Harper gives skateboards to kids in his old neighborhood. Photographs by Kevin A. Koski
Skateboarder Darren Harper is standing at the bottom of a steep driveway in Silver Spring—he’s giving lessons to a pair of young girls who haven’t spent much time on a board, and they’re reluctant to start their descent.
“Whatever you do, don’t take your hands off the board!” he shouts to the girls, who are getting used to the feel by going downhill while seated on the board. “There’s a whole lot of steppingstones you’ve got to step over to get to a better place.”
He knows that better than anyone.
Harper grew up in a rough neighborhood in Southeast DC: His father was in and out of jail, and Darren sold drugs to get by. One day when he was ten, he found a yellow skateboard on the side of the road. He practiced on weekends at Freedom Plaza in downtown DC.
In high school, kids from his neighborhood began picking fights with him. “Skateboarding was seen as a white-boy sport,” Harper says. He hid his skating from schoolmates by disassembling his board and stuffing it into his backpack or a trash bag. But he kept skating, got a job at Tower Records, and stopped dealing drugs.
He also marketed himself to skateboarding executives. In 2006, when he was 24, he met Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and earned a professional sponsorship with Barker’s clothing brand, Famous Stars & Straps. The deal allowed him to quit his job at Tower Records and focus on skateboarding full-time.
Now 29, Harper is on a mission to make the sport acceptable in his urban neighborhoods. His friendship with Barker helps: Harper has appeared on an episode of the popular drummer’s MTV reality show, Meet the Barkers. Harper makes appearances at go-go clubs and gives out skateboards to kids. And in an industry with few black-owned companies, he’s launching a new clothing and skateboard brand, Love Being Street, which he hopes will appeal to kids of all races.
Last year, he spent two weeks in Germany and Spain filming a skate video for Famous Stars & Straps. “Growing up in the ’hood, I never could have dreamed that I’d get to experience that,” he says. “It’s still sinking in.”
He says he has further to go. Skateboarding as a career is unpredictable—bonuses for winning contests and for promoting the brand help pay the bills, but only the most popular skaters, such as Tony Hawk, easily make enough to live. While Harper hopes to achieve a more comfortable lifestyle someday, he says his main goal for his company is to help skateboards replace drugs on city corners.
Says Harper: “I’m here to show the children that we have a different option.”
This article appears in the September 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.