Let’s start from the beginning… how’d you get introduced to skating? And what was the first board you ever had?
I think it was a fairly typical scenario… I was in Virginia Beach on vacation when I was introduced to the first ‘modern’ board I’d seen and I was unnaturally drawn to it. I don’t mean to suggest that it was fate, but growing up in a small town, I was never too interested in sports and other common pastimes. Skating offered an outlet for creativity, aggression and fun. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any other skaters or have any knowledge of the industry.
Things were different back before the age of the internet… everything was a process of hunting and gathering. Just to get an issue of Transworld was a huge task.
My dad bought my first board after I spent the summer trying to raise money by cutting grass. It was an Old Ghost Guardian by Vision.
One thing I remember being taken aback by when I got my first skatemag was not only the tricks but also the creativity of the ads and the graphics. Who were some of the early influences on your artwork?
I was always into Neil Blender, Mark Gonzales, Natas, and John Grigley…all of that early Vision stuff when Jinx and Grigley were in the art dept. But even things like Wrench Pilot from Andy Jenkins… those were the things I was drawing on my notebooks in high school. I could appreciate the VCJ/Powell stuff and Pushead but I was just drawn to guys who were skaters first and artists second.
Now some people may not know this but you made a pretty decent run, skating-wise… getting sponsored by Steadham then Acme... Was an eventual art career in skate graphics always the plan?
It was all kind of secondary to just having fun. I never set out to get sponsored or to film parts or whatever. After I met John Drake, I had a bit more drive if only because skating with him made you want to push yourself. He’s always had a natural style and talent and I didn’t particularly have that. But all those years, the filming and the skate trips… it was all just about having fun and being with my friends.
Art was something that was always there for me in very much the same way. Just about passing time and having fun… and skateboarding was a place where it all collided.
What was it like skating for Steadham anyway?
The guy blew my mind. He had a car phone back in 1990, back in the pre-cell phone era. I called him up a few times and he’s just driving down the road. I was like, ‘this dude is serious.’ But I recall him being really genuine and supportive.
I actually just met him out in Costa Mesa for the first time after all these years. Mindblowing.
Now did your sponsors know you had this artistic talent? Did you ever bring any of it up to them?
I think I sent some stuff to Jim Gray but back then, I was way more focused on skating than art. I was always into Ron Cameron’s work and he was doing all the Acme art at the time so they were well-taken care of in that department.
What is your artistic process or method? On one hand, you have these loose lines that make up your classic monsters but also you mix in these elaborate geometric shapes that must take a bit more precision.
Most of the graphics I would do on a Mac so I’ve always taken advantage of the idea of having these really clean, straight lines and forms. So what I did most of the time was sketch this stuff out sitting around my house and then redraw them using the computer. Almost everything would start in my sketchbook where the creative process (I guess you could call it) would take place.
When I paint, I like the looser lines and imperfect shapes. I think those elements inject some life into what can be kind of stark and cold at times. And painting was all about just getting away from the computer once in a while more than anything else.
Shmoos, pink bunnies, transistor sects… are there any names you’ve given for the classic dp stable of creatures that present themselves so often in your work? Have you always drawn these little guys?
No… no names or anything. I’ve always drawn creatures and animals and insects from the very early days of being a kid. The idea has always been that if you could create this creature or animal, you could decide how it moves and all of that. So it’s more than just drawing out an image; it’s almost like you’re engineering a new kind of animal or something. That’s what makes it fun.
Now had you done board graphics professionally before the Workshop? And was it difficult coming into a company with already such a strong established look? Alien has always been one of the most amazing companies visually… Was there a sense of pressure early on to make something “Alien Workshoppy-enough”?
I’d never done any skateboard graphics other than things in my sketchbook… and sometimes I would paint on my board. There was definite pressure at first but it was just pressure I put on myself. I’d always been a fan of AWS graphics so going from being a fan to creating them was humbling and stressful during those first few months. It ended up being really rad because Carter and Hill never put pressure on me or steered me in any particular direction. They just let me sit there and play around and it worked out. I had knowledge of the work they’d done in the past, all of Blender’s imagery he had created, and I wanted to respect that history. The graphics had to look like they belonged to AWS but my style fit into that vein so it was more of a natural progression from there.
I’ve always been fascinated by this company doing very much its own thing, totally secluded from the rest of the industry. What are the inner-workings of the Workshop like? Is Mike Hill this reclusive genius locked away somewhere, obsessing over seagulls?
The Workshop is run pretty much like any other company, just smarter. I never had to take any blood oaths or anything like that. Hill and Carter are both great, very normal guys… they’ve put their lives into making AWS what it is and they’ve worked really hard to bring it up.
I think AWS represents the last of that era of DIY in terms of business and art both.
There were never marketing meetings or demographics studies. We literally just did what we enjoyed doing and hoped that other people would like it too.
How much creative control were you given at Alien? Was there anything that would absolutely never be accepted to run?
Well, what I did was part of the bigger picture. I would just come up with a bunch of graphics and Hill and Carter would decide what would run. There weren’t any development meetings as far as graphics and direction go. It was basically have fun and create something that fit into that larger puzzle. They never gave me any restrictions or anything like that. They never came and asked me to change anything during all of those years.
So what happened with you and Alien? You’d done so much to define their look for almost a decade by that point…
I was just part of a bigger equation that involved Hill and Carter and Castrucci. Just like everything else in life, things change, people change, situations change. But the bottom line is this: If you respect someone for hiring you, then you have to respect them when they let you go. It’s tough because even though it’s a job, you put a lot of yourself into a situation like that where you have to be creative all the time. But I was treated incredibly well while I was there and feel fortunate to have been involved for that time period.
Now its easy to shit on Element as some gigantic sandal-making megacorp but at the time when you came aboard, they seemed to be really trying to make a go of it… at least artistically (with Matt Irving, Jeremy Fish and Todd Francis). How’d you get thrown into the mix?
Johnny sent me an email and asked me if I’d be interested in coming out there to talk to them about potential work. I met up with him and Jeff Dickson and we talked, mostly just about skateboarding. I made it clear that I couldn’t move to California and I figured that would be it... but I guess Jeff convinced them with me staying here in Dayton.
I’m not so sure that I said ‘yes’ to working with Element or to working with Dickson because he’s the guy I dealt with for the most part and it was awesome working with him. It was the other parts of Element that ended up being a drag. Jeff is just this guy who loves skating who happens to work in the industry... so we became good friends after a while.
What was it like working for such a huge company compared to your time with Alien? I’m imagining tons of bureaucracy... like straight-out of the movie Brazil…
Pretty much that.
But like I said, I was dealing with Jeff so I could block out a certain amount of the rest of the company. I know that he would go out on a limb for me to keep certain graphics from getting cut or changed or molested or whatever.
I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes but what was presented to me before I signed on and what I got were worlds apart. Johnny can be a great guy, he tells a fascinating story but there’s a lot of artifice there under the surface. It sucks when you meet someone and you develop a certain amount of respect and then you later realize that what they say and what they do are two entirely different things.
There was no respect for the creative process and it took me a while to figure that out. I’ll just say that.
When you sign on to create original concepts and that’s what you’ve tried to do your whole life and they’re basically asking you to knock off t-shirts from other companies, that has nothing to do with creating. That’s facsimile and it’s stealing and any high school graphic design student can do that.
Creatively, it was the exact opposite of Alien but it allowed me to stay in skateboarding, stay in Ohio and work from home. I left after the first year when my contract was up and after some renegotiation (which was way more about creative freedom than money), I signed back on to do it all again.
But you’re no longer with them now, are you?
I left over a year ago and it’s funny because I went so quietly, people still think I’m there. It was a sinking ship as far as the skateboard side of things go… and they were tossing everyone overboard. They wanted to take me off contract and put me on a freelance basis and I just walked away.
It was a huge relief in a lot of ways even though I still have friends over there. And I miss the group from the European offices.
So you’ve been out of contract for over a year… are you over skate graphics for now? Do you feel this is just a temporary break or has the Element Blackhole swallowed up another victim?
The main reason I took it in the beginning was that I knew it was likely my only chance to keep doing graphics without having to move to California. The skateboard industry has changed a shitload since I started working in it. Not doing skateboard graphics is way better than doing skateboard graphics that you’re embarrassed by… it just took me a while to figure that out. I felt this obligation to continue doing it even when what I was designing was way different than what people would see most of the time.
When Jeff Dickson left Element, I was stoked for him but we both knew it was the beginning of the end for me at Element. He went to Blackbox and now he’s at the Workshop. One of the best dudes in skateboarding, hands down.
Are you comfortable with your transitioning a bit outside of the industry?
It’s weird because there was a time when if you were doing skateboard graphics, you were one of the luckiest artists in the world. It generally meant that you had a lot of freedom to be creative and to explore ideas and come up with concepts… it’s not like that now. Not that I can tell. A lot of companies have given up on the idea of this dedicated identity in favor of taking on a little bit of every marketing angle for the sake of sales. So if you’re working in the skateboard industry these days, you’re doing what you’re told to do for the most part. And that’s really no different than working for the design agency down the street.
It seems like you’ve always used the skateboard aspect of your career as a way to refrain from seeing yourself as a serious "artiste"… You’re definitely going to have to come to grips with that, man.
I basically just took myself out of that equation. I had a lot of opportunities to venture in that direction and I’ve chosen not to over the years. I’ve turned down projects with artists who are household names because I didn’t feel comfortable or solid enough to venture into the ‘art world’ proper. And I still don’t have that level of confidence that it probably takes to promote yourself like a brand.
For years, my anxiety was so bad that I could barely be in social situations with a lot of strangers, much less an art opening where everyone is judging you and critiquing every piece. I never much liked the idea of it because it seems so unnatural. So it just goes to show that sometimes you can’t win…you can be true to yourself but in the end, judgment still gets passed.
I don’t twit or tweet or whatever. I barely even maintain a website. I’m not exactly out there shoving my artwork down peoples’ throats. If they dig it, that’s great. That’s one of the reasons I still do what I do. I would always rather have a small, dedicated group of people who like what I do than become something that I’m not in favor of getting attention.
It does seem like you’ve been really busy in the last few months though. I know that Mountain Dew thing went down which at first I winced at but in actuality turned out to be a really good thing… Give us some highlights.
More than anything during the past year, I needed a break. I’ve done over 650 graphics in the past 12 years. And that’s not counting all the t-shirts and wheels and packaging and catalogs…At some point, you have to step aside and take a break. The creative process isn’t something that you can burn at both ends…you have to know when to say when once in a while and that’s what I did basically.
The project I did with Paul Rodriguez for Mountain Dew turned out great. Everyone involved was super cool. It directly helps out a lot of independent skate shops out there, which is something close to my heart, and I had 100% freedom to do what I wanted. I found it painfully ironic that in the end, I had more freedom with Mountain Dew than I ever had with Element. That’s a pretty sobering realization.
The bottom line is that if companies approach me and if it’s a project that gives me full creative freedom, I’ll consider it. I’m a lot less concerned about how directly it is related to skateboarding and way more picky about how much freedom and direction I get during the process. The toughest part of being an artist is maintaining that balance.
But I’ve also been doing more shows, smaller shows. I’ve been crazy busy for the past 3 months. It’s starting to get fun again and that’s what is important.
Now that you’ve been able to step away from it for a minute… what do you think of the current state of skate graphics? Growing up in the 80s, a graphic was largely that pro’s identity… a one-off that really gave an insight to that rider’s personality. But today, series boards and logo graphics have become the norm. It’s almost like we are harkening back to the uniformity of graphics from the 1970’s. That's not to say that its all bad as there are plenty of companies still doing their thing and carrying on the torch graphic-wise within today’s framework (thank god)… but overall, are too many companies out there playing it safe?
It’s mostly a matter of big amounts of money being injected into the industry that was never there before. The sales force has become a part of the design process because they know what’s selling and what isn’t and the average company is chasing the dragon in terms of ‘give them what they want.’ It’s the typical double-edged sword scenario because I don’t own a company so I don’t have to deal with the numbers. I do know there will always be certain kids who will be drawn to creativity over corporate branding and cookie-cutter imagery but you don’t make a million dollars taking that approach. I’m not even coming down on companies here because a lot of them grew so large that they had to chase money to keep things going. But skateboarding has never been and will never be a consistent industry.
I think what Carter has always done is ideal…keep the company small enough to manage and where they can handle times when sales inevitably slow down without laying off 50% of the staff. Because when times are good, you have to realize that they will likely be bad again. If not because of the economy, simply because of the nature of skateboarding.
The magic has dissipated for me in a lot of ways but not because I’m older and bitter; mostly because I’ve had the curtain pulled back and I’ve seen how things work on the business side. As an artist, I want to make something that’s fun and interesting and natural and different… and that ends up taking a back seat to making something that will sell as much as possible these days.
That’s not to say that good things aren’t being done in skateboard graphics currently, it’s just that the idea of skating being this huge creative entity is a false idea at this point for the most part. But again, things are always destined to change.
As a company I think you can appeal to the higher intellect of skaters, challenge them and make them think or you can cater to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, there’s a shitload more cash to be made when you’re catering to that customer who likes basic things like big logos and bright colors over something that may be a bit surreal, abstract or subtle.
Who cares, really. It all gets worn off after a couple hours of skating anyway, right? Maybe kids today are just more practical and less idealistic than we were.
Skate graphics obviously mean something different to kids now since there is such a quick turnaround with new models being turned out every few weeks. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing as Cliver, Jenkins, and McKee didn’t seem to have any problem cranking out classic after classic at turbo speed in the World heyday. But on the flip side of that coin, I can’t imagine if VCJ was supposed to bust out all new Bones Brigade models every month… and I’m glad he didn’t have to. As an artist and as a skater, which school of thought do you prefer: a quick turnover month-to-month or the old 80’s style of letting them soak in for a year or two?
A happy medium, maybe?
It just seems like there was a greater appreciation for the craft of building skateboards in the 80s & 90s. Like a lot of thought and time went into making something that was going to be around for a long time and really appreciated for what it was.
I was telling someone yesterday that my first skateboard lasted me for over a year of skating everyday because of the ubiquitous Tail Bone and rails. It became something I was emotionally attached to in a way.
These days, it seems less of a craft and more of a commodity unfortunately. Those transfer graphics are horrible and temporary but it almost seems kind of fitting for Chinese boards, doesn’t it? I mean, companies went from lovingly crafting these intricately created skateboards and hand screening the graphics color by color to lining up popsicle sticks in China and basically applying a big decal to it. Kind of sad in terms of history and what skateboarding leaves behind as it advances... but it may have helped some companies keep their doors open.
Ultimately, the skaters are always going to decide where skating goes. So if they want something cheap made in China, they’re going to get it. If they demand something more, they’ll have that option as well.
Well put. So what’s up next, DP? Any future projects you’re stoked on?
I’ve been working on a board with Natas for Designarium, which has been a dream come true in a lot of ways. You never think when you’re a kid just riding around in a parking lot that some day you’ll grow up and eventually be exchanging emails with Natas. And I don’t even think it’s a fan thing so much as a really solid respect thing. I don’t want to ever get to the point in my career where I don’t see something like that as a big deal personally.
I have an art show coming up in Rochester, NY in September with Mark Penxa and it’ll be the first ‘real’ art show I’ve done so I’m stoked that Penxa is there to go down in flames with me. That’s what I’ll be focusing on for the rest of the summer for the most part.