nikophotography: droors, plan b & other tangents.

cbi #172 with the legendary photographer and designer. 

"My only regret is not throwing Slayer horns."
peter hewitt and niko achtipes by nikophotography

Following in the footsteps of such spiritual predecessors as TA’s self-mythologizing snapshots and Dorfman’s fluorescent Reagan-era splash, Droors Clothing audaciously staked its claim in the mid-90s by elevating a lifestyle-based marketing approach into the seemingly blasphemous realm of high-fashion photography. Largely eschewing Rocco’s copy-driven methodology while still honoring its predilection to spoof, the former Eightball took to framing many of the day’s most popular skaters in seemingly random, assuredly polished non-skate portraiture that towered over the competition’s clumsy video grab sequences. From blue paint and billboards to strip clubs and smoking televisions, the brand consistently upped the ante on “cool” with each passing ad... that is, until DC’s inevitable internal takeover finally caught up to them. 

Working alongside Damon Way and Ken Block, the man behind much of this imagery is one Niko Achtipes, often credited as "nikophotography". Having grown up skating in El Cajon, this multi-disciplined creative soon found himself straddling many of skateboarding's most staunch political party lines as he navigated work inside the San Diego industry bubble. For those who may not immediately recognize the name, this man has done a lot, and it quickly became apparent in our conversation that he preferred taking the scenic route with many of his answers. What initially started out as an article focusing primarily on his Droors work (with a few bonus Plan B inquiries) grew slightly larger in scope as Niko's answers exposed several nuggets of interest that proved simply too good to cut out. Not that brevity has ever been my strong suit, either. Enjoy. —Chops

=O =O =O

sean sheffey by nikophotography

I first noticed your “nikophotography” credit in the earliest ads for Plan B, which was the biggest thing in skateboarding at the time. Tell us a little about your background and how you fell into shooting with that crew. 

Well, I’m originally from El Cajon, which means that I basically won the geographic lottery growing up. If you were a skater in the ‘80s, San Diego was the capital of the world back then. El Cajon is a little inland, but I was still only 25 minutes from Del Mar, so I got to skate there a lot. McGill’s, too, and all the street spots that were in Transworld during this era. I couldn’t have been luckier in that sense. 

And I’ve always shot photos, ever since I was little. I got my first camera when I was nine or so. Eventually, I started a zine called “The Frontside” in high school, which got me working more in the creative space. Shooting photos and laying everything out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my zine was really my practice preface for what ended up being my career. To me, working in print and being able to get all artsy-fartsy with things was basically the culmination of all my skill sets. Because my zine was able to go beyond my friends to include a lot of pros at the time, just from being at all the parks. I’d always be there skating and shooting with my shitty lenses. 

I had a few industry jobs back then, too. My first one being at Zorlac, starting in the warehouse and eventually working my way up to silkscreening Metallica boards, which was the most coveted task in the building back then. It was around this time that I also shot my first published photo ever of Alan Losi at the Nude Bowl for Transworld. It was for his Losi Skate Designs brand, which was also ran out of Zorlac. I actually used my last name in the photo credit for this one time and never again. After that, “nikophotography” was born. I based my no-spaces photo credit style off of Otis, back when he used to use “OPHOTO”. 

i had no idea that this is niko on the cover. 
design and photo: joe polevy

From there, I got my first Sigma fisheye lens. It was shitty but I quickly found that it was getting me published more. I started to contribute to Grant at Transworld while shooting the occasional ad for H-Street, Life, Planet Earth and a few others. The art guy at H-Street was a friend of mine, Scott O’Bradovich. He started hitting me up more and things just kinda went from there.  

Being in the right place at the right time is kind of the story of my life. Because I honestly can’t remember how I started shooting for Plan B or why they would’ve even asked. I was skating the Plan B ramp a lot back then, shooting a little bit there, too. And I had already met Mike Ternasky at some point, back in the H-Street days. I think it was just a mixture of right place/right time and a lack of other dudes being around. I must’ve slipped in there whenever Sturt wasn’t able to shoot something.

But yeah, I shot their first skate ad; the Sheffey sequences. Late shove-it on the Plan B ramp... it was my idea to do the multiple sequences, actually. Carl Hyndman was Ternasky’s art guy back then and I gave them the idea. I honestly meant it as a little play on the Plan B name. 

How so? 

Well, my idea was to print two sequences, but Carl ended up printing three along with the small portrait I shot. I just wanted two sequences: one being a bail and the other being a make. Plan A and Plan B. Just a completely literal goof on the name. I thought it would be funny. 

Unfortunately, you can tell that my motor drive was pretty damn slow back then. I eventually got a better camera, but that’s kind of a bummer. You can also kinda see it in the sequence I shot of Brian Emmers doing that switch feeble at City College. Same damn motor drive. I might’ve got seven or eight frames at most on a trick back then. Way too slow for how technical skating was getting. 

brian emmers by nikophotography

But how were you able to do stuff for both Plan B and H-Street? Because that was most definitely not an amicable split. And I know you went on to cofound Evol with TMag, right? 

Yeah, but I didn’t know Tony very well back then, either. I’d shot a few ads for him and I guess he wrote the checks for those photos. I had skated his backyard mini a little, too. So I’d met him in passing, but that was really it. 

Basically how that went down… the H-Street split happened, obviously. Ternasky goes off to do Plan B. The H-Street office on Miramar shuts down immediately and the whole operation moves back into the Mag’s house. The only people left were Mag, Mag’s girlfriend, Dave Andrecht doing sales, and my friend Scott, who was the art guy. Scott ends up giving his notice almost immediately because he didn’t think it was going to work, but he’s the one who suggests to Tony that I should take his spot. I even remember telling him, “But I’ve never even touched a computer before!”

“Doesn’t matter.”

I had done a few things already, like looking over Scott’s shoulder on a couple boards when he was having problems with the printing. Like Sal’s lowrider board for H-Street? The silkscreened one? Scott was using half-tones with black but it just seemed a little off. I remember telling him to lose the black on the car and use a darker red instead. I feel like that specific instance is what sparked the idea that I could possibly do what he was doing. 

sal barbier graphic by scott o'bradovich and nikophotography

So I started going to work at Tony’s house. He had a downstairs bedroom that became my little art office. Talk about a crash course, I went straight onto the computer and messing with rubyliths immediately. Finishing boards that Scott had started and trying to make them better, if I could. Totally self-taught. And those first two weeks, I finished Livingston’s Cleveland Indians board, Alphonzo’s Adidas graphic and Peterka’s Charlie Brown board… which, we sold so many of those Peterka shirts, man. Thousands! Because it was the rave days, you know? There wasn’t anybody who was too cool to wear that one. For a minute there, the Charlie Brown shirt and some Blind jeans was the clone army uniform in San Diego. That shirt was getting people laid at raves. It really was. And it was the easiest thing to make with one color pass on each side. 

Basically, Tony didn’t have anything to lose at the time, because nobody was lining up to work on his side of the split. Everybody wanted to go to Plan B. And he was pissed, man. He was raw. Actually, all of the guys who didn’t get to go to Plan B were raw. But at the same time, it kinda lit a fire under their asses, too. They were like, “Fuck, if they’re not going to take me, I’m gonna prove why they should’ve!”

jason rogers by nikophotography

But because it was so hard for Tony to get people to work with him, I was able to use that leverage to get away with still doing things for Mike. In fact, the first conversation I ever had with Tony about the job, I told him, “Yo, you know I’m also shooting for Mike, or if you didn’t know, I’m not going to stop shooting for Mike. You can’t tell me who I shoot for. My photography is separate from this job.”

I had to lay down those boundaries. Because he was so pissed back then... I’ve heard that he still is. I haven’t talked to him in years, but he’ll probably be mad about that split for the rest of his life.

Nobody asked me to shoot those sequences of Sheffey, I just shot them. It’s kinda like Hollywood; people like a finished product. If they don’t have to produce anything, if it’s already done and just waiting for them, it makes things a lot easier. And often times, it’s a lack of content as well. Things might get used that otherwise wouldn’t out of necessity. That’s why whenever I was out skating, I always made it a point to shoot some photos, too. 

mike carroll graphic by nikophotography

I primarily want to focus on your Droors work here, but didn’t you shoot the Mike Carroll “Stroke It” Board? 

Yeah, that’s me on the board! With my pants down and all the Playboy magazines! Good to go! (laughs)

I remember having to figure out how to squeeze all that stuff into a photograph that would fit on a board, using a fisheye lens. I needed a long floor in front of me so that the door would work, and ended up shooting that photo in the Gullwing bathroom. That was the only bathroom that I thought might work! I actually ended up shooting it twice there! (laughs)

But yeah, it had to be me. That was the only way you could’ve shot that kind of perspective. I wasn’t about to shoot it over his shoulder or anything, so I tried to dress like Mike for the photo. I got a board from him, too, but the first time I shot the photo, I had the wrong trucks on there. I had Gullwings and he rode Indys at the time, so I had to shoot it again. 

The only problem was that because it was an everslick, the graphic would shift sometimes. A few were off-center so the Vaseline didn’t make it on the board. 

Where did that graphic idea come from? And did Carroll know about it? 

Honestly, I don’t know. I never talked to Mike about it, but I imagine that it was probably just somebody wanting to bust balls. There was a lot of that back then.

sal barbier and danny way: grant brittain
frank hirata and jordan richter: grant brittain

Being in the Plan B mix, is that what led to your involvement with Eightball/Droors? 

What’s funny is that I actually met Ken Block while in line at Big Bear, snowboarding. I was wearing a 90 shirt, back when I was a sales rep there, and he was wearing an Eightball shirt. Both black with the same size circle logos. He made a comment about mine, I made a comment about his, and that’s how we met. We took a few more mountain laps together throughout the day and ended up exchanging numbers. 

I didn’t meet Damon Way until a month later. Ken asked me to go on a snowboarding trip to Breckenridge and when I got in the car, it was Damon, Ken… and Josh Swindell!?! Yeah, I don’t say this very lightly about anyone, but Josh was a proper piece of shit back then. Just a fucking nightmare. Like, I remember him having all these firecrackers. We were stopped at a redlight, he ran up to the car in front of us with all these girls in it and threw a bunch of firecrackers in there. The shit he did on that trip was just asinine, so much that he actually did get arrested on that trip. He ended up giving them Mike Carroll’s name and address. (laughs)

But yeah, that’s how I got into the mix with Ken and Damon. Shooting photos and doing a little bit of sales for them, too. They didn’t really have any sales experience, so even my shitty experience was better than their no experience. 

The first thing they ever asked me to shoot was these little kid blocks laid out to spell “Droors” for a t-shirt. It was so early on in the company that Ken and Damon actually drove to my house to pick up the slides and they literally had their first box of 24 hats in the backseat of this super sketchy VW Golf with hardly any interior. 

Wasn’t it just Eightball first? 

Yeah, they started out as Eightball for maybe a year or so, then it transitioned into Droors. Because Droors was just a t-shirt idea at first. They wanted to do that Doors rip-off graphic, which is really where it all started. That’s when it really started to gain some momentum. 

jim morrison inspo by joel brodsky
 jordan richter by grant brittain

Yeah, because I remember the first ad being a little half-page photo of Sal and Danny on crutches. And Jordan Richter and Frank Hirata dressed up like gangsters. 

Yeah, those were just Eightball ads. I’m pretty sure Grant Brittain shot those. Clean studio photos, but not exactly high concept yet, you know? 

That photo of Jordan without his shirt on, posing like Jim Morrison, was an early idea of where Droors could go. Even though it was another rip-off in a sea of rip-offs, it was really well done  and people seemed to take notice. I believe Grant shot that one, too. I feel like Ken and Damon saw the reaction to that and it became pretty clear what direction they should take the brand going forward. Eightball just kinda slowly went away after that. 

ice cube's "amerikkka's most wanted" by mario castellanos
sean sheffey by nikophotography

You shot the Amerikkka’s Most Wanted ad with Sheffey? 

Yeah, that was the second thing I shot for them. That was definitely Ken’s idea, because I wasn’t super familiar with that cover… which is kinda funny because now I DJ and know that stuff inside and out. Obviously, I was familiar with the music, but I still remember Ken showing me the cover and describing what he wanted to do. He gave me the CD and I went to grab Sheffey. We shot it outdoors with some light fill flash to match the lighting, and I matched up my focal length with the cover. Ken did the Photoshop work, which I don’t think Ken gets enough credit for his graphic art and design skills. He was really good at it. 

I would typically add my little two cents to the concepts that came later, but since this one was such a specific rip-off, it wouldn’t have made any sense. We weren’t trying to reinterpret anything, we were just trying to rip it off the best we could, so I got really anal with the details. Ken always trusted me with that part of it… so much so that he didn’t always come along to these shoots with me. 

Was Sheffey into it? 

Oh yeah, Sheffey was having fun. He’s a teddy bear… Obviously, he’s the Hulk, too. Don’t make him mad. But he was into it, for sure. 

sean sheffey and ryan fabry by nikophotography

Didn’t you also take that legendary photo of Sheff making the fist with Fabry behind him?

(laughs) Yeah, but that was well before everything that happened. Just a random shot in the Plan B office, Fabry happened to poke his head in while Sheffey was making that fist. Total coincidence. I just happened to shoot that before what went down, went down. And it ended up being perfect later for the story in Big Brother. 

king tee's "act a fool" by glen e friedman
sal barbier by nikophotography

Another musical spoof, Sal’s King Tee graphic for Plan B…  

Yeah, that one came together really quick, too. We just met at Pacific Drive one day and did it. Sal put all that together on the fly. Because the other guy in the photo is Sam Yago, who used to work at Pacific Drive. And that girl in there always used to hang out at the shop, too. I think she actually used to date one of the surfer dudes there. But Sal put together their outfits and everything. It was his concept. He even suggested what schoolyard to use, which was total guerrilla style. Pulling his friend’s vintage lowrider into a school without permission and setting everything up really fast. The whole thing was super quick. It kinda had to be. Sal rules. 

janet jackson by patrick demarchelier
niko with janet: nikophotography
alphonzo rawls with janet: nikophotography

We might as well talk about Alf and Janet Jackson for Evol, too.

What’s funny is that I actually did that image for myself first, before it was ever supposed to be a graphic. My business card back then was an image I made of me popping out from behind her. Just to be funny. And it was early in the digitally edited photo days, so people usually thought it was real. But because everyone really seemed to like it, I figured it would make a good board, too. I ended up asking Alf about it and showed him my business card, like “Yo, you want to do this for a board?”

“Fuck yeah!”

So, I shot Alf in a similar pose and photoshopped him in there instead. I remember Transworld almost rejected that ad. I had to fight back by telling him that it was on the cover of Rolling Stone at a five-year-old’s eye level in every 7-11 across the country. The rest is history.

...And look at all the rad shit that Alf is doing now in a similar vain with Everybody Skates! 

matt hensley by nikophotography

Back to Droors, an early ad that always puzzled me was where Matt Hensley is dissing Droors and Droors is dissing him back. What’s going on there? 

Oh, that was because he used to talk shit on all the baggy stuff we were wearing back then, like the Blind jeans and all that. He wasn’t into that stuff at all. He would call us “goofy boys” and we’d make fun of his “gripper jeans”, which I think is in that ad. This was around the time he was getting that retirement board, which I shot all of those photos in Carl’s collage, too. 

I actually shot a lot of Plan B boards back then. The ones where Carl would make scaled collages, I shot all of those. I was taking a junior college photo class at the time and had access to a 4x5 camera. No one else had access to those, so I got tapped to do a lot of stuff. Because the rule of thumb for slicks back then was that the bigger the transparency you had to scan, the better… at least, we thought. So, having a larger format camera was key. Because there was no photoshopping on slicks back then. You just sent the transparency to New York where the one slick paper printer was at the time. That was the only spot in the U.S. and every brand worked with them. You just sent a transparency and whatever was on that transparency got printed on the sublimation paper, transferred to slick plastic, and then glued on the board. 

…One thing people might not know is that I shot Hensley’s Questionable ad. The one where he’s coming off the curb?

matt hensley by nikophotography
video name: questionable

Honestly, I never really knew what that was. 

It’s a nosegrind. Carl pulled it from a sequence, which I think is also on that board. He did a noseblunt slide, too. But it’s raining super hard there. Full-blown raining when he did that, but I’m not sure if you can tell in the photo. He really hadn’t been skating at that time, either. He was already kinda off the radar. I just happened to be shooting portraits of him that day for his retirement slick, so we went out and started messing around with skate stuff in the rain.  

But the funny thing about Questionable is that title came about by accident. Carl originally wrote the name as “Questionable” for that ad because they didn’t have a name yet. The video was never supposed to named that, but after that ad came out, it just kinda stuck. 

I’ve never heard that before. 

Yeah, and the cover for Questionable with the black on black? That was my idea, too. I’m quite proud of that one. I just happened to be backseat driving in the office one day. They were talking about different cover ideas and I said, “Nah, you should just do black on black like that AC/DC cover. Glossy on matte.”  And they went with it. 

But going back to the original question… sorry, I’m really bad about tangents. 

Yeah, I think we’re on a tangent, from a tangent, inside another tangent. (laughs)

(laughs) That Hensley Droors ad was totally in good fun. Obviously, they’re all old Vista homies, especially Damon and Hensley. They were just fucking with each other. It was the same way that Ken would fuck with me in some of my photo credits, too. Calling me “Hair Farmer Niko” in a few of the ads. (laughs)

ronnie bertino by nikophotography

What about that “Safe Sex” ad with Ronnie Bertino and the sex doll? How’d you get him to do that? 

He got wasted, which was kinda silly to witness. This kid trying to get the courage to nut up and shoot this thing that we were wanting him to do. Because he was kinda shy, too, and everyone was there. I think they even filmed it all, but I don’t think that footage ever got used for anything. 

I’m gonna guess that was Ken’s idea. Ken was almost always the idea guy, but he trusted me to execute at the level he was picturing in his mind. 

But how’d you get Ronnie to even agree to do that? 

When it came to Droors back then, nobody said “no” to anything. It was this fast-moving “cool guy” monster that everybody wanted to be affiliated with. Whatever they wanted, the guys just did it because they wanted to be down. Because, after all, it’s skateboarding. They weren’t trying to sell Pepsi. And that was going to Big Brother, of all places. That made it even cooler and easier to push the boundaries, which was kind of the rule for Big Brother ads. There were no rules. It had to push the limit. Like, how are you going to outdo “How To Kill Yourself”? And that was editorial! What magazine has that in the editorial, of all places?

There was a sense that everybody was trying to outdo each other, especially with the rip-off graphics. Trying to one-up whatever was hot at the time. I actually remember getting mad back then whenever someone would rip something off and do it badly, because they just wasted the opportunity and now I can’t do it. 

I was always pretty good at the rip-off thing. I mean, I know Evol wasn’t the coolest thing and TMag definitely isn’t the coolest thing, but I think I did that stuff at a pretty decent, respectable level.

ronnie bertino by nikophotography

“Bush Magnet”?

(laughs) Again, Ken just busting balls. I mean, Ronnie probably could’ve been a virgin at the time. And that photo of him with the girl? We’d shot those sequences of him in Irvine and that girl just happened to be walking by. I asked her for a quick photo and that was it. We didn’t know her or anything. They definitely weren’t hooking up. Ken was just a funny dude like that, making my random photo work for the ad with that title. 

I love all the early Droors ads, but what really set the brand apart for me was those amazing lifestyle portraits that ran in the mid-90s. How did those come about? Was there an underlying message there, or simply dudes looking cool? 

I mean, the OG godfather of that type of stuff in skate advertising was Tony Alva. All those lifestyle ads that he used to run in the ‘70s of him looking cool? Never skating? That was all him… not that we were drawing inspiration from that. I was barely even cognizant of those ads. I was just too young. I’m not sure about Ken, but I doubt it. 

Our whole thing was having skate ads that had nothing to do with skateboarding in skateboard magazines. That was the entire point of those ads, playing with that concept. We wanted to have shock value with the page turn. An ad that made whoever was flipping through the magazine stop dead in their tracks. Something that stood out because it was different. Not just skating. Because anybody who skated as good as these guys did, you didn’t have to show them skating all the time. That’s what all the videos and all the other ads were doing. Everybody already knows how good they are. We wanted to showcase their personalities more. 

niko doesn't remember taking this photo of jeremy wray.

That, and we were much more interested in that page shock… Placement in the magazine. Right side versus left side. What your composition looked like for a two-page spread. Where you put the text and logo versus the meat of the image. All that shit mattered. 

Damon and I were both very cognizant of the fashion world, while most of the skate world was still very myopic at the time. Total horse blinders: Just skate, skate, skate. Everything else was “gay”. But Damon and I were never afraid to look beyond our immediate interests. Looking into the fashion world and whatever else that sparked our curiosities. And that, in particular, would influence a lot of the stuff we’re talking about now. Ken would clown us sometimes for it, but it was always our “artist’s exemption”. (laughs)

So many people were just ride-or-die skaters and that’s all they really knew. Yeah, we loved all that stuff, but we were also interested in art, film and high fashion, too. And I think it helped us bring a different point of view. Like, I subscribed to Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Rolling Stone was a big influence. Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger famously taking soft boxes out of the studio and doing crazy concept photography. Anton Corbijn and the color stuff he was doing with U2 and Depeche Mode. David LaChappelle. Like, I remember seeing a photo of Tom Hanks wearing a suit made out of newspaper and the set was on fire? I love that kinda stuff! It was all very much about set direction. Everything you did before actually pressing the button on your camera. 

colin mckay by jody morris

This all sounds like things were pretty fleshed out prior to shooting, like you had specific concepts or locations in mind… Colin’s lamppost, for example. 

Well, I didn’t shoot Colin’s photo. I couldn’t shoot everything, simply due to geography. Jody Morris probably shot that one, up in Vancouver. 

Our later concepts were much more specific, so those were definitely more fleshed out. The earlier ones were a little looser, but we always had a general idea of what we were trying to do. I don’t think we ever went location scouting, though. I know for that condom billboard one, either Kelly or Ken knew about that location beforehand. But actually getting him up there and figuring out a way to shoot it? That was all pretty sketchy.

kelly bird by nikophotography
Did you guys just hoist him up there and shoot it really quick? 

I don’t know how the fuck he got up there, but it definitely took a while. Sneaking around. Because it was mad illegal and a cop did eventually come by because we were drawing so much attention to ourselves. Like, why are all these kids in baggy clothes standing around with a camera? Super suspicious. 

You can tell that I’m shooting from pretty far away there. And I had to shoot a few different exposures because of the light on the billboard versus the available light around it. It’s not like I could put a flash up there, it was too far away, so it was really tricky getting the right balance. It turned out okay, I guess. Especially with no Photoshop. 

That’s one thing you have to remember is that this is all pre-digital. You needed a certain amount of technical ability when shooting film and for transparencies, especially for situations like placing someone on a billboard at night. Stuff where you had to figure things out quickly. Because there’s really no Photoshopping in these ads at all. I think the Alf Billboard might be the only one, but that’s about it. It was more about what you did before you took the photo, before you put it into the computer. Because anything you can do in camera is always gonna be better. To this day, practical always beats Photoshop and CGI. 

drake jones by nikophotography

A good example of this is the Drake Jones ad where he’s hanging upside down. That was shot inside a rented panel van with my studio lights in the back. We hung a bar up in the back, too, and then rolled the door up. We’re actually driving through the middle of downtown San Diego there as Drake is hanging upside down. That’s why his shirt is tucked in, because he’s literally hanging from his knees like a bat in the back of this panel van. But for me to match that background light, as its constantly changing, I had to put a soft box on him back there, like Seliger and Leibovitz. I got pretty good at taking the studio outdoors and matching lights. Because you had to match the background light to whatever light you’re using in the foreground, also taking into account the speed of film you’re using… never mind the driving around. 

For the Sal one with the streaky lights, we went over to Coronado, which is on the other side of the bay from downtown San Diego. We set up at some park over there, in the grass. Again, it was just me and Sal. Ken didn’t go with us on that one. He was just like, “Just go shoot him with the city in the background or something.”

I added the “painting with light” thing. I put the camera on a tripod and shooting long exposures, I’d walk up behind him and trace around his body with little flashlights. I was wearing dark clothes so I didn’t show up on the film. It’s not rocket science or anything, but I thought it was a cool way to sell that new cut-and-sew bowling shirt he was wearing. 

sal barbier by nikophotography

What about John Drake outside the strip club? 

Oh yeah, I forgot about that one. That’s Les Girls, which is the same one from Hensley’s backside noseblunt. The Sturt photo. I mean, it’s pretty out of focus in his photo but you can tell by the lights. We didn’t go there because of that, but I’m surprised that I never heard from Sturt about it anyway. He’s easily the most intense person in the history of skateboarding. (laughs)

…And he's the best to ever do it, too. 

I’m pretty sure that Ken wanted the Les Girls signs. I’m not sure if he had that Sturt photo in mind, but I kinda took it upon myself to add a color flash on John as well. A blue flash. I have the outtakes here and you can see how I tried a bunch of different ways to shoot it. He was chewing bubble gum, too, so I had him blow a couple bubbles. 

Yeah, simple light play. It’s a mood. I don’t think it’s as cool as some of the other ones, but it’s a vibe.  

Did you go into the club afterwards?

(laughs) No, we kept it respectable. 

john drake ad and outtakes by nikophotography
matt hensley by daniel harold sturt

More Bertino: I’ve always loved the one of Ronnie smoking in the TV.

I was shooting a lot of stuff for Droors catalogs back then and I think the TVs were left over from where I was shooting hats. Because those catalogs were very glossy, almost pushing magazine-style. There was always a high concept for each product category, and for this one, I’d shot all of the hats on top of those TVs. So when I was done, I still had the TVs set up, I figured that I might as well try a few different things with Ronnie, which eventually led to him sitting on the TVs with his head cut off. 

I don’t even know if anyone ever noticed, but he’s wearing two different shirts there. In the photo, he’s wearing a white shirt, but on the TV, he’s wearing a black one. Kinda funny. Because on the TV is a video of a photo I’d already taken… on a sideways TV with the glitch, on purpose. I wanted it to look like a shitty TV with a shitty VHS. Again, no photoshop. 

ronnie bertino by nikophotography

How was each skater paired with a concept or did it even matter? 

Nah, it basically came down to whoever was up next. There was no bigger plan. I think you’re probably giving us too much credit here. It really wasn’t even a “campaign”, it was more just stuff we were doing at the time. Obviously, an ad was due: Next monkey up. Next weird idea. 

rob dyrdek by nikophotography

Rob Dyrdek and a gallon of blue paint.

Gallons of blue paint!

That was an entire day. We shot it in Vista at the second Droors warehouse on the never-ending Droors warehouse tour. It was just me, Ken, Dyrdek and my girlfriend at the time. We taped a white sheet up against this little company van they had. Using flat available light in the shade of the building. No strobes, no soft box. Just whatever available flat/soft light we had so it wouldn’t be too harsh. Low depth-of-field. 

faith no more's "epic" by ralph ziman

Ken had gotten this idea from a Faith No More video, “Epic”. It was a very quick clip where the dude is singing and water falls on him from the side. That was the genesis. Because it was initially more about documenting the pouring and throwing of the paint, so I have all these sequences of the pours, but we ended up going with a single image because it was stronger. I want to say Ken poured that paint on him three times, with Rob washing off in a little sink there in-between. I remember we plugged his ears with toilet paper, which is pretty funny. Because that was fucking house paint, dude. Blue house paint. No joke. And not exactly safe, either. 

So, I’m shooting the sequences sideways, because that’s what they did in the video. Gravity. The cigarette kept coming in and out. He was smoking in one or two of them, then we shot one without him smoking because we didn’t know exactly where this ad was going. If it was Transworld, he couldn’t be smoking. We’re shooting all of these different versions, and it got to the point where I only had one frame left. We’re basically done and ready to go back inside the office. Ken was smoking. I ended up snatching the cigarette out of his mouth and told Rob to open up… because his eyes were closed due to the paint. I threw it in his mouth, shot the last frame, and that’s the one we ended up running with. Because I liked how it was dripping at that exact second, I changed the focal length a little and shot it. 

rob dyrdek outtakes by nikophotography

Amazing. But how was Rob during all of this?

I mean, yeah, he was bummed because he’s covered in housepaint, but he was definitely into it, too. That’s how they all were back then.  

I think the Blue Paint set a new standard for us going forward. That was the one that really set it off, to where everybody wanted in. Obviously, the ones before that were good, but Rob’s ad really took it to a whole other cool level. And they all got way more conceptual after that, too. 

…And by the way, the actual slide of that photo is lost. Nobody knows where it is.  

That ad also ran on the back cover of Ray Gun magazine. David Carson picked it himself. Kids, do your homework on David Carson, who also used to be art director at Transworld. And after that ran in Ray Gun, I got so many headhunters from New York trying to get me to shoot real fashion and art world stuff… I was just trying to figure out how they got my phone number. (laughs)

What about the one where Rob’s taped to the floor?  

He’s actually taped to a wall right there. That one is kind of a goof on the blue paint one, because he’s trying to smoke. But I didn’t shoot that one. That might’ve been Skin?

bill weiss by nikophotography

Well, Bill Weiss and the goldfish couldn’t have been easy… 

Yeah, that was a very specific idea Ken had. He wanted to figure out a way to shoot someone underwater with goldfish. I remember us putting our heads together and we ended up buying a kiddie pool, painting it red. Unfortunately, we didn’t really paint it the right red. And we didn’t really dry it, either, so the paint started flaking off after a little while. But yeah, we filled it up with water and submerged Bill in there. Dumping in as many fish as we could. 

We blew it by choosing to paint it red because it kinda defeats the purpose of showing the fish swimming around his head. We should’ve chosen blue or teal to make the red goldfish pop better. It should’ve been the opposite color on the color wheel.  

Yeah, I’m not super happy with that photo… and Bill’s not the prettiest face, either. Super rad person, but not exactly a supermodel, you know? He wasn’t very good at being submerged. Trying to pose underwater with goldfish swimming around your face isn’t exactly for everybody. 

I don’t know how many times we ended up submerging him to get that shot, but we got what we got. That one just turned out okay. Nothing amazing, but Ken and I were also our own worst critics. 

And those are real goldfish?

Oh yeah, everything is real. Fuck yeah. 

lance conklin by unknown
alphonzo rawls by nikophotography

What about Alphonzo in the marshmallows with the banana? Aren’t you spoofing the Conklin ad in the ball pit? What’s the story there? 

Yeah, we were essentially spoofing ourselves. Because we were already spoofing everything else, sooner or later, we were bound to turn it back on ourselves. 

I didn’t shoot the Conklin one. I don’t know who shot that one or how it even came about, if it was a Ken thing or if it was just sent in? If the photographer and Lance took it upon themselves to shoot that and send it in? Either way, it’s dope. 

But yeah, Alf in the marshmallows is totally goofing the Lance Conklin one. I remember hearing that Grant Brittain actually complimented that photo, as it’s hard to shoot that much white and not blow out the photo. If he really said that, I’ll take the compliment! 

What was that for? Because it wasn’t a Droors ad, right?

No, but it did run in a catalog. We were just having fun. 

What made you spoof the Lance photo, specifically?

Just because. (laughs)

alphonzo rawls by nikophotography

Probably the most notorious of all these has gotta be Alf’s “Got Milk” Billboard, right?  

Yeah, that was the billboard behind Pacific Drive at the 7-11. And that’s Alf with Tim Brauch’s sister, actually. Such a silly shoot. R.I.P. Tim. 

The way it worked out: We shot the Alf photo first, then I went and shot the billboard. Ken was laying it all out in Photoshop. And originally, we were only going to spoof the “Got Milk?” campaign, but because they happened to be different races, I was like, “Yo! Let’s double up and spoof 'The United Colors of Benetton' ads, too!”

Because just like the “Got Milk” ads, that Benetton stuff was everywhere, too. And that’s where “The United Colors of Droors” came from. 

Were Alf and Tim’s sister dating? How’d she get involved? 

No, not that I know of. She was just down to be in the photo shoot. 

In junior college, I shot a lot of nude artsy-fartsy stuff. And from that experience, I’ve always been pretty decent at making non-professional models comfortable with being in a photo shoot. I’ve always been pretty good at establishing trust and a strong comfort level. And that goes for naked women as well as young pro skaters pretending to be cooler than their insecurities would allow. 

alphonzo rawls and janet by nikophotography

Was Alf uncomfortable shooting that?

No, he was in there. (laughs)

Of all the people I shot, Alf and I always had the best rapport because we had that relationship going back to the H-Street days. He and I were always totally cool. And he’s an artist, too, so he knew how we thought. Completely comfortable and never any trust issues. He was probably the least awkward person I ever shot… for Ken, at least. 

inspo by jordache
danny way tws and big brother versions by niko 

Who was the most awkward?

Danny was pretty awkward to shoot back then. He really was. If he wasn’t skating, he never really knew what to do in front of the camera. Shooting that Calvin Klein spoof with him took a while, mostly because of his face. Getting his expression right. And we had to get two versions: a safer one for Transworld and a racier one for Big Brother where her top was smaller. 

He and I also shot the first-ever DC ad. We just drove around Carlsbad together looking for an interesting wall to shoot him in front of with three posters of his first shoe. He had recently broke his neck surfing, so he was wearing a neck brace that he had remove in order to shoot.  You can see how his neck is stiff in the photo.

Who is that woman posing with him in that Calvin Klein-type ad? 

That, I don’t know. But there was no shortage of women trying to be in the universe of all these boys. I didn’t know her. Maybe she was the Rosa of Vista or something. (laughs)

But yeah, Danny was super awkward at that shoot. And that’s the thing, everyone was always game for these shoots, whether they were any good at it is a completely different story. Most were fronting as a lot more confident and secure than they actually were. But let’s face it, who wasn’t an awkward teenager? They were always professional, just not always comfortable. But we got ‘er done. 

kareem campell, drake jones, jason dill by droors
inspo by nautica

This series was seemingly the last gasp for Droors. They ran a few Nautica-inspired ads after this and then DC took over... then it ended up getting sold, right? Is that really how it went?

Well, Droors did very well, very quickly. After they dissolved Eightball, it was basically just Droors and Dub, which was more for the snowboarding market. DC wasn’t really a thing yet. But just how Droors came out of a t-shirt design for Eightball, DC basically came from Damon’s idea to do a shoe for Droors.

That Chuck Taylor-kinda thing?

Yeah, kinda. But once DC got going, its immediate success was just too hard to ignore. And we could all see the writing on the wall. Because it takes way less people to do shoes and you have a much greater profit margin. I actually predicted it early on and even told Ken and Damon that, like, “I don’t think you’re gonna be doing these different brands for much longer. Just make it all under the DC umbrella. Because there’s no sense in breaking it up like this, which requires more resources. Just do DC Shoes, DC Apparel and DC Outerwear and cut the rest. Just go with the winner.” 

And that’s what they did. 

I ended up transitioning out of Droors/DC after a while to work more on my brands that I’d been partnering with TMag on: Evol, which became Osiris. After I got that up and going... I did the logo and a few catalogs for Osiris... I left to help launch Circa with Muska and Fourstar Distribution. Working up north, I wasn’t shooting as much down in San Diego. I just got too busy with other things and slowly moved on. 

danny way by nikophotography

What is your favorite one of these Droors ads and one that didn’t quite work?

Blue Paint takes the cake every day of the week. No ifs, ands or buts about it. I’ve even heard Dyrdek say that it’s his favorite photo he’s ever had. 

And the one I wish I could do over again? Well, everyone is their own worst critic, but I’d have to say the Weiss one. Just because I feel like it could’ve been so much better. We should’ve thought about the color more and making the fish pop, but we ended up losing it instead. That and we ended up using available light, which you can kinda tell there’s some sunlight coming in from one way… Oh well, live and learn. I think it worked. Silly enough, I think even our half-assed stuff was better than most of our competitors’ ads at the time. (laughs) 

big thanks to niko for taking the time. 


  1. Thanks for this one. Niko and these ads such a huge part of the skate landscape of the time.

  2. Inspirational stuff. Just what I needed right now. Thank you.

  3. Bill Weiss is gorgeous. Thank u guys for this! Chops thanks so much for not just interviewing the skaters all the time this is sick af