Meet the Nieratkos

The Wonderful Sieben of Oz

By Chris Nieratko

I love it when our friends become famous, especially when those friends come from the skateboarding world. A lot of skaters piss and moan when anything small or underground catches on with the mainstream, and while I’m definitely not one who enjoys the way skateboarding is being packaged or portrayed to the masses, I do enjoy seeing skaters get a decent paycheck from the outside world. There are those who hate on Rob Dyrdek and Ryan Sheckler for doing MTV shows and overexposing themselves, but Rob used to get monthly skateboarding royalty checks for a whopping $2 in the 90s, and Sheckie Poo has been a skate rat since he was a baby. So I say, fuck it, pay ‘em.

That said, you can imagine how my heart sang when I recently heard that renowned skateboard artist and VICE columnist Michael Sieben had been tapped to illustrate the latest release of L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic, The Wizard of Oz from Harper Design. As anyone who knows Michael’s work can tell you, his style and the characters he’s made popular through his company, Roger skateboards (and previously Bueno skateboards), are a perfect fit. And if you know how low-key his skate company is, or that he just had his first kid, then you know there’s no one more deserving of this paycheck.

I caught up with the new dad to discuss his latest project, banging Dorothy, getting ripped off by Shaun White, and more, all in hopes that he sells a million books.

VICE: How did this project come about? Did you have to try out for the role of the artist?
Michael Sieben: An editor at Harper Design found my work in a Juxtapoz Illustration anthology and emailed me about the project. It’s been a long-time dream of mine to illustrate a children’s book, and this opportunity just kind of fell into my lap. Not to say I didn’t do the groundwork, but I feel really lucky to have been given the opportunity to work on such an amazing project for such a well-respected publishing house.  

Were you given any sort of style guide or constraints on what you could or couldn’t do?
Not really. They wanted a contemporary approach to the book, so they pretty much just let me do what I was already doing with my other illustration work. I think the story itself is darker than any of the imagery I came up with. Children’s literature has changed pretty radically in the past hundred years or so.

Having no restrictions, did you think about drawing some nude witches or wangs on the Wizard?
No, but I bet Skinner would have.

 

Were you into The Wizard of Oz as a kid?
Honestly, I hadn’t even read the book until I was approached with this project. I’d seen the movie a few times, but as a kid I was way more into Star Wars and Krull. I’ve probably read the story at least five times at this point though, and it’s a great piece of literature. I think that the characters’ flaws and shortcomings are something that people can relate to.

Were you nervous at all doing this project? You were toying with an American treasure.
For sure. I’m actually still nervous about it. But so far it seems like the book has been well received. Or if people hate it, they’re not telling me.

Who was your favorite character, and why?
The scarecrow, for purely aesthetic reasons. I felt like I’d already been drawing him for the past ten years.

What’s your take on this new James Franco Oz movie?
I’ll let you know after I watch it. I could probably sit in a theater for an hour and a half eating popcorn and staring at the floor and have a good time, though, so I’m guessing I’m going to like it.

Having done this book, are you allowed to appropriate the Oz characters for Roger skateboard graphics without fear of being sued? What are some naughty graphic ideas you have in mind for the characters?
I retained the merchandising rights to the illustrations, but putting them on skateboards sounds terrible to me. Wizard of Oz skateboards sound like something you’d find at Walmart.

Yeah, but a Wizard of Oz sex-orgy skateboard sounds awesome. Ever fantasize about banging Dorothy?
I’m more into cat ladies.

Would you bang Liza Minnelli today, at age 67, just so you could say you banged Dorothy’s daughter?
Hold on, let me check with my wife. Gonna have to go with a no on that one.

Do you plan on doing more children’s books?
I’d love to illustrate more children’s books. I have a bunch of ideas, but unfortunately they’re all terrible. That’s the dream though, to write and illustrate my own projects.

Do you think illustrating this book has given you the freedom to do whatever children’s book you want? I ask mainly because, if so, can we be BFFs? I once tried to pitch a kid’s book about my son shitting his pants and not wanting to talk about it, but the publisher wouldn’t even look at my sketches because I didn’t have a successful Twitter account.
If the book is successful, then there might be future opportunities. If it bombs… who knows? Do you have an unsuccessful Twitter account?

At the time I had no Twitter account. Whatever happened with the flaming tomato, Shaun White, ripping off your graphics for his Target line? Lawsuit? Payment? Acknowledgement? Anything?
Absolutely nothing. I did receive an email from somebody who used to work for Shaun White’s clothing company (he wished to remain anonymous). He told me that he was given printouts of my work and asked to make designs that looked like them when he was employed by Mr. White. Which is awesome.

Well, if that’s the case and you have email proof, why not sue? I’m sure a lawyer would work on commission.
I spoke with a few lawyers who specialize in intellectual property and they all basically said the same thing. That it's not illegal to produce designs that reference a style. If they had been exact copies ,then I would have had an open-and-shut case. As it stands, it would have been up to the discretion of the judge whether or not my intellectual property had been infringed upon. It seemed obvious to me that it had, but unfortunately I couldn't take that risk and try to take a multimillionaire to court. That's probably why artists are ripped off so frequently. Because we're poor. 

What’s your opinion of the flaming tomato now?
I think he’s a really good snowboarder, and he’s obviously a better businessman than myself.

Recently Jim and Jimbo Phillips were ripped off by some Zoolander designer named Jeremy Scott. What’s your take on that, having experienced the same thing?
All jokes aside, I think it’s horrible. As a graphic illustrator, your designs are your livelihood and your life’s work. I think Shaun and Jeremy should be ashamed of themselves. I doubt they even care, though, or they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

How has your life changed since having a kid? 
I no longer feel like some weird dad when I’m at the local skatepark because now I really am somebody’s dad out there bailing kickturns. Besides that, it helped me put a lot of things in my life into perspective. I don’t care about being cool or impressing strangers anymore. I just want to work hard, create things I’m proud of, and take care of my family.

Was part of your motivation for doing this Oz book having something not scary and full of wieners to show your kid one day?
For sure. A large portion of my commercial work (skate graphics, Thrasher articles, etc.) thus far is stuff that I won’t share with my son until he’s older. It’s cool to have a project I worked on that he will (hopefully) enjoy as a kid.

What are you working on next? What can Sieben fans expect for the rest of the year?
I have a solo show opening next year at the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and a good deal of my energy this year is going toward generating work for that show. Beyond that, just working on commercial projects and trying to make my skate brand (Roger skateboards) relevant in the landscape of contemporary skateboarding.

Previously - Battle of the Butthole Tattoos

To buy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, go to http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062018086

For more of Mike’s work check out http://www.msieben.com/

More stupid can be found at Chrisnieratko.com or @Nieratko 

Comments