BLOOD BROTHERS -
TAI GRAHAM AND HIS KIWI ROOTS.
They look Kiwi, act Kiwi and usually sound Kiwi, and that’s because deep down within while they may have been born offshore and grown up overseas they still recognise their roots and stay true to who they are. They are our ‘Blood Brothers’ could also be sisters, but this issue we will feature a brother.
If you have logged onto any surf contest web commentary in recent times and heard the commentator being broadcast, you may have noticed one of the MC’S pumping the kiwi lads and girls at each contest a little more than others. That guy is Tai Graham and from the moment I laid eyes on Tai at the O’neill Cold Water Classic held in Gisborne this year, I could tell he was one of the brothers, so had a bit of a chat and here we are presenting his life story, as a ‘Blood Brother’.
Born and raised on the Gold Coast, Tai realised early on that he was different to all the other kids around him, his dad a Maori lad from Pawarenga Northland had rebelled and run away to the Goldy as a teenager, he then met Tai’s mum who was from England and together they had a family.
One of Tai’s earliest memories as a small child was his dad watching the All Blacks and busting out a solo Haka in front of everyone, he was proud of his heritage, and wanted Tai to know what he was made of as well. Nicknaming him “Maori Boy” around the house, that was his name, and he very rarely called him Tai. Growing up in the Gold Coast schooling system saw Tai gravitate toward the other few Maori boys that went to school in the area and they would hang out. Tai recalls that those mates were real hories, of the like he had never seen before, that wore the same school clothes all week long. That was until he came to New Zealand on his first ever trip home to visit his sick Grandma for several months. On that trip he felt really at home and comfortable as soon as he met his family, one thing he couldn’t believe was how many aunties, uncles and cousins he had. He learnt the Haka, stayed on the Marae and kicked it with his cousins playing rugby and generally fooling around. From then on, trips back to New Zealand became regular as his dad was really missing his family.
Back home Tai’s dad really pushed the roots, starting up cultural groups and even a business called Hangi Jacks where they would put down Hangi’s for local footy clubs and on Waitangi Day. Growing up only 20 metres away from the beach his parents were always down kicking it on the sand, so it was only natural that Tai would give surfing a crack and at around four years old stood up on a board for the first time. It was a short lived moment however and he never really kicked on at a young age, in fact he grew up to hate surfers and was right into his league, a tradition passed down from his father and uncles. So at five he got into his league moving through the grades till he was training five days a week, playing for schoolboys, club and rep footy. He admits he was a little homie hanging out at shopping centres, dressing in baggy pants. His sister was going out with a surfer and she would give him shit, then at about 12 years old he gave Tai a surfboard.
A few years prior to this Tai’s parents had split and his mother had moved away to Bali, his dad recognising that he had some talent wanted him to stay living on the Coast to pursue his career in League, as he had shown some promise and was selected to play for rep teams and picked up a scholarship. It was strange for a young boy to be away from his mum, but every school holidays he would head over to Bali and also dabbled in a bit of surfing there. His Mum would drop him down at Padma Beach every morning where he would hang out with the likes of Made Kasim, Betet, Marlon and more and he got into the circle of surfing.
At around 15 years old he returned from one Bali trip hooked on surfing and broke the news to his dad that he was done with league and was gonna quit. His dad tried to talk him into playing one more season, and said that some bloke down the club would buy him a surfboard if he played one more. In true Maori style, Tai said “Sweet as, but he has to give me the surfboard first” he took the board and was out of there, and never went to a single training.
He was now a surfer and that’s all he wanted to do. Through his league days he had become good mates with Jay “Bottle” Thompson and Bottle was into surfing, so they naturally started hanging out. Within a few years of intense surfing Tai had excelled to a level, that up against the likes of Bottle, Bede Durbridge and Luke Munro all surfers that went on to surf on the World Tour. He won the Gold Coast U18 Title and his dad then said, “listen boy, you should have a bit of a crack at this surfing gig.” So Tai started doing the junior series and attracted sponsors, picking up a few semi finals and some respectable WQS results in Ozzie and Japan. In the end he was spending more than he was making so pulled pin on that career and simply headed to Bali to surf perfect waves and have fun. Tai was getting a small amount of cash from his sponsors at the time, but to pay the bills he started plastering with his dad, and when there was no surf he’d go hard, then have time off when the swell kicked in or a trip came up.
At 20 years old he decided to go it alone with a mate in the plastering business, so with some advice, tips and contacts from his old man they launched a sweet little business that started to boom. After 18 months Tai realised that all he had been doing was working 18 hour days and while making great money, he wasn’t surfing and wasn’t happy. So he took off to Bali for six months. While in Bali Tai met a mate that was a lifeguard back
home, and upon returning, his mate put in a good word for him and he started life-guarding on the Gold Coast based at Main Beach Surfers Paradise. He was thrown straight in the deep end and learned so much on the job and had an awesome time, the bosses understood that he was trying to make it as a surfer and allowed him time off to travel, but as soon as he was home, he was back on the job. The lifesaving led Tai into buying a jet-ski as they were on them all day at work, and they went off chasing big wave spots up and down the coast. These missions then led into Tai working water-patrol at events and leading into commentary which he still does today, entertaining the masses.
After a solid six years working the beaches, there were days when it was windy and raining, and no one was on the beach at all, while sitting there twiddling his thumbs, it dawned on him that he wasn’t happy with his ground hog day life and after a relationship break-up took off to Bali to see his mum. Bali had been such a huge part of his life and he had spent many years there with his mum and friends he had met, but he had never seen himself living there at all. A mentor of Tai’s encouraged him to chase his dream and provided the motivation needed to make Tai succeed. Through all his contacts in the industry Tai began guiding crew through Bali and eventually, after overstaying his welcome at his mums house, moved down the road into a place of his own which he renovated himself, using all his savings and set up as a place people could come and rent out. Within months it was all paid back and it snowballed, and before long Tai had become the go-to guy for industry types coming to Bali, hooking them up with cars, skis, bikes, accommodation and guiding them to the best waves on the island. As his demand grew so did his need to expand and he brought another pad which he fully decked out with a pool, aircon, maids and security and this attracted a whole new level of clientele, such as the Bulldogs League team, Olympics Rowers, Hawaiian swim-wear models, grandmas and granddads and people from all walks of life, it was awesome times! As time went on Tai felt that he had enough of this lifestyle and that he had become a full time babysitter in a way and didn’t have any of his own personal time. He met the girl he still sees till this day, and decided to get out and get his own pad away from the tour guide life. Having met local legend Tipi Jabrik back as a youngster during those days at Padma beach, the two started their own bar called ‘Black-dog’ which only opened Friday nights from 10PM-1AM and steadily became the place to party. Attracting some of the most famous celebrities Indo has. The 1AM shut down was put in place so the lads could still get a surf in on Saturday.
After a year and a half they closed that down and Tai, through a sponsor of his at the time ‘Rhythm’, moved into the surf industry. He knew most of the surf shop owners in Indo, so pitched it to his sponsors to let him distribute ‘Rhythm’ in Bali. Having no idea how it all worked and not even knowing what a spread sheet was, Tai’s first stumbling block came when he tried to come through Bali customs with 60kilos of boardshorts, but ended up bribing the officers off with four pairs of boardies covered in Banana prints. A small price to pay to launch his business. Steadily business grew and shops throughout Bali began to stock the brand.
Then through a chance meeting a few years ago Tai was asked to come and meet with General Manager of O’neill who wanted to pick his brains on the local scene. O’neill had never been represented well in Indonesia and they were looking to make inroads into the local scene. Admitting he was still green and unsure of whether he was up for such a big task with such a big company, they asked him to help represent the brand and offered their support and help. He was flown to Oz for several intense seminars, learning the ropes of running the brand. Two other guys in the form of Rip Curl’s, Jeff Anderson and Macbeth’s Tim Russo, the Indonesian operations managers for their respective brands, also offered support and advice in how the industry works and Tai was aspiring to live the type of lifestyle those guys had setup, working and surfing. At present the role with O’neill sees a good element of both the business side and surfing side keeping Tai busy from day to day, along with the other pies he has his hand in.
With the success of ‘Black Dog’ the demand for Tai’s skills in running bars was also in demand and it was an unexpected call from Balinese legend Made Kasim that came last year. Tai had met Kasim as a young grom and had been taken on surf trips out to Ulu’s by the legend on some of his very first trips to Bali. Kasim had a hotel out on top of the Uluwatu cliff called ‘Blue Point’ and rang Tai to pitch an idea of a bar to him. Upon pulling back some crusty old curtains in a conference room of the hotel, the proposed site for the bar. Once Tai saw that view overlooking the famous Ulu’s lineup and up to Temples he was sold, and early in 2011 ‘Single Fin’ was opened with Tai running the front end of the business and Kasim taking care of the back end.
From those early years heading back to his homeland of Aoteroa, he had felt a special connection with the family values and culture, and while he admits that he will probably never come back to settle down in NZ, he has found those similar values here amongst the Balinese people and with warm water and perfect waves on tap, who can argue. After all ‘Single Fin’ even has satellite TV to watch those famous All Black victories on. One thing is for sure though after a recent trip where Tai fell back in love with the kiwi culture and scenery he will return in the new year to show the love of his life his true heartland. Blood Brothers for life!
LEFT: TAI LOCKED IN AT PADANG PADANG. ABOVE: THE SMOOTH LOOKING MAORI BOY. PHOTO: REDIGERA INSETS TOP TO BOTTOM: BALI HAS MORE THAN LEFTS. PHOTO: SWILLY. BACKHAND JAMMA & GETTING ALL TRADITIONAL ON US. PHOTOS: CURLEY