Marc McKee: the art of graphics

The original drawing for McKee's memorable Dodo skull graphic. Courtesy of Marc McKee

It's safe to say that Marc Mckee is the bar by which all skateboard graphic artists will always be measured against. He can and has done it all with the medium. His iconic artwork is what many think of when they think of the greatest skaters of the past 20 years. And for the mediocre pros of the last two decades, he put royalty checks in their pockets with graphics so good, so irreverent, so wrong that it didn't matter whose name was attached to them. He single-handedly saved skateboarding from the skulls, skulls and more skulls era with his work for World Industries/Blind/Almost/Dwindle. And he's still going strong.

This month McKee releases his first book, "The Art of Marc McKee," collecting some of his most famous graphics. Marc could've easily filled an encyclopedia with the thousands of graphics he's done but instead chose to compile a 96-page collection covering the meat of his legacy. Inside are some of Mckee's favorite works, but by no means is it a definitive collection.

I talked with McKee and asked him about some of his and my favorite graphics of all time and I also caught up with some key pro skaters who have loved and hated graphics McKee has done for them.

Gino Iannucci

On McKee's place in skate history
"McKee's graphics were memorable and classic. His art was what World Industries was all about from late '80's through the '90's; controversial but with humor and wit, a perfect fit for skateboarding during its more underground days."

How did you get into doing skateboard graphics? I see a bunch of BMX drawings at the beginning of the book.
Yeah, I was a BMXer. Some of the first commercial work I ever did was in the late '80s for R.L. Osborn's company, Bully Bikes. He was one of the top freestyle riders back then and Steve Rocco and Rodney Mullen were living at his house in Hermosa Beach when they first started World Industries, which was still called SMA Rocco Division at that time. So that's how I hooked up with Rocco.

What is your favorite graphic you've ever done?
Probably the Natas Devil Worshipper graphic. Also the Skull and Banana for Mark Gonzales. It was just cool getting to do a graphic for Mark since he usually does them himself.

What graphic would you say you're best known for?
The Mike Vallely Barnyard board. I used to call it the Animal Farm graphic since it's basically an illustration of the George Orwell book. A lot of the popularity of that board, though is from the shape as much as the cartoon graphics.

Name some pro skaters that have been bummed out by certain graphics you did for them and why?
Jay Bryan, who was another one of the World artists back in the day, once told me about a conversation he overheard between Jason Dill and Gino Iannucci. Jason was complaining about one of his graphics—I'm not sure which one—but, anyway, then Gino said, "You think that's bad, I got a kid licking a tree!" It was this random idea I had of a kid licking a tree that I drew up for 101 and put out as his board with no prior approval or anything. I can totally understand why he would think it was stupid. It was actually gonna be a part of a whole series I wanted to do that was gonna be called "Slow Children at Play," like the street signs they used to have.

Mike Vallely

On McKee's place in skate history
"Marc is probably the last great graphic artist skateboarding has seen. Just like the Barnyard board revolutionized shapes, Marc's graphic approach revolutionized graphics but as you move things forward from that moment in time, the landscape gets really crowded with mediocrity. And I know people like to rant and rave about the artists involved these days but really, the boards today are actually the ones that are disposable. Marc McKee's early work at World will endure forever."

On the Vallely Barnyard graphic
"I wanted to do a more serious themed sort of folk art looking thing but Rocco was insistent that it be a cartoon. I originally felt a cartoon would take away from the vegetarian message behind the board and fought him on it. He had Marc do a pass at the cartoon idea anyway and when I saw Marc's work I immediately warmed up to the graphic. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before but in a good way. I'd even say it was obnoxious looking and I liked it. I still like it. It's my second favorite board and graphic I've ever put out, right next to the Powell-Peralta Elephant. I feel the board represents an amazing and revolutionary time in skateboarding where Rocco, Rodney Marc McKee and myself stood out on a limb alone and changed everything."

The Vallely Elephant Mini graphic, too. I read in an interview Mike saying it was his most hated graphic—and that didn't really come as a surprise. It was one of those "done while they were away on tour" graphics, where the graphic would get drawn, printed and shipped out before the rider would even lay eyes on it. It showed a baby circus elephant in clown makeup with a broken skateboard—pretty outrageous, and totally the opposite message compared to the super strong image of the elephant that Mike had created for himself with his boards on Powell. In a way the graphic summed up the way Mike felt he was treated while he was on World, like he was some kind of circus act that was forced to perform for everyone else's amusement.

How much input would skaters have in their graphics back in the early World Industries days?
Well, in a lot of cases, none. One of the ways World kind of changed things was to really shorten the lifespan of graphics, to the point where they would only be out in shops for like three or four months at a time. As a result it wasn't always possible to carefully craft every graphic to match the rider's personality's or to create a coherent "visual iconography" for every rider like what was done in the '80s with all the classic Santa Cruz and Powell graphics. So a lot of the graphics were pretty random, and since they were changed up so often, I think that made the riders not care as much what they were as long as the royalty checks kept coming. Then there were some cases where me and Sean Cliver would have an idea in mind for a graphic that we knew no one in their right mind would want, but it just had to be done anyway. I read in an interview with Sean where he was talking about the nude volleyball graphic he did for Chico Brenes. The way he described it was like a lot of the really messed up graphics we did during the early '90s. It was something that no rider would want, and no kid would really want to buy (a bunch of old people playing volleyball naked), but it just had to be done.

Why did Rodney Mullen hate the Rock Is King graphic so much?
Yeah, that was another one of those graphics that was totally unauthorized. But I don't think he actually hated it. I'm pretty sure he got the joke that it was just totally ridiculous—Rodney actually has a great sense of humor. There is one graphic, though that he alludes to in the introduction of the book that he really did have serious problems with and that was the Tony Hawk Dodo skull rip off we did for Blind (although Mullen doesn't come out and refer to it by name). When that graphic first got made Danny Way was still riding for Blind. I had planned on making it his graphic, and Rodney just thought it was way too harsh to have a graphic for Danny that was blatantly aimed at Tony since they were competing with each other so much at that time, and I think they both lived in Fallbrook. But then Danny ended up going over to Plan B and the graphic went to Jason Lee.

Why not do a 700-page book like Dave Carnie and put every graphic you've ever done in it?
There have been way too many mediocre graphics over the years to kill more trees over.

Did you ever think the Flameboy character would get as big as it did? What's the most ridiculous piece of merchandise the Flameboy character has been put on?
Yeah, no one could have predicted that, and it definitely paid off in ways I never could have imagined. I guess the most ridiculous piece of merchandise would be the Flameboy snow skis.

I know you did a Malcolm Watson graphic three years ago but are you still doing graphics for the current World Industries?
Not anymore. That was one of the last graphics I did for them.

How many of your boards have you saved over the years?
Probably at least 500.

To prebook "Warning: The Art of Marc McKee" go here.

And if you're in the Los Angeles Area next Saturday,
There's an exhibition opening for the book on Saturday, March 19th at
HVW8 Art + Design Gallery.