This may put me on both sides of the wrong agetoo old to today's generation and too young to the skaters of the '80sbut as a seven-year-old runt in 1987, I would travel down to Milwaukee's Turf Skatepark with my mom and my older brother, Than, and split time watching him do scratcher grinds in the ice-slick deep bowl or slamming around a joystick while attempting to out-run bees in the video game "720º".
All I did was kneeboard then, but I liked the smell of the Turf lobby and would spend a good deal of time admiring the fluorescent wheels, board graphicsnamely, the Tony Hawk Powell-Peralta Bird Skull graphic or the griptape art (Even the pre-cut Nash circular saw grip design seemed awesome to me at the time).
When I finally started skating in 1995, the first mid nineties memory that comes to mind is the girl who modeled for Teabag clothing. She was gorgeous in a way reserved only for a boy on the verge of pubescence and she graced the pages of Big Brother magazine, where Sean Cliver worked.
I didn't take much notice at the time, but when Sean Cliver wrote "Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art" in 2005, it brought a lot of my memories back, not just from the perfect storm that was Big Brother, but of those years at the Turfall those memories that each wheel, board graphic or piece of torn griptape held. Now, I am not and probably never will be a skateboard collector, but Cliver's most recent follow-up book, "The Disposable Skateboard Bible" broadens the years of nostalgia and is an amazing read for anyone who holds their greatest memories in the very thing they have spent their life destroying. It's out now and is available through Gingko Press
You are originally from Wisconsin and began designing graphics for skateboards after winning a contest with Powell. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah, I basically won a one-way ticket out of the Midwest in literal dream come true fashion. It all began when Powell ran an ad in Thrasher magazine in early 1988 with the headline "WANTED: ARTIST" and the call out for artists to send in four examples of their work. I was 19 then and in my first year of a Commercial Art program at MATC in Madison, WI, so I sent in four Xeroxes on a lark. If anything I thought I might just get some free stickers out of the deal.
A few months later I received a somewhat outdated Bones Brigade calendar in the mail with the added note that I'd made the "first cut." Didn't know exactly what that meant, but I didn't get my hopes up either. Near the end of summer, though, I received another letter from the company, this one requesting that I send in more samples of my work.
A month after that they called me up and wanted to fly me out for a job interview. I'd never been to California before, let alone west of Minnesota, so I was a little freaked out. They scheduled me in and out of Santa Barbara, CA, in less than 24-hours, and in the span of that brief time I was given a tour of the company, met with George Powell, and then went out to dinner with the company's main (and fairly enigmatic) artist V. Courtlandt Johnson. I guess I was one of four artists they did this with. I was fairly certain I blew the interview with George, and I felt rather silly about asking VCJ what was up with that whole Boneite thing, but three weeks later they called me up with the offer of a one-way ticket to California and a starting salary of $18,000.
Naturally I accepted and dropped out of school to move to Santa Barbara on January 4, 1989. I was a bit stunned upon arrival though, to find that VCJ had quit the company and I was now meant to take his place. This wasn't exactly what I'd expected and I was all but positive I'd be fired after a few months of not being able to fill his legendary shoes. Luckily board graphics weren't changing then at the rate they are now, so I was able to get my feet wet with Ray Barbee's first board. This proved much easier to do then immediately trying to replace such graphics as Mike McGill's Skull & Snakea graphic that basically got me interested in skateboarding in the first place.
What was your experience like transitioning as a kid from the Midwest to an industry that was almost mythical at the time? What was it like seeing what skateboarding was like from how you imagined it (all the grandiosity of the mags and the pros) to how it really was (a few warehouses, I'm guessing)?
I was about as green as they come, from the Midwest in every sense of the word. The only real knowledge I had of California and the skate industry up to that point was learned through skate magazines and videosthe bulk of which made the state look like one seamless, happy skate spot. Like in the movie Thrashin', Corey Webster skates from the Valley to Venice Beach to Hollywood (and he might've even made a stop at the Del Mar Skate Ranch) all in one day. So that's how I thought it would be. I was geographically clueless. No idea that all these skaters and spots were hundreds of miles away from each other.
But as far as Powell-Peralta went, it was kind of weird to show up at the factory and realize that it was just that: a factory. It wasn't the hub where the Bones Brigade hung out together. I rarely saw the main pros, and even Stacy Peralta only came up to Santa Barbara once a month or sohe had a satellite office in LA where they mainly did all the ads and video work with the team.
And while there were a number of skateboarders who worked at the company, I was the youngest and pretty much the only avid street skater in the lot. Luckily the amateurs came up to the main office more often and that's when I initially met and got to skate with guys like Rudy Johnson, Guy Mariano, and Gabriel Rodriguez. They were total unknowns at the time and watching them blow up the street scene firsthand was truly phenomenal.
Did your focus change once you came out to California? Was there ever a specific time you remember transitioning from the full-on skate rat kid to becoming consumed with the graphics and the look and the culture of it, as an artist in the industry?
I was a diehard street skater thensomething which coincided with the direction skateboarding was headed as a wholeso coming from a place where winter takes out four months of your outdoor life I naturally skated as much as I could during my time at Powell. My position there was very much a 9-5 jobI had to clock in and out on a daily basis, something I always resentedso after work and on the weekends it was all about skateboarding. I rarely picked up a pencil at home. I don't think it was until after a few months of working at World Industries in 1992 that I started to stay at the drawing table longer and longer. Perhaps partly because street skating had gotten so ridiculous that my skills had been far eclipsed by what was going down around me, but another part of me felt that I had to prove something to Powell for laying me off in November of 1991.
Why did you start collecting? Was it a case of hoping to preserve history or seeing lots of value in a certain board down the road?
I first started collecting in 1989 out of a pure appreciation for VCJ's artwork. I started buying one of each of his Powell boards with my employee discount until I eventually got flagged by the Human Resources division. They thought I was buying the boards and selling them on the side for a profit, but in reality I was just decorating my apartment. I'd also picked up a few other boards at the time, like Jim Thiebaud's first SMA model with the Joker, a few older used Powells, Lance Mountain's Variflex model, and World Industries Randy Colvin XXX, but when I was laid off I turned extremely bitter and sold the bulk of the Powell boards at a swap meet. Not the brightest move, but desperation has never been one of my strong points.
I continued to drag several board boxes around with me as I moved about Los Angeles, but in 2000, soon after I quit Big Brother magazine, I decided to sell off a bunch on eBay. However, I only sold a fewenough to regret and for ridiculously cheap prices by today's standardsbefore nostalgia soon got the best of me and I started collecting the early Powell boards again
The graphics were the primary reason I started skating in the first place and I still genuinely loved the works of VCJ, Pushead, and Jim Phillipsall the boards from the '80s that I used to sit in the skate shop and stare at during the winters in Wisconsin. Value has never been an issue with me. Just the obsessional lust to recreate my very own fantasy skate shop wall, board by board.
What's the greatest length you've gone to get a collectible board?
A better question would be what length did I not go to get a certain board. That was the time in 2003 I had the opportunity to buy Steve Caballero's first Powell-Peralta model with the "Bearing Dragon" in unskated (NOS) condition. I was prepared to sell off a bunch of boards and pony up $6500 for the acquisition, but when the price went up to $8000 I just couldn't justify itand believe me, I can justify some seriously nutty s**t. Had I not felt a certain responsibility to my family, I might've done it just for the OCD hell of it, who knows, although I'm still somewhat kicking myself because that particular deck remains to be the only Cab Bearing I know of in unskated condition.
You interviewed numerous people that played key roles in the development of companies, different board shapes and, of course, graphics. But, none were as infamous as Mark "Gator" Rogowski, who spoke about the evolution of his G&S graphics and later about his extra popular Vision graphic. How did you end up contacting him?
While putting together the first book, "Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art," I'd sent a letter to Mark in prison but never heard anything back. It wasn't until I started work on this book that I was talking to Buddy Carr at Tailtap.com
and he said he was still in contact with Mark and could pass on some questions for me if I liked. Maybe a year later I received two sheets of typewritten words from Mark via Buddy, much more than I'd ever expected from him.
There are certain skaters, like Gator, Hosoi or Gonz, that have alwayshad a strong following. They were huge names because they had amazing skill or style. Taking that into account, how much do their graphics became popular based solely on their skill? Can you think of other cases where the graphiceven bad onesbecame sought-after because of the skill and name-recognition the skater had?
Good graphics could certainly sustain sales and popularity, but a lot really was based on a skater's particular personality, skill, or eventually the board shape itself as skaters became more attuned toward function in 1990. But as for popular boards with marginal graphics...I'm not exactly a fan of Matt Hensley's first H-Street graphic, but he was a standout pro for the time and cool as hell to boot. Thousands of kids had that model and, consequently, it's more than sought after today. I have to say I'm still surprised by the following of certain old east coast pros with collectors from that region. I mean, multiple Peanut Brown Airböurne models going for $500? Now that's a testament to east coast pride.
On the other hand, are there certain graphics that come to mind that were bigger than the skater himself? Situations where people were buying that board because they liked the look, but knew little about the skater?
There were some. Rob Roskopp for instance, whose line of Santa Cruz boards were extremely popular, much of which, I think, can be attributed to the graphics done by Jim Phillips. John Lucero was another who didn't have all that much video coverage back then, but his first two Schmitt Stix models were raking in monthly five-digit royalty checksagain, mostly due to the graphics that he'd done.
In the same vein, what are some of the long-standing companies that have had a relative dynasty of graphics?
For a while there in the '80s, Powell-Peralta could do no wrong. So they were able to float for years with relative minor tweaks to VCJ's graphics as the board shapes changedSteve Caballero's one dragon design basically spanned six years of production and sales. The same could be said for Jim Phillips run of more illustrative board graphics over at Santa Cruz from 1984-'90. Both Powell and Santa Cruz had a very solid and striking line of boards with consistent art and quality, the kind that have well stood the test of time with graphics that continue to resonate more than 25 years later. And although the wood quality was never up to par with others, the Texas-based years of Zorlac with Pushead's designs, circa 1983-87, were spot-on and fit the era like a rubber cloven hoof. With the churn-over rate in board graphics now it's a lot harder to maintain a cohesive brand image, but Alien Workshop is one of the few companies, I think, that has been successful at this.
Did a lot of graphics of the past have a staying power because they were more difficult to produce in an era when computers were not used in the process?
I think it had more to do with the shapes at the time. It wasn't until the more technical street tricks came into style that boards started rapidly honing in on their present day functional "popsicle" shape/constructions. That combined with a cyclical economic hit to skateboarding in the early 90s, prompted companies to generate new sales by introducing new graphics (and new pros) at an increased frequency. Shops, in turn, clued into this and would only place one order for a particular board graphic, knowing that the next one was sure to be just around the bend. And once boards assimilated to one uniform shape/size (give or take an 1/8-inch), the only thing to prompt new sales was a graphic change. So soon most all companies conformed to the quarterly catalogue syndrome with all new graphics across the board every three months. There were exceptions of course, but they were few and far between. Chad Muska had a board or two on Shorty's that stayed around longer than most; same with Tom Penny and Flip, Tony Hawk and Birdhouse. And once World Industries introduced the Devil Man logo/character in 1996 they were able to mass-produce these non-pro graphics for a considerably longer time than their pro model graphics.
What do you think has changed in the process of making today's graphics? Or, has it changed that much?
Computers have had, by far, the most impact. Well, that and the heat transfer process, which has allowed for easy four-color process printing, e.g. photos and paintings, on boards. Silk-screening has become a lost art form, you could say, but there are still some operations out there that still whip out the squeegees at times.
Of today's era of skateboard artists, who are some of your favorites?
Some of my favorites today are Todd Bratrud, Aaron Horkey, and Evan Hecox.
In the preface of Disposable, you wrote that you really grew your collection when you found out about eBay in 2000. What other outlets, beside eBay, would you recommend for a would-be collector today?
The easiest place to go and get your feet wet and start searching for something is on the forum over at skull and bone skateboards. This is probably the most direct way, as eBay can really be a waiting game. After nine years of near religious following of the skateboard listings, I'm still surprised to see what comes out of the woodwork on eBay, but a few of those boards have only come up once or twice in all that time. Most every collector I know of frequents or stops off at the S&B forum, so there's always stuff for saleespecially now with this s**tfarm of an economy. If nothing else, post up a "wanted" and see what comes your way. Another good place to check out is art of skateboarding.
Collectors tend to nitpick over years, mint quality and reissues. What's your take on remakes of classic boards? Is it the same? If push comes to shove and you can't find the original, is the remake still an exciting find?
It's not the same. I mean, it might suffice for some, but for anyone who is serious about recapturing that nostalgic moment in time it never totally does the trick. The reissues and bootlegs just don't have the same feel. Then again, the rarity and cost on a few of the originals certainly makes the reissues easier to stomach. To each his own in the end.
What are some of the wackiest deck shapes that you came across while researching your book? What are some of the weirdest that you really enjoyed?
The Walker Mark Lake Nightmare is still one of the all-time '80s shapes. The various Bat Tail models from around '86 were a little crazy, as were the Plan 9 coffin-shaped planks. Then there are the boards that just plain resemble penises, like Dan Wilkes' second Tracker model, Ken Fillion's first G&S model, the original Zorlac Gargoyle, and the George Wilson Z-Rocket. The Schmitt Stix Rip Saws were a little extended, but I rode one or two of those in '87/'88 and remember them being somewhat functional. Others were just totally impractical and caught up in the "money bump" craze.
California's sinking. There's no way to get your boards somewhere else in time. The ocean's creeping up to your house, your family is safely on a boat and you have to hurry to get to them, but you have time to get one board from your collection. What board do you take?
Uh...yeah. I'd really have to be in the moment, because it's too hard to even hypothesize. It's a toss up between my first Powell-Peralta Tony Hawk, Powell-Peralta Ray Bones snub-nose, Zorlac John Gibson pig, SMA Natas Kaupas II, and, oddly enough, a red Suicidal Possessed to Skate. If hard-pressed, I might just go with the Gibson. It's one of those boards I still can't believe I was able to acquire and the graphic is one my most favorite from the era.