, Bucky Gonzales, and Ed Templeton for photos. I got it all together and put the book together. I didn’t have enough material to make the whole thing myself because I wasn’t with them for the filming.
Tell me about your zine, Our Moment Together?
It’s photos I took of kids taking photos of me with their cellphone cameras. That’s what kids do now; they just stick phones in your face. So I decided to start taking photos of it and I had lots of them so I made a whole 'zine out of it. They’re pretty funny because it’s not just the kid with the cell phone covering his face but it’s their friends in the background and they’re pointing at you and smiling. It’s a weird thing that happens. What you don’t see is that these kids are taking photos of their friends with me, so there’s this nervous kid’s hands on me as I’m trying to take a photo, which is kind of funny.
How do the kids react to you? I imagine a lot of the younger ones wouldn’t get your dry sense of humor.
When kids are younger they don’t know how to talk to me. I get that, because when I was that age I would never approach any human being who was older than me. I was petrified. And I would never approach a pro skater. Kids today are different. They just walk right up to me and start asking questions about my personal life. I can’t believe how brave they are. What’s funny is if kids don’t like the photo they make me stand there and do it two or three times.
Is there any one encounter that stands out?
One time at a grocery store a group of kids thought I was Eric Koston, and they wouldn’t accept that I wasn’t. Nothing I could say would convince them that I was not Eric Koston. That’s a stand out one. Another time they thought I was Daniel Shimizu and wouldn’t believe I wasn’t. They were telling me how great my part was in the Foundation video.
Tell me about The Killing Season photo book from your Vietnam trip.
That trip was fucked, but in the best way imaginable. It happened in February 2012 and it was a Jonathan Mehring trip. His whole thing is to do wild shit and throw skating into a situation where it doesn’t belong. I couldn’t go on his last trip to the Amazon because I just read a book about how they have fish that jump into your pee hole and they have to chop off your dick when that happens. Luckily no one’s dick got chopped of on that trip, thank goodness. I was like, “I’ll go on the next one,” and the next one happened to be this Vietnam one where the idea was to fly into Hanoi in the north and we all buy motorcycles and drive those motorcycles 1100 miles to Saigon, skating stuff along the way. Then we would sell the motorcycles when we got to Saigon and fly home. I said, “I can’t do that. That sounds insane.” But he kept calling me about it and eventually I went because I knew no one would ever invite me on a trip like that again and I could probably get some really cool photos.
The funny part was I wasn’t very good at riding a motorcycle. I learned to ride one before, but you kind of want to have some actual road experience before you go to a country with absolutely no rules. It was like Mad Max on the roads and on the freeways. It was the most scared I had ever been in my life. I really thought I was going to die all the time. The reason the book is called The Killing Season is because it was during the Asian New Year and everybody was riding around wasted. We couldn’t have picked a more dangerous time to do it.
When you think of all the photos from that trip, what’s the fist that comes to mind?
The gnarliest one is definitely the pile of dead barbequed dogs. That was on the first day, walking down the street in the capitol of Hanoi. There were eight roasted dogs in a pile on an electrical box and you could still see their faces. Day one and all I could think was, I’m really sad now.
The last topic I’d like to discuss is your leaving Enjoi Skateboards. You were there forever. What happened?
The short answer is our brand manager, Matt Eversole, decided to leave and I felt like what he did with the brand was so unique and important that without him I didn’t really want to be involved. I knew Enjoi would live on with him gone, but it will be something else and I don’t think I belong there with the next evolution.
Matt Eversole has never had his name on a board, and many kids might not know who he is, but he’s the unsung hero of Enjoi. He was a huge part of what that company is and always stood for. Why would he leave?
Enjoi’s ideology is that it’s a skateboard company that tries to make fun of skateboarding when skateboarding isn’t acting like itself. It’s a reaction to when skateboarding is too big or too corporate or when it forgets itself. When Marc Johnson started Enjoi I think he wanted to continue that early Blind and World Industries mentality, where we’re the little guys and we can say whatever we want and we can fight the big guys. It’s like a David and Goliath-type aesthetic. Matt always understood that and it was always quality over quantity. He wanted to do cool things over things that would make the company a lot of money. There were plenty of opportunities to put that panda on pretty much any type of product and kids would buy it. Basically, it comes down to the age old battle between business people and creative people. Creative people want to make cool stuff and business people want to sell stuff. There was always a lot of friction between Matt and his bosses and his boss's bosses. Matt really tried to protect Enjoi, even if it was at the cost of not making as much money. I feel like it got to the point where he couldn’t fight anymore. He was too tired and it was too much.
Were they trying to make the Enjoi panda the next Wet Willy or Blind reaper?
They would never claim to want that, but what they want and what the shareholders and the faceless money people who own everything want is results. If a panda became a Wet Willy or Element tree or whatever those would be results and they would be happy. It was hard for Matt to balance everything. It would be hard for anybody. I think he decided to not to do it anymore because he was starting to really not like skateboarding, and he loves skateboarding. I think it got to the point where he had to question what he was doing and at that point he decided it was time.
Enjoi still has an amazing team. Who will step into Matt’s role, and will they be able to continue on as the Enjoi we know and love?
Louie Barletta will take over as brand manager and they do still have a great team. Louie understands what Enjoi is all about, so I think they can still make something really great and I wish them the best.
And what’s next for Jerry Hsu? Do you walk off into the sunset with your camera?
Am I going to become a sunset photographer? Yes! No, I have something else lined up as far as skating, and hopefully they like all my new footage.
Are they giving you a decade to work on your welcome part?
Basically. I have until the year 2020. Stay tuned!
Well, good luck with that.