Designing board graphics for skateboard companies in the 90s was a sweet gig. The industry was still small, and seminal artists like Marc Mckee and Sean Cliver could get away with detailed illustrations of masturbating women and Satan decapitating babies with minimal backlash from lawyers or overprotective parents. Then the calendar flipped into the new millennium and skateboarding found itself bowing to big corporate sponsors and overzealous stage parents' ideas of what was obscene. Suddenly racy and thought-provoking illustrations were replaced with boring, logo-driven graphics that anyone with a font catalog could produce. The great artists of the 90s found themselves reduced to drones. Their creative freedom had been stripped and they were forced to crank out mindless logo deck after mindless logo deck to pay the rent.
One of the few artists to make it through those dark times with his integrity relatively unscathed is Venice, California's Todd Francis. Francis got his start in the esteemed art department of San Francisco's Deluxe Distribution (makers of Real, Krooked, Anti-Hero, Spitfire, Thunder, Venture). He is responsible for the eagle and pigeon logos that have become synonymous with Anti-Hero, as well as a wealth of fucked up, edgy, and awesome graphics for more brands than I care to count.
This week WINS releases Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis, a 96-page softcover collection of Todd's favorite, most well known and never-before-seen graphics from his 20-plus-year career in keeping skateshops' board racks looking interesting. I sat down with Todd in his Venice studio to discuss working with Julien Stranger, the hilarity of Hitler, homeless deity worship, and a number of other ridiculous topics.
VICE: How did you get into creating skateboard graphics?
Todd Francis: I grew up skateboarding around the Venice and Santa Monica area. I used to draw on my friends' skateboard decks because I was the one kid in the neighborhood who could draw. My one friend, his actual name is Jimmy Ream, would press his own decks in woodshop. They were somewhere between a longboard and an 80s freak show shape. He'd bring them home and have me draw skeleton armies fighting on the decks. I don't know if that counts, but years after that I went to college and got a degree in art and moved up to San Francisco and was lucky enough to start working at Deluxe at an entry-level art job. That was 1993. There were only two or three of us in the art room, so the difference between entry-level and art director was a couple firings. A couple people took the job and left, and a year or two later I was elevated to art directing at Deluxe. I was at the right place at the right time.
You've worked on all of Deluxe's brands, but you're best known as the Anti-Hero artist. How did that relationship develop?
It's the perfect proof of dumb luck. I had been working at Deluxe for a year and half. Julien [Stranger] was riding for Real, and they offered him and [John] Cardiel the opportunity to start their own company. I was kind of the main person in the art room at the time, so they had no choice but to work with me. They didn't really know me that well and we were trying to figure it out on the fly. It was literally, "Hey, we're starting a skateboard company and we're going to make decks, t-shirts, and stickers next week. What are you guys going to do?" So we just kind of pulled a bunch of shit out of our asses to start. Some of it was pretty bad. The most memorable of the early stuff were things that I didn't do like Chris Johanson's series that was unbelievably great, and then a tattoo series that Jef Whitehead did. Right off the bat we had to come up with a company logo, and the pigeon was one of the first things I did. The eagle, obviously, was the next thing and I've been tied into that ever since. It's an honor to be considered that Anti-Hero artist guy, but I'm one of a number.
What is it like to work with the enigmatic Julien Stranger?
It's not a very sophisticated process... there are no board meetings. One of us will get an idea or write down a phrase and then text it to the other person. Or sometimes it'll start with something that's really bugging one of us, like, "Hey, I'm really pissed about yuppies thinking their newborn baby is the Christ-child. What can we do with that?" And then we'll start bouncing ideas back and forth. I'd say usually the ideas start from a place of anger.
It seems like you and Julien are on the same page, but have you had any ideas that have been rejected?
Julien has really good taste with what his company should and shouldn't do, so he'll reject ideas that I might give to him that are half-baked, and I appreciate that. Of all the stuff we've ever done it's never been me in a room coming up with everything. It's one of us coming up with an idea, the other one will make it better, and then I'll draw it. It's definitely a team effort. I'm not about to take credit for a whole lot of greatness.
Why didn't "Hitler on Ice" work?
"Hitler on Ice" did not make it to press this year because the rider who it was going to be for was a little worried about scaring off his sponsor, and he was probably right.
But I've always felt Hitler is an endless source of comedy.
Hitler is one of history's great comedians. I see your point on that, but in this case I had to step back and roll with the rider's decision that maybe now was not the time for "Hitler on Ice."
Well, it makes sense. It would work better for the winter catalog. Do you come from a family of comedians? You have a dark humor about yourself. Or did you grow up in some sort of Gummo place that was full of the mutants you draw?
My great, great grandfather was Adolf Hitler, so it means I have a real insight into what's funny and what's not funny. No, I grew up in Venice, California, but both my parents have a good sense of humor.
What do they think when they see a drawing of Seal Boy, or a homeless guy shitting on the ground?
My dad thinks all of it is funny; he's pretty tasteless. My mom appreciates it because I did it, and while she might not think all of it is funny, she doesn't find any of it upsetting or think it casts a shadow across the family. I'm still around every Thanksgiving. She just knows I'm a little different.
Do you catch any backlash on social media for the work you do, since everyone is a goddamn critic these days? Or are you mostly preaching to the choir?
I only do Instagram, and people on there typically already know what I'm about so they tend to be, if not fans, than at least accepting. Even when it's "Santa and the Holocaust" or something that's really fiery, I don't usually wind up catching a lot of hell from social media.
"Santa and the Holocaust" is one of my favorites. I have it hanging in my bedroom. How did that idea come about?
For a number of years I would hand paint a different Christmas card, and the theme each year was Santa Vs. the elves. I'd make 100 of them and just send them out to friends and people I wanted to work with. I don't think I ever got a single job from a Santa vs. elves card. It started with Santa and the elves in a professional wrestling ring, where he's brawling with a bunch of them. Then one year I was like, This is all cute and funny, but let's see how far I can go with it. And the Holocaust, of course, being the wellspring of laughs that it is, seemed like the obvious choice. Friends of mine got mad but I don't really care.
You've made a living off creating skateboard graphics for 21 years. How is that possible? I always thought doing board graphics was a lower level of starving artist than a starving artist.
It probably is. I guess I've been lucky enough to not run out of ideas so I haven't been thrown out yet. But yeah, there's a certain starvation factor that came into play. During the years at Deluxe I did it because it was a job creating art, and those kinds of jobs were so few and far between. I guess I'm addicted to that mentality of really enjoying what you do, having creativity and no restrictions. All you can hope to do in life is have a job that's fun. Maybe I'm not putting a down payment on a yacht next week but I've managed to be comfortable my whole life.
Out of the shit ton of graphics you've done over the years, what's your personal favorite?
That's a tough one because there are so many, and there are a lot of shitty ones in there too. But for me the one that comes to mind is "Nature's Revenge" for Anti-Hero. It was a K-9 graphic where a German Shepherd is attacking its policeman owner. I always liked that one because it's very immediate. I love the green we chose for it, and it's a very simple image that tells a great story.
What's your take on the boring, logo-driven era of skateboard graphics that we are currently living through?
I think it's a combination of two things: You have a lot of companies that are playing it safe and also being lazy. They'd rather a big, clean logo sell the company to an army of little robots whose parents want safe and clean graphics. I think it's boring. I think in a lot of cases these companies are run by people who are getting up there in years, and maybe they aren't as creative as they once were or have run out of ideas. If they can continue to sell decks with just a logo and a name then they're going to do that, because they're worried about mortgages instead of statements. Maybe I have some of those concerns, but I'd rather be proud of making a statement or an unusual message, even at the cost of working in an industry that's not exactly going to buy me a helicopter. I don't think there has ever been a better time for a company to stand out by doing original, thought-provoking shit, because most companies currently aren't.
Topics: Todd Francis, Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis, San Francisco’s Deluxe Distribution, real skateboards, Krooked Skateboards, Anti-Hero Skateboards, Thunder trucks, Venture trucks, anti-hero, skateboard graphics, skateboarding, skateboard design, 90s skateboarding, Seal Boy, Gummo, “Santa and the Holocaust”, Hitler, julien stranger, Culture