Where the tour ends, the story of Darren Harper begins: hoodlum-turned-skateboarding-star. A born hustler who left one cutthroat game for another, and used the same attributes — street-smarts and charm and relentlessness — to find success in both.
“One thing I’ve always had, no matter what I’m doing,” he says with a smile, “is hustle.”
And it’s also the story — with Harper, now 29 years old, in the starring role — of skateboarding in D.C., the rougher, edgier cousin to the more polished, familiar California style. This strand of the story saw its zenith arrive over the weekend with the Maloof Money Cup, the biggest skateboarding event in District history, which, among other things, brought the construction of a permanent skate park alongside RFK Stadium. Harper was both the main local ambassador for the event and a competitor.
“You can’t talk about skateboarding in D.C.,” said Mark Waters, one of the event’s organizers, “without mentioning Darren.”
Jagged path to success
The Darren Harper story begins in the early 1990s, beside that apartment building, in a pile of belongings from an evicted family. Amidst this particular pile on this particular day was a bright yellow skateboard, which attracted the attention of little Darren, then around 10 years old. He rode it on his rear end at first, then his knees — rolling down the hill that led to Mississippi Avenue SE.
Eventually, that board — well not that exact board, but the ones to which he upgraded over the years, occasionally by theft, later by endorsement deals — would be his vehicle to escape the ’hood and a lifestyle that, he says, “was like digging my own grave.”
These days, Harper makes a living with his board, through some top-shelf endorsements of clothing and equipment companies, plus a side gig giving private lessons to suburban kids who worship Harper’s urban-ness and wish they could grow up to be half as hard. It’s not an easy living — he has no manager, agent or PR rep, and hustling his own deals is almost a full-time job — nor is it a lucrative one. But in this game, success is defined as not having to take a day job. And Harper hasn’t had one in about five years.