The annals of skateboarding are filled with hundreds of names that have contributed, for better or worse, to skateboarding's growth to the global, Olympic-sized level it is in 2014. If not for names like Tony Alva, Rodney Mullen, Mark Gonzales, John Cardiel, Geoff Rowley, Eric Koston, and numerous others pushing the limits of what was possible on a skateboard, skaters might still be "walking the dog" on the way to hang ten. And thanks to people like Stacey Peralta, Tony Hawk, Bam Margera, Ryan Sheckler, and Nyjah Huston presenting skateboarding to mainstream audiences in a safe and palatable way, skating is bigger than ever and skate companies are making more money than they ever imagined.
Yet with all the influx of corporate cash there is still one group that has contributed hugely to the look and feel of skating's lush, colorful landscape but is still treated like fourth-class citizens, one group that has never tasted the sweet nectar of skateboarding's financial success: skateboard graphic artists. In the 80s, these unsung heroes made roughly $400 per design, and every design would mean weeks of painstaking work. In the 90s, Steve Rocco—one of skating's most influential businessmen—saw the importance of the skateboard as a canvas and upped the rate to $500. Here we are, 20-plus years later, and nearly every town in America has a skatepark and skate contests have prize purses of over $150,000—yet somehow the rate our artists make on a design has slipped to $300 or less.
Could you imagine a world without the iconic Powell Peralta Ripper or Santa Cruz Screaming Hand or the Anti Hero Eagle or any of a dozen other graphics that our hearts and minds conjure up when we think of the art of skateboarding? It's a dreadful thought. But just as the US government has slashed funding to the arts, the skateboarding industry has made it so the next Vernon Courtlandt Johnson or Marc McKee can't afford to support a family, let alone feed themselves.
I recently sat down with Sean Cliver, one of the most prolific artists in skateboarding and author of Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art on the eve of the tenth anniversary re-release of his book to discuss the unethical treatment of our artists, among other things.
VICE: Over the course of your storied career you've worn many hats: editor of Big Brother, artist of many naughty and subversive skateboard graphics, producer of Jackass. Although you've always surrounded yourself with raucous cohorts, you're rather quiet and reserved. How does that kind of personality work in a Jackass dynamic? What exactly is your role and how is it that you're the only that doesn't get tortured or fucked with?
Sean Cliver: Yeah, I've been an anomaly in most every setting I've professionally found myself. Not to get all Far Eastern or Jeff Goldblum, but I believe it is nature's way of balancing things. So I'm like the diplodocus to all the T-rexes running around shitting and pissing themselves. Fortunately there's way more of them, so I get left out of the food chain for the most part. Occasionally, yes, I will get peed on, but come on, who hasn't in the workplace? But I'm the straight guy who gets the work done, or whatever it is I need to do. At least while working, that is, because I do have my more notorious moments after hours.
Being so understated and yet being responsible for some of the most devious and demented skateboard graphics in history, I can't help but wonder about what sort of naughtiness you get into behind closed doors. What are your fetishes, Sean?
Unfortunately, I think that is my fetish? Or at least I've found a way to satisfy all my fetishes in a professional, career-minded manner. I just like to be around or involved in creating absurd, silly shit. But in all seriousness, I think I sometimes get wafted in with all the hot shit fumes that Marc McKee created in the early 90s. Our names get lumped together in print so it sounds like I was responsible for way more shit than I actually was. So many times I've had someone come up to me all stoked and say, "Hey, I really loved that board you did where the kid had the gun and the kid was the floor and the parents were like all 'fu-u-u-u-ck' in the background." And then I make it all awkward by telling them, "No, that was actually a McKee." So then they feel weird and mention another graphic I did that they loved and I have to tell them again, "No, that was a McKee too."
Of all the subversive graphics you actually did over the years which have been the most fucked up in your opinion?
In terms of "fucked up," I'm really not sure. Not that I have a broken moral compass—it's more indifferent than anything—but I just don't put a lot of stock into what bums a lot of other people out. I guess that recent HUF "Last Party" project I did was the most I'd ever seen anyone get bent about, but that was just gleaned through scrolling comments posted on Instagram. Mostly I just found it interesting that McKee and I were simultaneously working on that theme without even knowing it, his being for Cliché.
Which are your favorite graphics you've done?
My personal greatest triumph, I think, is still the World Industries Chico Brenes "Nude Beach" board. It should never have been produced. Any mind with an iota of marketing would have squashed the concept in a heartbeat. Unbecoming naked old people playing volleyball on a beach? Not at all what the teenage libido wants to see, let alone buy. The Supreme stuff I've been pretty happy with, too. They're awesome to work with and it's great to be able to put some illustrative time and effort into graphics. And any time I get the chance to work on a graphic for Ray Barbee. It's true: You never do forget your first, and luckily my first is something I am genuinely proud of to this day. Couldn't have asked for a better rookie pro to break out with.
Have there been any you can recall that you flat out refused for any reason?
No, not for any reasons of morality. If anything, just because it was a fucking dumb idea—not that I haven't had a hand in many of those to be produced though. A man has to eat. But I think I did draw the line at some Shaun White stuff when he first turned pro for Birdhouse. That was a sour time for me, mostly because they removed Jeremy Klein from the art director position then and I really enjoyed working with him. We had a good rapport and system going. I only stayed on for a few more months before quitting my position there.
You got your start by winning a Powell Peralta art contest from an advertisement in the back of Thrasher back in the late 80s and relocated from Wisconsin to Southern California. Do you ever think about how your life would have panned out like if you never won that contest? What do you think you would be doing?
My life took off on such a ridiculously diverse tangent that it's almost impossible to imagine what it could have been like had I not won that contest. I've always said I'd be doing technical renderings of nuts and bolts, most likely still within the Midwest, but even that may be too wildly optimistic.
During your stint as at Powell did you ever, you know, gay off with the Bones Brigade?
No, but I sincerely cherish the opportunity to be asked that question. Though this one afternoon we were all in a sandwich deli in Goleta, California, where I want to say Bucky Lasek may have done something involving his wiener and his butt on a dare. They never really did address the Powell-Peralta Skate Zone "After Hours" happenings in that documentary, did they?
You were also an in-house artists at the notorious World Industries camp. Millions of great stories have come from that era. Any that haven't been told?
Late one night, which may have been the beginning of the end of the Torrance Del Amo days, Marc McKee, Megan Baltimore, and myself went to a store and bought a butt-ton of spray paint cans. We went back to the office and spray painted all the upstairs walls with just really stupid shit. The next morning when Steve Rocco saw our handiwork he was a little peeved, but what could he do? We were like his top three employees aside from Rodney Mullen. Anyway, once all the riders saw the walls it turned into a fucking free for all. First it was harmless tagging, then it was leaving snide comments, and from there I think Henry Sanchez may have punched a hole or two in the wall? The memory isn't what it used to be, that's for sure, and it's easy to romanticize the lawlessness of the time period. But I still readily recall Matt Schnurr pooping on the art room floor while Tim Gavin was making photocopies of his penis on the Xerox machine. That was a peach of a night!
What were your thoughts when Larry Flynt bought Big Brother from Steve Rocco?
If anything, just being accountable for everything. Up until then Rocco just let us run amok, and I don't ever recall being called in to discuss the budget or the fact that every magazine printed was an instant $50,000 loss. Well, and of course the inevitable first crosshairs of censorship on Big Brother. Oh, and the prospect of going monthly. That may have actually been the worst, because for the first time we really had to departmentalize and format, something we never really wanted to do with the magazine. That's when Big Brother became more of an office "job" with regular working hours versus the goofy little monster we re-created every two months while spending virtually every waking moment in the workplace. You have to hand it to Rocco, he really was ahead of the curve on the Silicon Valley campus concept by providing his employees with a place they could treat like home and the freedom to do so. Of course you later came in and literally made your LFP office your home, but I don't think that was entirely on the level with the higher-ups.
One thing I recall vividly from the Big Brother offices at the Larry Flynt building was the pole of shame in Jeff Tremaine's office with all it's unsightly nudes and bloody penises. What was the story with that thing?
You know, I'm not sure how that started. A lot of it came through the mail. I remember that. We used to receive lots and lots of neat things from our readers… kind of cool to think that the concept of dick pics pre-dated the whole interweb craze.
From the moment I was flown out to find an apartment in LA and invited to the Hustler Christmas party where the slutty elves flashed their beavers for Polaroids with anyone who sat on Santa's chair the Flynt Building became a sexual wonderland for me. Did you or any of the other staff members partake in the decadence that was Larry Flynt's world of Hustler? Or was that just Dimitry and me?
That may have just been you and Dimitry. I never once did nothing, though I almost smoked pot in the Key Club green room with Chasey Lain. I don't know… There were a lot of open windows in life that I just never jumped through for who knows what reason. I was always the one documenting the craze, not participating in it. The Hustler 25th anniversary party remains a highlight of my life, though, even from a purely observational standpoint.
You and Tremaine left Big Brother to start Jackass in 2000. Why didn't you take Rick Kosick with you?
To be fair, I quit first to start a full-time art gig at Birdhouse in January 2000. I still hadn't been formally asked to participate in the germ that was Jackass then. And Tremaine didn't quit until the summertime once he knew that Jackass was picked up at MTV. Besides, he still loved the magazine and didn't want to yank its legs out altogether. And Kosick had very big legs at the magazine.
In the past few years Tremaine bought the rights to Big Brother from Flynt. What are the plans for the magazine? And do you think a magazine like Big Brother could ever possibly work in the current sanitized, PC skate culture we exist in?
There was never any plan of bringing it back to life, but it only seemed right and natural for it not to languish at LFP until the end of time. I honestly don't know what the current skate media landscape is like, so I will have to defer to your knowledge on that. I do know I was recently told I could not equate publishing a book to an epidemic in West Africa and forthrightly edited as such, so maybe you're right. But that made me mad and I stomped my foot like a little bitch for a bit, because it is a very queer and different world than when I left. Then again, I'm also a spoiled child in certain ways as I never really had anyone tell me before what I could and could not say. If we wanted to write something in Big Brother we wrote it. Sure, we may have had to answer for it later, but it was nice to be able to make that mistake for ourselves and not kowtow to corporate fears or biases or because x-amount of people might take offense. Life with Steve Rocco and Big Brother may have caused some irreparable long-term life damage for me.
I remember being interviewed years ago for a Big Brother documentary. What ever happened with that?
It fell by the wayside with the premature demise of jackassworld.com, but I still believe it can be salvaged in some manner. If anything, just as a vehicle to preserve some of the old Big Brother VHS video footage. That's what it was primarily meant to be, spritzed with interviews and recollections. More of a "memoir" in the end, I guess, than a documentary.
Knowing that it costs the larger skateboard companies who manufacture their boards in China and Mexico $10 to make a skateboard that they then turn around and sell to retailers at $36, how do you feel about skate graphic artists rates never having increased from $150 to $300 per deck regardless of the margins and influx of money into skating? Why is this so? Is there even a negotiation or is that number the end of the conversation?
This is actually a very serious issue. It's hard, too, because I came from a time and place in skateboarding when each new pro graphic was a big deal and treated as such, and I was allowed to work on a graphic for over a month. And who didn't wait to see what the next board would be to come from World Industries, Blind, or 101 then? Rocco knew the art was more than just a bean to be counted at the end of the day and he respected his artists as such. And that history is proven. The graphic legacy remains. But everything has since been commodified and boiled down to a manufacturing cost at many companies. The paradox? It's still an industry that on the outside boasts its creative heritage and love for artists, but if you hear the stories on the inside it's a completely different matter: a sad, frustrating, and scary one for any who hope to have a sustainable career in skate graphics. And it's not like anyone is trying to get rich, many are just trying to survive, support families, and continue doing what they love. I've had a few young artists contact me after getting their first fresh licks in the industry, asking how things can get better for them. And I don't know what to say. I was told in 1996 by Frank Messman, the then CEO of World Industries, that the industry standard rate for a graphic topped out at 500 bucks. Nearly 20 years later it's still that amount or less—even by half from what I've recently been heard from one manufacturer—which may make this the worst profession in which to try and earn a living. Artists aren't businessmen. Most couldn't negotiate their way out of wet paper bag. If there was any group that needed a union to stand up for them, this is it. Not that any of us could afford the dues, of course.
How can an artist even survive in skateboarding if they're not churning out a plethora of graphics on a consistent basis?
Honestly, I have no idea. I always have people approach me and say, "Hey, we want you to do something like that early 90s stuff you did," which is great, I love to do those, but that style of graphic often takes me one and a half to two weeks to accomplish, not including any time spent spitballing ideas until one is finally decided upon. And no, that's nothing that can be done for a meager amount. But if a company is just trying to move 300 units of fill-in-the-blank's pro model for the third quarter fall catalog offering, then that's exactly what it will be remembered as.
Do you think this old boys club mentality of literally starving our skate artists will always be the norm? Or will companies realize the image on a skateboard often helps sell the board more than the pro's name on the bottom?
I wish I could say the latter, and that was one of my main reasons for the Disposable books—to spotlight the artists and the importance of their work to a company. What would Powell-Peralta have been without VCJ? Santa Cruz without Jim Phillips? World Industries without Marc McKee? For that matter, hell, skateboards in general without Todd Bratrud or Todd Francis? It's open to debate, I suppose, but all those images had an indelible impact on the culture that is still being felt, and even produced, 20- or 30-plus years later.
Do you think it will continue with the uninspired logo driven graphics that no longer warrant an artist but rather a skate-graphic generating app?
At the rate the digital world is going there will be an app for that and I'll soon be a barista at Starbucks. But if the world holds true to fucked form, the maker of that app will probably make a million-billion bucks.
Your book, Disposable, the defacto bible of skateboard graphics, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary. What can people expect from the anniversary edition?
A nifty metallic cover wrap on the hardback edition. That's the only change I made. I'm just happy as hell to have it back in print after a four-year stint in OOP purgatory.
You can meet Sean Cliver tomorrow, November 7, in San Francisco at The Super 7 Store on Haight Street at his book signing. Follow SeanCliver on Twitter or pick up a copy of Disposable fromGingko Press.