As my age progresses ever further from youth, I find myself looking back in an effort to identify the various influences in my life that have helped shape me into the person I am today. Art has always been a big influence to me. As early as the first grade I spent most of my time in school drawing instead of paying attention to my lessons. Later I would spend two decades (and counting) as a habitual bookworm to make up for my neglected early studies, but art would never cease to be important to me. If anything art has become even more important to me over the years.
Before we really started to study art in any serious manner at school, I started to become aware of and influenced by the art of others through an unlikely source—skateboarding. I always found skateboarding, and later snowboarding, to be a very independent form of artistic expression. Individuals who partake in these sports take something as seemingly common as a sidewalk or snowy mountainside, and through their own creativity and technical ability, choose a unique line to ride and perform tricks which transcends the relationship between a human and their environment. No two riders ever pick the exact same line and navigate it in the exact same manner. While I consider this act artistic in itself, this isn’t the art that this blog post is really about.
The other influence on my perception of art through skateboarding was more literal. It was the art and graphics that decorated the actual decks of the skateboards. In an effort to set their brands apart, skateboard manufacturers started adding graphics to their decks in the 70s. These early graphics were usually simple brand logos or line work, but quickly evolved to mimic the vintage tattoo style of surf art, and eventually became a full on renaissance of art and graphic design.
Just the concept of skateboard art was a fairly innocent but revolutionary way of distributing underground art to an unsuspecting public and an entire generation of young skateboarders. Companies from this era were quite small and independent, and most of them were based in California. This was an era before the internet had risen to prominence and made it so easy for subcultures to connect with ease, regardless of where they lived. Very few retailers outside of California even carried real skateboards. In order for skaters to be able to get their hands on most of these decks and the artwork on them, they would most likely have had to track down a skateboarding magazine like Thrasher, call or mail a company to receive sporadic catalogs of the current products, then order and wait for your new equipment to be processed and arrive in the mail. Even then you never knew exactly what you might receive. Skateboarding was constantly evolving, and in the time it took for a catalog to be mailed out and orders to be placed, the deck you ordered might have been discontinued, out of stock, or replaced with new colors or a completely new design. If you were a kid with limited disposable income, the deck you ordered would probably be your only setup for a decent period of time (or until the nose and tail edges got so sharp and beat up you were risking your own well being by continuing to ride it—if it didn’t snap before then). In the early days, catalogs didn’t even have dimensions. That would eventually change, but until it did the art on skateboard decks definitely influenced purchases.
Skateboarding art really exploded in the 80s and 90s. From the early days of rudimentary graphics, skateboard art had evolved to include: classic artwork reproductions, wildly creative original art, satirical takes on pop art and advertising, propaganda and political art, iconic comic book art, rifts on the graphics of other skateboard company’s logos and art, all the way up to photo realism. This might not sound significant by today’s standards, but remember, all this art was being created before most people owned computers or programs like Photoshop. This art was being created, screened, and distributed almost completely independently using old school methods. This did not stop the work from constantly evolving. New designs were created at a prodigious pace. You can see the early roots of various contemporary art aesthetics just by looking at skateboard graphics from this period.
With such a vibrant art movement (which really didn’t take place that long ago), it’s strange that to this day these skateboard graphics seem to be an underappreciated artistic influence. Why is that? Well, skateboarding took quite a while to break into the mainstream. In its early days skateboarding was fairly underground outside of hotbeds like California. Skaters were a minority, often viewed as troublemakers and punks who loitered, destroyed property, and caused public safety concerns. Even though today you can watch skateboarding events on major television networks and buy skateboards in malls, these stereotypes still continue to plague the sport. As a result, not that many people really noticed the explosion of skateboard art from this period. Another factor would be that not much of the art from this period survived. Most original skateboard artwork wasn’t scanned into digital files to be stored safely and indefinitely. Many of the companies went out of business. Since the art was on the skateboard decks themselves, most of it didn’t survive intact. A few good rail slides would quickly render the graphics on the bottom of a deck indistinguishable.
While a decent number of these old skateboard graphics can be found online, many others cannot. I was unable to find dozens and dozens of these graphics online, and these were just a few I remembered and was looking for off the top off my head. There are even fewer quality images. It made me kind of sad to think that some of this amazing art which influenced me so much seems lost forever. But there just might be hope after all. Other people seem to appreciate this artistic movement and are making efforts to find, preserve, catalog, exhibit, (and even repurpose) decks from this period.
A prominent and longtime skateboard artist, Sean Cliver, has put together a stunning book titled, Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art. This 228-page, full-color book, showcases over 1000 skateboard graphics from the past 30 years! Mr. Cliver has even taken his love of this medium one step further in a 368-page follow-up book titled, The Disposable Skateboard Bible. If you share a love for skateboard art and graphics, I highly recommend checking these books out. You can find the Disposable website by clicking here.
Another individual whom obviously cares very deeply about preserving the work from this period is NikeSB Sales Representative, Nick Halkias. Mr. Halkias has turned his condo into a skateboard museum, and has quite a collection.
Adding even more legitimacy to this underappreciated artistic movement, Skate It or Hang It: The Evolution of Skateboard Art exhibit recently wrapped up at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). It appears that quite a bit of effort went into this impressive exhibit. Check out the video below to see for yourself.
If enough interest and support can be generated, Skate It or Hang It: The Evolution of Skateboard Art just might take this exhibit on the road to other cities. I sincerely hope this happens (and that the exhibit manages to make its way here to Seattle).
One final (if somewhat unconventional) example of skateboards as art which I would like to include here is the work of the Japanese wood sculptor, Haroshi. Haroshi creates 3-D sculptures composed of broken skateboard decks, giving them an entirely new life, while subtly underscoring the expendable nature of these decks and the artwork that adorns them. His work is quite interesting, and hopefully inspires the people who view it to find a new appreciation of skateboards in general.
While excellent work is being done to preserve the legacy and influence of skateboard art, there are still many missing works that seem to have fallen through the cracks and disappeared. I would love to see a more complete and comprehensive database/image gallery created online to catalog this creative period. There are many forums and websites for fans of this art, and I hope that they can continue to grow until such an online gallery becomes possible. In the meantime, search out images and share them on these forums, and look into the possibility of helping the Skate It or Hang It: The Evolution of Skateboard Art tour become a reality. Do you know of any good sites dedicated to skateboard graphics and art? What decks and art were your favorites? Feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.