All photos by Derek Scancarelli
“The Parks Department is coming. You should probably put that cigarette out,” Jefferson Pang advises us as he swivels his head toward the marble archway in Washington Square Park.
Standing in 90-degree heat in a Supreme T-shirt, camo shorts, and tortoiseshell glasses, the former pro-skateboarder eyes two khaki-clad women with the NYC Parks insignia on emblazoned on their shirtsleeves. Fellow Zoo York pro alumnus Peter Bici interrupts, asking incredulously, “You’re not allowed to smoke in public parks?”
A lot has changed since Pang, Bici and their brother-in-arms Mike Hernandez regularly roamed the historic park in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Twenty years ago, they couldn’t care less about obeying city laws. The crew had no problem getting inside the heads of midtown security guards or chanting the lyrics to KRS-One’s “Black Cop” every time the same officer came around to hassle them. Just a block away on 8th Avenue was the deli where the patented 40oz-down-the-leg shoplifting maneuver was slickly executed. Back then, the park was like a circus show, a “fruity” combination of samurai performers and acrobats, weed hustlers and acid pushers, metalheads and club kids.
But Pang says that as long as other skaters surrounded you, you were always safe. In the late 80s and early 90s, all their crew cared about was skateboarding and having fun. The park was just one of several stops on their daily route of debauchery. It included the original Supreme skate shop, the currently-defunct Brooklyn Banks, South Street Seaport, St. Marks, Astor Place, and wherever else they found a decent ledge.
When first-time director Larry Clark and their pal, aspiring screenwriter Harmony Korine, decided to make a movie based on the pack, the film would go on to, as Hernandez puts it, define a subculture within a subculture. Putting KIDS on the silver screen immortalized the teens in a 90-minute blur of sex, skating and malt liquor. As a result, Clark and Korine became career filmmakers and debut actors like Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson followed their dreams to Hollywood.
As for Washington Square Park, it became known as the backdrop of the film’s most iconic scenes where young Pang, Bici, and Hernandez kicked it with their crew, rolled blunts and picked fights. An all-inclusive group, their sensibilities transcended any divide based on economic or racial stereotypes.
Twenty years later, the guys’ days of inspired vagrancy are behind them. Hernandez, 44, is a FDNY fireman at Ladder 118 in Brooklyn. Bici, a 42-year-old father of two, is also a fireman. He’s at Ladder 18 in the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, Pang, 43 and a father of two, has remained tied to the skate world as the National Sales Director at DC Shoes.
We met up with the trio on the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release back at their old stomping grounds. Not unlike the countless afternoons they spent there in their youth, we hung out in the park, brown-bagged some beers and befriended the next generation of skateboarders. Two decades later, we can’t help but wonder: Are kids still KIDS?
Hernandez and Pang met the way most skaters met in the 90s, on a random patch of city asphalt. Passing one another on their skateboards in the Bronx, Pang’s ear caught the young Hernandez singing a James Brown song. He screeched his board to a halt and introduced himself. Between their mutual appreciation for skating and soul music, the pair became fast friends.
“If we saw a skateboarder we would automatically gravitate toward each other,” Bici says. “I remember years ago if I saw someone in the street skateboarding my way I’d go right towards them, boom, we stopped right in front of each other. Now that’s unheard of.”
While Hernandez immediately vibed with Pang, he had some reservations when he first met Bici. Put off by his short hair, pristine white Converse high-tops and his brother’s involvement in the New York Hardcore scene, Hernandez thought Bici was trouble.
"I thought Pete was a white power dude when I met him,” Hernandez says, laughing at the absurdity of the idea.
Through skating, the guys discovered bands like Descendents, Gorilla Biscuits, Cro-Mags, Token Entry, Joy Division, Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedys and Depeche Mode, to name a few. According to the former pros, hardcore and punk had their places in the New York skate scene, but hip-hop reigned supreme. Hernandez asserts that their crew was the musical opposite of the die-hard punk-inspired skaters populating the West Coast at the time.
Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were on constant rotation, soundtracking their skate videos and late night parties. Throw in a little Diamond D, Nas, Fat Joe, Biggie Smalls and a copy of Gang Starr’s Daily Operation, and they were good to skate for days. A friend working A&R at Tommy Boy Records supplied them with advance copies of Gravediggaz and House of Pain cassettes to pass around and copy as they pleased. When hard gangsta rap like N.W.A. started to damped their vibes, they’d switch to the spiritual stuff—Jungle Brothers, Monie Love or Queen Latifah.
Micahel Hernandez and Jefferson Pang
For nightlife, they’d hit up clubs like the Tunnel in Chelsea or Mars in the West Village. If they wanted a taste of the music scene, they’d head to the Bowery and stop by CBGBs. Instead of paying for a show, they would usually just hang outside the historic venue, glare at the skinheads and watch sidewalk beat-downs while bands like Agnostic Front blared through the walls of the now-defunct punk mecca.
When the gang itself got involved in a tussle, it was usually started by an outside agitator. Pang recalls one incident at the park that landed Bici and Justin Pierce, remembered for " target="_blank">his role as Casper in KIDS, in handcuffs. “There was this dude jerking off and looking at my penis while I was going to the bathroom,” he recalls. “So I called him out and the dude grabbed me and he just would not let go of me.” Frightened, Pang called to his buddies to defend him. “Jeff got cruised, dude got bruised,” Hernandez says.
The crew makes it clear that they respect the hustle and talent of the new generation of skate culture, but Pang hasn’t seen the kind of camaraderie and brotherhood that he had with his fellow KIDS. “Now we’ve got kids who fucking hate on each other for being skateboarders,” he says. “In our day that would never fucking happen. Unless you did something really stupid, you wouldn’t be outcasted like that. It’s technology too. Dudes hating on each other on the internet. That shit would never happen back in the day. It was the island of fucking misfit toys with skateboarding back then.”
Hernandez argues that perhaps it’s not the kids who’ve changed, but the city. “9/11 changed the dynamic of New York City,” he says. “Big brother put his foot down and made it a safer, cleaner, more regulated city,” he says, stomping his foot on the asphalt. “We were in the midst of the unregulated New York City. The 90s was a transitional era.”
These days, an unattended suitcase in Penn Station could easily cause a panic. It’s a far cry from the days when the guys would sneak into the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center. They would enter through a parking lot door that accessed the building’s air vents and wander down the HVAC hallways feeling the wind whirling, or sneak into a garage when cars exited. “We would do grinds and lipslides. If someone tried doing that now, they’d be like, ‘It’s a terrorist!’” Bici says, laughing.
After KIDS cast a spotlight on the local scene, opportunities opened up for the group. The trio acted as members of a rotating cast on the Zoo York team, traveling as far as Japan to skate. Young people began recognizing the KIDS all over the world, particularly their friend, co-star, and teammate Harold Hunter, remembered equally for his standout performance, skateboarding legacy, and charm. Bici still rocks a T-shirt in honor of his friend, who died of a drug overdose in 2006. In the 90s, at the peak of the bi-coastal hip-hop rivalry, Bici recalls being on the same plane as The Notorious B.I.G. Sitting in coach on their way to Los Angeles, Pang, Bici, Hunter, and teammate Vinny Ponte all spotted a swagged out, cane-wielding Biggie Smalls in first class. After they landed, Biggie saw Hunter skating around LAX and strolled over and introduced himself. “I guess Biggie noticed Harold from KIDS,” Bici says.
Hernandez, Pang and Peter Bici at their old stomping grounds
Some of the KIDS, such as Bici, knew they wanted their future to revolve around skating. Others were just in it for fun.
“Getting sponsored was not on my radar,” Hernandez remembers, “Once skating became a job, it was unattractive to me.”
As the group debates the merits of social media and the new generation of skate culture, a young skater in a baggy gray T-shirt and backwards hat cruises by on his board. We try to flag him down, but he ignores us. “See what I’m talking about?” Bici exclaims.
Later, the kid circles back and we finally get his attention. He steps off his board and his face lights up as he recognizes Pang. After dapping up Pang, he notices Hernandez and Bici too. We asked if he’s ever seen KIDS, and his reaction is priceless.
“Damn. Ya’ll beat up that dude right over there, didn’t you?” he asks, and the group laughs in reply.
His name is Zack. He’s 22 years old with short black hair and a slight bayou accent that hints at his Louisiana roots. A few hours earlier, he’d quit his job as a dishwasher in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Last week, he says, his skateboard got run over by a garbage truck. Seems like the perfect addition to the conversation.
So what kind of music do the KIDS of 2015 listen to? “Trap music,” he responds. Hernandez says the genre is nothing new, “To me it’s just Southern hip-hop.” But Zack’s skate videos from his hometown of New Orleans take it old school with tracks from Hot Boys and Big Tymers, sounds that influenced him while skating down in NOLA and sneaking into Lil Wayne’s failed, closed-off skatepark. It’s not quite the World Trade Center, but it’s still trespassing credibility.
A few minutes later, Zack and the former pros are taking turns popping ollies over trashcans and maneuvering their boards over concrete ledges. They’re soon joined by Zack’s 18-year-old buddy Devin, who’s visiting from Louisiana. Devin hasn’t seen KIDS, and admits that he’s not super familiar with the 90s era of skateboarding. Compared what the 90s gang was up to, Devin seems downright pious. He likes to bump A$AP Rocky and, like his forebears, a lot of Wu-Tang. But he doesn’t drink or smoke weed, and outside of the occasional tiff with his parents, has never had family issues or struggled to fit in. “I just skate all the time,” he says. It’s hard not to wonder if any connection remains between the new Millennial breed of skater and the gang of Zoo York hooligans. “We skate, that’s enough,” Devin says. “That’s what connects all of us. It sounds so stupid, but it makes sense to me.”
Hernandez, Pang, and Bici talk skate culture with Zack.
Nearby, we meet another teen named Zach, a Texan who likes skating to Bun-B and Pimp C, that Houston rap. It turns out Zach is the son of Mike Kelly, a peripheral member of the same crew the KIDS were skating with back in the day. Growing up with a skater dad, Zach is keenly aware of the differences between the skate scenes of the 90s and today. The do-or-die, soul skater mentality of his dad’s era, he says, isn’t as prevalent in the commercialized skate world of 2015. “I know plenty of people who own skateboards and they have the fucking hat, the shirt, the shoes, the socks, anything and everything to do with skateboarding,” he says. “But at the end of the day, they don’t really give a fuck about skateboarding.” Zach says KIDS sheds light on an era that could never be recreated. “It’s one of my favorite movies just because of how raw it is,” he says. “Just going out there, skating what they want to skate, doing whatever the fuck they want to do, when they want to do it. If I could do that every day I fucking would, but nowadays it ain’t like that.”
Minutes later, the group bumps into fellow KIDS castmate Hamilton Harris, who stopped by Washington Square Park on a whim. Little did he know he’d stumble upon a KIDS reunion. In the movie, Harris can be remembered for educating the audience on the finer points of rolling a blunt. Sporting a dashiki and a wide grin, he still has some bud in his pocket ready to go at a moment’s notice. He now lives in the Netherlands but says he still keeps in touch with the old crew. “I’m born and raised here, so that could never be lost.”
Hamilton Harris and Hernandez
Harris is spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about the gang of skaters called The KIDS. The doc will look back on the production of KIDS and the origins of its young stars, including Bici, Hernandez and Pang. Bici is also helping produce it. Reflecting on the original film, Harris says what really matters about KIDS isn’t its sensationalized mischief but its youthful spirit. “What was real in that film was the energy. The energy in all those characters was as real as it gets. That was no show. That was no rehearsal. It was honest.”
Two decades on, the nomad teens’ influence extends far beyond the five boroughs. Their wild antics popularized their distinct NYC style, and brands like Supreme and HUF are now staples of boutique streetwear and skate fashion. But the group’s attitude, language and essence transcend anything tangible.
What is most important to the narrative and legacy of the film, its cast, and its fans isn’t the sponsorship deals, fame or the heightened plotline of HIV/AIDS and sexual conquest. It’s the darker moments, the ones that don’t get romanticized, that matter most: the homophobia, the violence and the sexual aggression. KIDS is tragic by nature, but its enduring legacy is the light that shines through.
“Were we gonna be ashamed?” Pang says. “That was exactly what we were doing.”
Kids will always be kids. But compared to this wild bunch, no one else comes close.
Hamilton Harris and Peter Bici are currently working on THE KIDS Documentary.