In the winter of 1988, 19-year-old Sean Cliver spotted an "Artist Wanted" contest sponsored by Powell Peralta, his favorite skateboard graphics company, in Thrasher magazine. He was enrolled in a tech school in Madison, WI, at the time and submitted four samples of his work. "Looking back at those pieces," Sean says, "I have no idea how I was selected."
Sean made the final four and in January of '89, boarded a one-way flight to Santa Barbara, CA, for an interview with George Powell. "Three weeks after the interview, I received an offer of full-time employment as an in-house artist," he says. "I finished the semester and in January of 1989, the company flew me out to live in California. I never looked back."
Fifteen years and hundreds of board graphics for Powell Peralta, World Industries, 101, Birdhouse and Hook-Ups later, as well as a brief stint as editor of Big Brother magazine, Cliver is one of the most respected artists in the skateboard industry.
On November 20, Sean, in conjunction with Concrete Wave and Blitz Distribution, released Disposable, a 228-page, full-color book showcasing more than 1,000 skateboard graphics from the past 30 years. Sean's work is prominently featured, along with many other influential skateboard artists.
EXPN.com spoke with Sean at his Woodland Hills home two nights before his book release party. He reminisced over 15 years of working in the skateboard industry, the shift toward computers and why babies weilding cleavers doesn't cut it anymore.
Do you remember the earliest graphics you drew for Powell?
The very first graphic I worked on was ghost work on a Tony Hawk design that V. Courtland Johnson, the original Powell Peralta artist, left incomplete in his departure from the company. This deck turned out to be the minimalist Hawk Street model.
My first graphic solely of my creation was for Ray Barbee's first pro model in 1989, featuring a cartoon-ish rag doll, a huge departure from Powell's graphic history of skulls, dragons, snakes and swords. I've done over 300 graphics since that first one, but I still believe it's the one I'm most well known for.
Who influenced you during that period?
The whole reason I started skateboarding was because of the Powell Peralta graphics, the Mike McGill Skull and Snake by VCJ, in particular. His black-and-white line work struck a significant chord within me, and all my illustration skills today are built on top of VCJ's groundwork which was heavily influenced by the works of M.C. Escher.
My other inspiration was Pushead. I never skated Zorlac decks, but I loved the artwork and I used to do all these horrible drawings of skulls for punk-rock flyers in high school that were desperately trying to mimic Pushead's intricate style.
Did you have a mentor at Powell when you took the job?
I thought I was going to with VCJ, but then he quit. I had the good fortune of going to dinner with him during my job interview, but he let it be known that he was planning on taking a sabbatical from the company. I had no idea he meant flat-out quitting, so when I showed up to work on my first day, I damn near crapped my pants. His whole studio was torn down with just this empty desk in its place meant for me.
George Powell was the art director at the company, so he became my mentor. It was frustrating at times. He has an insanely high level of perfection, but I learned a lot from him in the grueling process. I also gleaned a bit from Craig Stecyk, who was still involved with the company with Stacy Peralta and had a great "who gives a f**k" approach that I never quite mastered at Powell, but was able to use more in my next job at World Industries in the early '90s.
How involved were you with the riders and the graphics?
When I started working at Powell in '89, the riders still cared about their graphics. So I was pretty involved with them and it was cool for me, being a kid from the Midwest, to suddenly be speaking with Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero and Tony Hawk.
In general, their ideas had to then run the gauntlet of George and Stacy, ultimately George, so the riders more often than not felt alienated from the process. Just because they had an idea didn't necessarily make it a good idea.
This was all going on back when you could work on one graphic for an entire month. Not like today, where you usually have three to four days at most, so time could be spent going back and forth on concepts and tweaking them to everyone's approval.
Before the computer age, you had to freehand every deck graphic. Do you still use the pencil-and-paper approach, or have you made the switch to computers?
Let's just say I fancy myself as John Henry, the man waging an occupational war against the machine. I still draw everything by hand and I used to cut my own seps from ruby up until mid-2004. Since then, I've been delivering the black-and-white line work to Birdhouse, my current employer, where they do all the seps in the computer. I'm destined for obsolescence, I guess, but I still favor the ability to hold a final pen-and-ink illustration in my hand, as opposed to an art file burned on a CD.
You were an editor at Big Brother in 1997. Did you take a break from art to pursue a writing career, or where you doing both?
I took a break in a sense that I lowered my artistic output to freelance level. I've been doing graphics continually since 1989, so I was no longer chained to the drawing board, but I still managed to do about three or four graphics a month.
Big Brother was a great diversion and probably enabled me to continue doing graphics for so long without getting totally burnt out. When I quit Big Brother in 2000, I tried to do the full-time artist gig again at Birdhouse, but it was too much for me.
In one year, I did 56 graphics and it just about did me and my hand in. I renegotiated my position down to 30 graphics a year and added the diversion of low-grade Hollywood producer. So far, this bi-occupational status has worked out well and I haven't felt like chopping my hand off.
What companies are you doing art work for now?
I am employed as an artist for Birdhouse and Hook-Ups skateboards. I've been working for them since 1997.
Are you happy with the direction skateboard graphics are going?
Yes and no. I never bought into the computer-assisted stuff, so a lot of the fancy, four-color process, bling-bling graphics are lost on me. I still prefer the simple and clean graphics of the '80s. What's cool, though, is that there have been over 8,000 graphics created over the last three decades, and there is always some new artist who comes along and adds something new. My current favorites are Todd Bratrud, Evan Hecox and Bret Banta.
During the World Industries heyday, you were responsible for some rather infamous deck graphics. Did you take heat for any particular decks?
No. I never did any of the good inflammatory stuff. That was all Marc McKee. There were a few I did that reached some sort of acclaim, I guess, like the 101 Adam McNatt Charles Manson Brown, the101 Kris Markovich Pushead Skull, the World Industries Jovontae Turner Rocco Statue, and the World Industries Daewon Song Land Before Time boards.
Actually, the one graphic that soured my professional reputation was a sketch I did for Adam McNatt at Powell Peralta that featured Claudia Schiffer. Halfway through the art, I was let go from the company in a mass lay off in late 1991, and not knowing any better, I took the idea with me to my next job at World Industries, where it became a series for Blind. Not the most professional move on my part, but I was 21, partly pissed and partly embarrassed about being laid off from the company and figured that would be my revenge on Powell.
If you had to pick the one board graphic you designed that you are most stoked on, what would it be?
A random board I did in the mid-'90s for a 101 Adam McNatt pro model. It featured a line of naked babies holding all these bad things, guns, knives, double-ended dildos. It was probably the last graphic of its sort that I did before the shops regained control of what they would and would not order from World Industries after the hey days of "anything goes" in the early '90s.
When it came time to plan the book release party in November, I asked if Blitz could make a limited-edition board that reproduced this graphic. I felt it was fitting to the book in that commemorative kind of way. They were really cool about letting me do this and even had it screen-printed instead of using those crappy heat-transfer things.
What motivated you to do a book on skateboard graphics?
There have been a handful of books on skate graphics, but I felt none of them spoke to me as a skateboarder. Dysfunctional is probably the best published visual overview of skateboarding. The other books simply ran whatever deck images they could get a hold of, never really digging deep to find the rarities and classics. A few of the recent books entirely bypass the pioneers and innovators to focus solely on recent designs.
There is a lot of history buried in graphics. Artists hold a privileged spot in most companies and all have witnessed great stuff behind-the-scenes of the industry. I noticed a lot of these stories are being swept under the rug, so my primary goal was to make this the definitive book about skateboard art, something wholly dedicated to the boards and artists behind it without the condescension, arty mumbo-jumbo, or "extreme" clichés to hook a mainstream market. Oh, and no flat, Bandaid-looking art files. Every deck image in the book is an actual produced deck, aside from random sketches and such.
How long did it take to put the book together?
Two long years. My wife can attest to that. Between juggling my job with Birdhouse and working as a Producer on the MTV series Wildboyz, I spent any available hours plopped in front of the computer or driving up and down California shooting deck collections great and small.
The longest part was trying to nail down a publisher who would let me get away with all my idealistic notions. Luckily Michael Brooke of Concrete Wave Editions and Per Welinder of Blitz Distribution were able to come to an agreement and enable this book to be published where it should be, from within the skate industry. Once this happened, everything came together pretty fast. Almost too fast.
Was it tougher than you expected?
The hardest part was editing down all the material I collected. I shot around 3,000 images and had to make hard cuts down to just over 1,000 images to complement the text, which includes my history, as well as self-told stories from artists and skaters including Pushead, Marc McKee, Tony Hawk, Neil Blender, Lance Mountain, Natas Kaupas, Mike Hill, Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero, Steve Alba, Jeff Grosso, Ed Templeton, Andy Howell, Chris Miller and Ron Cameron. I could've filled up 30 more pages, but a budget could only be managed for 228.
What are you most happy about with the book?
I was able to track down almost every board I wanted to in mint condition. There are a few exceptions, though, including Neil Blender's first pro model on G&S. The only one I was able to find was thoroughly beat to shit, and I'm hoping this book draws one out of the woodwork so I can update it in future editions.
What other artists inspire you?
Aside from those whose techniques I've admired, Thomas Campbell probably rates the highest. I rarely get bubbly over art, but his freeform work truly is a genuine extension of who and what he is. It is not some contrived output geared toward trend-seeking counterculture terminally-hip scenesters. I also get real happy seeing new work by Andy Jenkins, Joe Sorren, Chris Johanson, Aaron Horkey and Jeff Tremaine.
What advice do you have for someone pursuing a graphic design career?
Pay attention to those silly little things called contracts. That's one thing I bet most artists from the '80s wish they had done. Talk to someone who knows a bit about artists' rights and how to word contracts with regard to what exactly the illustration will be used for-who would've ever guessed the success of Tech Decks?-and exactly how long it may be used for.
When the graphic is reissued 15-20 years later, maybe you can reap some of the fun money, too. Most companies aren't likely to be stoked on legal stipulations, but if your work is good, they'll bend to make it happen. The skateboard industry can be a big bro-fest on the outside, but when it comes down to the cut-and-dry business aspects, the artists are oftentimes left out in the cold.
Now that the book is on shelves, what projects do you have planned?
My family is going on a two-week vacation to Hawaii in December. That's all I'm looking forward to doing now.
If you weren't drawing graphics, what would you be doing?
My illustration skills are more technical detail-based, so I'd probably be doing line drawings of nuts and bolts. Only now I suppose they've got computers trained to pop those things out, so maybe a car washer.
More information: http://www.disposablethebook.com