Tony Larson possesses an impressive, well-burnished résumé. For many years he was an art director at Girl Skateboards, perhaps the most culturally sophisticated skateboarding company in history. He also served as an art and advertising director at DC Shoes, one of action sport's most commercially successful brands. He is an accomplished painter.
And, when things get a little too hot at the office, he knows when to duck -- literally.
"There was the time (actually three or four times) that Rick Howard fired a bottle rocket at my face from his office," says Mr. Larson.
Though Rick Howard, co-owner of Girl skateboards, happened to be Mr. Larson's employer at the time of said incident(s) -- and thus Howard could, in theory, be held liable for repeatedly subjecting Larson to potentially hazardous, unsafe or unhealthful working conditions as defined by the United States Department of Labor/California Labor Code (Section 6300) -- Larson would not have had it any other way.
For Tony Larson, this was just one of many perks associated with being an in-house artist at Girl Skateboards, and later DC Shoes and SuperBrand. At the behest of these brands he happily contributed chic design to skateboards, surfboards, T-shirts and print advertisements -- even if it entailed ducking the occasional fiery fusillade.
"Oh man, where do I start? It was all fun, really. Actually, anything with Rick [Howard] involved is usually fun or funny. There were some good camping trips with that crew, too," Larson told ESPN.com by email.
The alleged "bottle rocket" assault came to light when ESPN.com recently invited Larson to reflect on his long tenure as a design professional and to curate some of his favorite board graphics and artworks for the gallery above.
The periodic pyrotechnics were merely one aspect of the freewheeling atmosphere at Girl.
But don't let the workplace antics fool you. When it comes to his art, he can be deadly serious. His aesthetic, though frequently playful, is distinguished by its rigor and refinement.
Larson Brings Sophisticated Sensibility to Skateboarding
A graduate of the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Larson's skateboard graphics often pay homage to modernist titans like abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell and furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames and reflect Larson's keen appreciation of art history -- his belief that a skateboard is not merely a fleeting utilitarian object but a chance for rich visual dialogue and a potential fine art object. (Larson is also a devoted student of West Coast luminaries like Bay Area figurative painter Richard Diebenkoren. Raymond Pettibon and Ed Ruscha, though he also thought '80s pro skater Jason Jesse was pretty cool as a kid.)
"At Girl from 1999 to about 2005 we were doing something completely different," says Larson. "We were referencing things never referenced before in skateboarding. I believe that Michael Leon, Rob Abeyta and myself were consciously trying to elevate the medium and make highly designed work. Almost conceptual. Not to mention what Andy Jenkins was and is continuing to do. He masters it all."
Having long been steeped in Southern California skate and surf culture, the initial invitation from Rick Howard to join Girl had been a dream come true.
"There wasn't an interview really," Larson told ESPN.com. "My friend Michael Leon was working [at Girl] and I always bugged him about any openings there. Finally one day he said to send my portfolio up, which was just a bunch of slides of paintings. I didn't even know how to use the computer really. Then Rick Howard called me and asked if I wanted to work there. I said 'yes' and walked out of the warehouse I was working in to go home and pack for L.A."
"The only jobs I'd ever had, up to the point when I joined Girl, were non-art jobs: warehouse guy, pizza delivery, valet, landscaping, print and copy store," says Larson. "I do feel lucky and I try really hard to not take it for granted."
(As far as formative influences, Larson cites, "the Corey O'Brien Grim Reaper board, all of Neil Blender's graphics, lots of Swank's early Foundation graphics. Everything Andy Jenkins did.")
And how, ESPN.com asked Larson, has skateboard graphic design fared over the years? Is it getting better or worse? Does he see upward or downward trends?
"I'm not sure if this is a trend, but a lot of well known companies pump out uninspired, logo-based graphics that aren't tied to any team riders. These are made to sell large numbers of boards to kids in malls that don't skate," says Larson. "To me, the team riders sell your brand and they should be tied to everything the brand does. The logo is a symbol, skateboarders are blood."
Yet Larson -- having made his mark on skateboarding history and now spending more time in his North County San Diego studio creating his own lush abstractions -- remains an eternal optimist.
"But, in a way it's come full circle," he says. "In a lot of the graphics I see out there now, there's a sort of overarching raw, comedic, hand-made, cartoonish nod to where it all began. Which is great!... I think there are more good graphics now than ever before."
There is, nonetheless, one career milestone Larson has yet to reach.
"I never took revenge on Rick," says Larson. "I don't think I'd have the heart to do it. Rick makes me laugh."