(originally published in Bootleg Magazine June 2008)
By Jonathan W. Smith
Art has been woven into skateboarding’s history since the beginning. Skateboarding itself is art, which helps to explain why so many skateboarders turn to other mediums when not on their boards. There are those who primarily skate, creating fine art on the side, and those whose specialty is fine art, skateboarding on the side. Then of course, are the select few who somehow, as if by magic, are able to do both equally well, and can make a career out of whichever they choose.
Mark Gonzales managed to blend the mediums together better than anyone to date, in the 1999 film Back Worlds for Words, directed by Cheryl Dunn. The film follows the gonz around Germany, as he gives poetry readings and performs a “skate ballet,” at the prestigious Stadtisches Museum in Monchengladbach, Germany. Any argument against skateboarding’s validity in the art world can be directed to that film.
Skateboarders look to incorporate other forms of art into all aspects of the industry. The cinematography in the majority of even low budget skate videos eclipses the creativity of almost all of Hollywood’s big budget films many consider to be art. Spike Jonze, one of the industries better known directors, has been making skate videos long before being recognized by Hollywood for directing, among other things, Being John Malkovich, and music videos for Bjork, to The Beastie Boys, to Tenacious D.
But before all of his mainstream success he directed Blind’s Video Days, a video many have argued changed the face of skateboarding. Even with a hectic Hollywood schedule, Jonze finds time for his passion of skateboarding, directing Lakai footwear’s video, Fully Flared, in 2007. Jonze is an example, but one only has to watch any of a great number of skate videos to realize the artistic talent involved in the cinematography.
Turning away from the screen and onto the page, it should be noted that numerous books have been written, not only about skateboarders who make art, but also about the art that goes onto skateboards. Deck graphics are not always done by skateboarders themselves, but often by well-established artists who respect skateboarding. Countless books have been written on the subject, but a personal favorite is, Disposable, A History of Skateboard Art, written by long time skate artist, Sean Cliver, published in 2005. The book covers thirty years of deck graphics, and is a pretty damn comprehensive guide to the best of the best during those three decades.
The art on skateboard decks is a very concrete connection between the two mediums. The level of artistic quality on the majority of decks is nothing to scoff at either. It serves as a major catalyst for getting kids involved in other forms of art. Jonathan Hardister from Marks of Distinction tattoo shop and one of our featured artists felt the same way. Hardister has been creating and producing art for about 14 years. While he says that he’s always been drawn to art, skateboarding helped.
“For me, all the different styles of art that you saw coming on the skateboards really influenced me because a lot of times I wouldn’t want to skate the boards that had the cool graphics on them.”
The varying styles of artwork that Hardister speaks of are very true. Everything from postmodern art (and the styles it encompasses) to photography, to anime and beyond, regularly appear on the walls of skate shops and collectors around the world. Designarium, a company started by Natas Kaupas a few years ago, is closing the gap between skating and fine art in an interesting way. The company sponsors artists instead of skaters, making for some interesting, limited edition graphics and shapes not seen in other parts of the skate world. So far the company has collaborated with well known artists such as Thomas Campbell, Dalek, Dave Kinsey, and many more.
With so much art running rampant and unsupervised in skateboarding, the two are bound to have a sort of symbiotic relationship. Ryan Kapron, who first went to school as a marketing finance engineer before realizing it wasn’t the “right side of the brain” for him, started making art in 1999 when he got into the art program at UNCW. Ryan has been skating since 1986, and he explained how he views the link between his art and skating.
“It’s fluid creativity, I don’t do all that flip trick bullshit anyway so most of my skating is trying to find fluid lines and link up the park. It’s the same thing with painting, just throw some colors on there, take a step back and see if anything comes out of it. Like going back and working with visual references, taking a picture you were working on and applying it over to sub conscious, spontaneous work.”
Fluid creativity indeed, be it dodging an unseen car, weaving through throngs of fat, skinny, ugly, and pretty pedestrians, or narrowly avoiding a bite by an unleashed dog, skateboarders have to quickly think of new directions to go when problems arise. While art may not be quite that spontaneous, many artists find new possibilities as their work progresses.
Josh Soso, an artist at Family First Tattoos has been tattooing for over eight years and making art for as long as he can remember. He spoke a bit on the new possibilities that can arise as a work develops.
“It depends on the piece. I usually do have a direction I’d like to head in but that could sometimes mean my color scheme and not necessarily my overall content. It’s a rare day that I don’t deviate at least a little bit from an original concept.”
When working on a permanent canvas however, there is often less room for artistic spontaneity.
“It’s a customer to customer kind of basis,” says Jonathan, “as well as what they’re getting tattooed. Certain things can’t allow but so much elaboration, but I typically try to take the customer’s idea and make it a little better.”
That’s not to say that tattoo artists never get to have total artistic freedom with their customers.
“On the last Tuesday of this month and probably next,” Josh says of Family First, “we’re offering Artist Choice tattoos. Last month, when we opened for Artist Choice, there were people that had been waiting for over two hours, the first guy came in and asked what it was about and I showed him the tattoo I wanted to do and told him where I planned to put it. He sat down for me, and six hours later we were done and both very happy with his new tattoo. With tattoos it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Like the creative freedom Josh enjoys from Artist Choice, skateboarders have long held dear the lack of uniformity in the industry. And, as in art, it’s an industry with no set rules about what you can and can’t do. Sadly, many feel that the connectivity skateboarding has long felt with the art world is waning. With the mainstream media and corporate backed contests like the X-Games and the Gravity Games trying to cast skateboarding as just another “sport,” there is a real fear in the industry that much of the originality and artistry is in danger.
In recent years companies like World Industries that used to be a part of the core scene are readily available in Dick’s Sporting Goods and other sports mega stores. Their plastic-y, (what are those things made out of anyway?) completes are sitting on the shelf alongside a “Skater in a Box” set complete with chain wallet, beanie, and a HIM album to drown out the noise of misunderstanding parents. Okay, I’m pretty sure the album isn’t included, but it should be. The thought that products like those actually sell is a scary premonition about the possible future of skateboarding and its subsequent split from art.
“It’s fucking ruining skateboarding,” says Kapron, “It’s just another way for some goons to make some more money, I can’t wait till it’s not cool again. I cancelled my Thrasher subscription this year; it’s just solid ads, cover to cover. I hate to sound like a bitter ass old man but it just seems like a lot of people are in it for the wrong reasons.”
In my opinion, as long as there are people who skateboard for the sake of skateboarding, without thoughts of sponsorship, energy drinks and grown ass men in yellow helmets on pogo sticks (Andy Mac), it will be connected to the art world. No matter what the Ryan Shecklers and P-Rods of the world may think, skateboarders feed off of artistic energy whether they realize it or not.
I’m at the end of this article and haven’t once come straight out and said that skateboarding is not a sport. Well I’m saying it now, and I’ll leave you with the famous words of the Skate Nerd shop of Philadelphia – “If I thought skateboarding was a sport I never would have started.”