These days Blind may be running with The Reaper to the fullest extent of the law, but in the late 80s the only reaper skateboarding knew was the flame-throwing one that decorated the underside of Corey O’Brien’s first Santa Cruz pro model.
Although a well-known skateboarder both in his San Jose locale and nationally and having ridden for NHS as one of its only street amateurs through the mid 80s, Corey was never supposed to get a pro model. “They NHS said they didn’t want to have any street models out and that’s why they wouldn’t give me one,” he says. Then after coming back from an Oregon contest and placing in the top eight, the company had a change of heart. But not without reservations: “They told me they were going to give me a board, but they really barely wanted to do it.” Corey notes that NHS’ probable motivation was the recent success of a competitor’s street model. “That was right after the Vision Gonz board came out,” he says.
Armed with a vision plucked from scouring San Jose tattoo parlors, Corey approached Jim Phillips, NHS’ art director at the time, with the first version of “The Reaper.” “Originally the reaper guy was holding a crystal ball in his hand, looking at it, and I wanted to put the Santa Cruz dot inside the crystal ball,” Corey explains. Jim suggested replacing holding a crystal with throwing fire, but Corey still pushed for the SC dot idea until Jim came back after a weekend of sketching and changed his mind: “He came in on Monday, and the new sketches looked really good.”
With the main part of the graphic set to go, Corey brought Jim the now-classic West Coast punk compilation Hell Comes To Your House along with a Virgil Finley book, which together inspired the font and subliminal images that make up the hazy landscape in which the Reaper exists. “I just wanted it to look different than the other boards Jim was doing, so that’s why I went out looking for ideas,” says Corey about assisting with the process. “Jim was doing a lot of boards at the time.”
NHS’ chance and Jim and Corey’s hard work paid off in little time-the Santa Cruz Corey O’Brien became the company’s first street model, outselling many of the vert boards from the same brand over the coming years. After a few of those years Corey grew sick of the board and switched to a new model despite the continued success: “They NHS/Santa Cruz didn’t want to stop doing it either, I was just sick of seeing it. Everyone said I should have ridden it out a bit longer, but I wanted a change. I was so sick of it.”
Even with his current-day success as a San Jose rock ‘n’ roll nightclub owner, Corey looks back with better appreciation for his past and the artist who helped him gain that first life triumph. He’s also a little humbled by the fact that he had two full duffel bags of his original pro models stolen from the warehouse that used to house his old company, Sonic skateboards: “The graphic still looks really good. It’s done. Complete. I don’t think I appreciated Jim as much back then as I should have. He can do anything.”-Eric Stricker