From displaying her art in the San Francisco International Airport as a teen, to later creating her own custom grip tape company, Tomoko Oikawa has demonstrated to the world that she is an ambitious go-getter with a success-packed resumé.
After years of following her on social media, inspired by her acts of love for the skate community at a global level, I was stoked when Tomo said she would be down for an interview. Get to know this SF gem for advice on navigating the industry and whimsical dreams from deep in coma slumber. –Gabi
How long have you been skateboarding?
I started when I was a kid, around the fourth grade. My middle sister used to skate when she was in high school, and seeing her pull up to the house on her board inspired me to teach myself how to skate.
And then how long have you been painting or creating art?
Of course I started as a young kid, but started hand painting with more detail and on a serious note maybe in middle school when I was in art class. I got one of my pieces into the SFO airport temporarily which is kind of like a big move when you’re in middle school.
And then when did those two hobbies start to sort of intertwine?
I just love to hand paint, so when I was 17 I started to hand paint on griptape and I would cut them out and make grip stickers. I’d hand them out to locals around SF and to friends as little gifts. That’s how it started. It kind of intertwined together naturally.
Are there any artists in skateboarding specifically that you look up to/admire on top of Picasso?
I would say I admire Jeffrey Cheung for his forms of art and powerful message they send to the skate community. He empowered the LGBTQ community within skateboarding and I like how he also hand paints the graphics that they have on their Unity boards. He also supported me during my healing period after my injury and I was so grateful. There’s so much love and support in the SF Bay Area skate community and Jeffrey adds a lot to it.
How did you go about expanding your art into a business?
Ever since I was in elementary school I always had dreams and aspirations of creating some kind of business that I enjoy. Having the hype from people around me who really enjoyed my creations inspired me to get started on an actual company. I just enjoy creating and I enjoy being able to make other people happy with what I can make. Seeing them hyped makes me hyped.
Did you have a hard time making sales at first? Did you find any instances of gatekeeping or being turned away for being a new brand or being a woman or just not being taken seriously?
I’d say it wasn’t too difficult when comparing it at the starting level it was at. Plus I was mainly focused on having fun with it, being creative, painting, and exploring and learning more as I transitioned from grip stickers to full sheets.
As my company grew there were a few instances where I have been turned away, who knows under what circumstances why that happened. Can be either because of my company being a new brand, me being a woman, or them only wanting standard black grip, but regardless in the end I don’t take it to heart. I’m doing what I enjoy and this is what makes me happy. Don’t take offense to anything people negatively say about you, your work, or your dreams. You’re doing you and you’re sick if you want to chase your dreams and build something out of it. Those who are feeling fired up to start a company or sharing something about what they love, keep it going.
What’s the most difficult part of your business practice that maybe people may not be aware of?
Something difficult but still worth it is hand painting and designing every single sheet of grip myself. It’s sick to be able to create something you love and share it with others. Something like that can give you some sort of purpose in life and a reason to get you out of bed.
How long does it take to make one sheet of grip tape?
It really depends on the graphic and how long it takes me to cut the stencil. It can take anywhere from five to eight hours in a day to create one design stencil. But painting wise and depending on the graphic I’d say can take anywhere from like 15 to 25 minutes per sheet. I like to take care of the details on grip and I feel like after years of creating grip art I’ve gotten very close to mastering the perfection of production.
Do you have a favorite pattern or design that you’ve made?
My favorite graphic is the rose one. I love roses and it’s one of the first graphics I’ve ever made.
What’s your most recent design that you’ve come out with?
A black and white spider web graphic, with a red “Tomo” logo in an Olde English font.
What inspires you during your craft?
Ever since I was young I’ve had the mindset of being a creator. I love to create and love to build and also being able to inspire other people and make other people happy. That pushes me even harder to want to keep on creating, to keep on working. And it also gives me a purpose in life, ya know? Like traveling around the world with this by my side is just an amazing kind of feeling, too.
That’s awesome! Is there a mission behind Tomo or a set of values you would say your company aligns with?
I would absolutely say that it aligns with trying to inspire other people, that’s a main kind of mission of what I’m trying to do, and also to be able to give back. When I was in the Philippines when I was 18, I wanted to teach kids how to skate out there for a month and I had a mini ramp built out there. Seeing them hyped and happy made me happy too.
I remember seeing you post on Instagram about that. How was that?
It was really cool. It was in a countryside area my mom grew up in where it’s not financially doing well out there. No one can really get boards out there. It was really cool when I was able to go out there for a month and build a mini ramp and bring a couple boards that I could actually afford during that time when I was 18 and teach a lot of the youth and teens and college students how to skate for a month. Eventually I do want to potentially build a park out there. That’s a dream of mine. I want to be able to donate 20 boards out in that specific district where my mom grew up.
So I know that you had an almost miraculous recovery from a traumatic brain injury at an SF hillbombing event. What are your main takeaways from this life threatening event?
It made me see that life is very precious and life can be very short. It made me feel way more mortal. Everyone knows that they’re mortal, but having a near death experience like that makes you realize that life can be limited. You need to show gratitude for what you have right now. And also while I was healing right after my injury, I was in a coma for a few weeks. And then when I woke up, I was like having an adrenaline rush of happiness from surviving it. I was so fired up. My surgeon was telling me, “We were kind of holding this information back, but you had a 0.5/10 survival rate of this.” So this was a very near-death situation. So that really fired me up and I have much more appreciation in life and it’s really amazing. I’ve received so much love and support from the community, it was amazing. I’m so grateful for the love and support I received. I still think about that until today. I won’t forget about that stuff.
Do you think the Dolores Hill Bomb should still go on? It has a long list of really bad injuries at this point.
Honestly it’s already done. It’s not how it used to be years ago when it was organized. Now you have people out here who are not from SF that are putting locals in a bad light. There’s now side shows, fights, skaters jumping on cars and ambulances while homies are trying to go to the hospital after getting smoked. It’s just total mayhem, I remember when it used to be once a year and much safer, there were even side cones. Now people that don’t respect the skating community are putting matters into their hands, pushing it to happen more than once a year, and so many people are paying the price for it.
The locals are going to keep bombing regardless of the event or not. As far as us being concerned it’s already done and people are trying to revive something that’s dead.
Accidents happen, you’ll always fall when skating, but Dolores is a dangerous hill to bomb, during the event or not. There’s so many pedestrians and traffic, the city added raised dot speed bumps so you can’t even do the 3 piece and you’d have to start on the left side of the street with opposite traffic if you do. I just know there’s so many skaters that bomb everyday, and I know they can 100% handle bombing at this type of event and it’s sick to see them smiling and so fired up, but now versus how it was years ago it’s just really not safe.
But anyways, it seems like this event will still go on, it just takes one random person to post about it now. A couple years ago I remember someone was randomly promoting 3 Dolores hillbombs in July. So many people knew having multiple hillbombs in a month should be a wrap, and some of us had a weird feeling about what is going to happen on the 3rd one. After that there was a severe heart-wrenching outcome of the last hillbombing day of the 3, but people are still going. I just hope everyone will be safe and be more prepared for it.
Did this have an impact on your company as well?
It’s kind of hard to explain, but it just inspired me to work even harder on my company and to keep it going and to make my dreams come true and go out of my comfort zone. I started to independently travel more and reach out to shops. I would feel a little nervous, but then just have the courage to do it. Anything’s possible.
What was it like to be in a coma?
I felt like I was in a different world. I was having vivid dreams.
What kind of dreams did you have?
I remember a few dreams I had. One was me being a hairstylist in the 50s, I was cutting some skater’s hair and it had like some greaser vibes there. In another one I was a samurai in Japan. It felt like I was in a video game but in real life. I was fighting some sort of old school Japanese cyberpunk world. And then another dream I had, I was in a quiet hospital and I was having a surgery on my spirit animal, and my spirit animal is a polar bear. I decided to look more into the meaning of it and I saw that polar bears symbolize independence and determination, surviving the harshest conditions and defying the odds. I feel like that resonated with me and my situation, my survival of this injury, and having 0.5/10 chance of surviving was defying the odds. The dream I remember the most was when I was in an ancient Egyptian pyramid with feline deities. I was sitting next to one near the top of the large stone stair block and there was a fire nearby at the bottom and other deities relaxing and were spread around the inside of the pyramid. The deity I was talking to the most was sitting next to me with a very calm and competent composure. They were giving information about how they all lived for 1000 years and they have had multiple lives, and they told me I will have eternal life in some form and not to be afraid. That gave me somewhat more peace and confidence and gave me mental strength in the moment, in the past and how I will still be alive in this world in some way.
What was your thought process when you were designing the board with the healing heart and money bag with snakes?
I wanted it to symbolize where my mind was at and my views on life. I made it right after I finally had the surgery to have my skull piece that was taken out for 5 months reattached to my skull. What’s on the graphic is a healing heart with gentle hands around it and a money bag with green snakes poking out of it and a bulb with eyes. It’s a symbolism of my healing process and how I view life and whatnot. There was a long healing process for me during this time. I was very grateful for the gentle love and support received from my family, friends, surgeons and nurses, the skate community, and those in the skate industry. It helped me be more conscious of others and their situations they might be facing, and also gave me more awareness that there can still be beauty in life even during the darkest time.
I love that, that’s really beautiful. It’s inspiring how you were able to come back so strong… What advice would you give to women who want to have success in the industry?
Finding what you love first is what matters. You love to make art, make cool graphics, or have some sort of way to promote something you really believe in? Just believe in yourself, explore, take action, and go for it. Don’t be afraid to try new things and have the courage to take that leap and try it out. Do some research or ask around to people you feel that can give you knowledgeable advice or answers to your questions. I’ve learned so many new things over the years, it’s a cool feeling to always learn something new and to explore. There’s also the importance of having self-awareness of your self-worth. Don’t ever limit your possibilities and your self-worth and especially don’t allow others to do the same to you. Surround yourself with more good people, your environment affects your mentality and that matters so much. You hang with 5 people who only want to party, you’re the 6th. You hang with 5 people who focus too much on negativity and gossip, you’re the 6th. You hang with 5 positive, loving people or those who have dreams they want to chase, you’re the 6th.
Also focus on what’s your biggest dream in life and the reasons why you want it, and take notes on the genuine bliss you can feel inside from it. The possibilities you can have and the good you can do are limitless once you take your first step and keep it going.
I understand how some people can feel a little uncomfortable with starting a new company. There’s some who can focus too much on their standard of having it already close to perfection, or care too much of what others think, or maybe even compare themselves to others. For those who feel anything I mentioned, you need to look past that. You can find the strength inside of you and you’re in charge of your own life and happiness. Genuine bliss you can feel depends on yourself and if this is it, take action by taking that first step and go explore.
Have faith and don’t be afraid of the beginning of it, don’t be afraid of any trials and errors. Over time you can learn so much from what you’ve tried. There’s so many inspirational stories about other companies who’ve had rough beginnings, of starting in their garage, looking past occasions of negative people with negative opinions or judgment towards them and their dreams, and now years later you can see the result of their companies or distributions running well because of their dedication to creating what they enjoy and love. Imagine running a company based on something you enjoy or love, being big or small, in the end wouldn’t that make you feel so happy? More people need to feel happiness from what they can create and what they can do. I believe anyone can achieve whatever they want, so in the end if that’s what you want to do, just go for it. 💛