If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, then Jack never met Atiba Jefferson or learned that the trick is to make a job out of doing something you love. And if what you like to spend your time partying…well, you don't have to be sorry about it. Atiba Jefferson isn't.
After many failed attempts to reach Jefferson, I finally managed to catch up with the renowned photographer-turned-entrepreneur at home in Los Angeles. Fresh off a 21-day work bender with the Baker dudes, he was already mid-Uber to DJ a double-bill at Known Gallery and the West Hollywood bar he co-owns with professional skateboarders Heath Kirchart, Jerry Hsu, and Braydon Szafranski. It became very apparent that the man is in high demand with no sign of slowing down except (in the case of the recent Baker tour) to do the occasional shoot with Big Sean and Lil Wayne, or NBA superstars like LeBron James and Allen Iverson.
Life wasn't always moving so fast for the 38-year-old Colorado native. Twenty years ago, when his family was living off food stamps, he moved to California with his brother and best friend with the idea of landing a job as a 7-Eleven clerk. An extremely grateful, compassionate, and positive person, Jefferson attributes most of his success (and downfall) to his "love everyone" attitude. But loyalty, particularly to skateboarding, has served him well and is why he will always prefer shot-gunning beers in alleyways to bottle service and first-class flights.
Despite all his popular success, Jefferson has maintained his roots in the things that truly make him happy: skateboarding, music, and basketball. And he keeps his personal interests at the forefront of every business decision he makes. He wanted a better camera bag, so he started Bravo. He drinks a lot of beer so he got involved with Saint Archer. But it can't be that easy, you've got to eat right? He co-owns a restaurant in downtown LA, too, and that's not all!
VICE: Before you were known for your photography, you filmed. What was going on there and how did you make that transition?
Atiba Jefferson: It was like, my first high school photography class and I had a camera, then I broke it and I kind of took some time off from shooting. It was never anything serious, but I just didn't have a camera. That was my junior year, and in my senior year something kind of switched and I took it a little more seriously. I worked with a friend that summer on trying to get an article published, and got one in Transworld. I'd met Josh Beagle that fall and that relationship kind of sparked me into, 'Oh, I want to be a photographer.'
But then when you moved from Colorado to California, you ended up filming, but taking photos on the side?
I was just lurking around and I didn't really have any idea what I wanted to do in terms of work. I was gonna go work at a 7-Eleven. [Dave] Swift had hooked me up freelancing for Foundation, and Heath [Kirchart] and Josh—they were my two friends, so they got me a situation where I was just filming them. Back then, you filmed and you had a Hi-8 camera and you shot photos. So you did both—it wasn't one over the other, you know. That was just the formula that Swift and Ortiz and all these dudes did. Skaters would do stuff twice; you'd take a photo and then film it. It was great to learn how to kind of do that, to be honest. When the Foundation video had finished, I was going to a job interview at 7-Eleven, and Grant was like, "Dude just help me send back photos to photographers and assist me part time and it will help pay your rent." I started doing that and Ako had already started working there [Transworld Skateboarding Magazine]. Then my role kind of transformed because if those guys were gonna go shoot something they didn't wanna film it too so they would bring me to film. So there was actually a big period where I was kinda mostly a filmer than photographer during Uno, 4WD, Cinematographer…
I still remember that redux Grant Brittain cover of Transworld of you 360 flipping on flat. And then some time after that it seems you started shooting photos with Eric Koston?
The funny thing is I have actually known Eric for a long time. I have photos I shot of Eric in 1995. I went up for a weekend and remember staying with him and he was super cool and we were trying to get this table line and he wasn't happy with it because he was tic-tacking and he was getting mad and I was like, "This is amazing!" And I shot him with Swift once where I shot a sequence of like the first switch smith for an Orion [skateboard trucks] ad, and it was a really big deal and I actually got poached by Filmer from 411 [video magazine]. He was literally at the spot and he was filming it from above—I think he put it out first and that's why that term 'Poach' came about. Long story short is I did shoot Eric in '95 and that's when I met him and we became friends. I was always a big fan and through the years I lived in San Diego, but we'd always stay in touch and I would come up to LA and skate with him. We had a lot in common, we were both big basketball fans and I started doing a lot more basketball stuff—shooting basketball games, shooting the Lakers games and that's when that relationship really kind of blossomed and the friendship really took off. I moved up to LA in '99 and thats when we really, really became good friends.
How much have things changed between you guys since that first time you stayed with Eric at the Alta Vista house?
Eric is so much different than when we were kids. He has my vote for best dad ever of the year award. It's weird, even as kids out skating, Eric was like, "hmm, whatever…" like everything was kind of "whatever" unless it came to the Lakers. It wasn't like he didn't have a passion for skating, it's just like he was too good. It came too easy. He was the kind of dude who was more worried about like what kind of car should I get. He used to get a new car every year. Now he's had the same car for 10 years, I swear to god.
Another group you're tight with is Supreme and Odd Future. I've always thought (and maybe it's been said before) that Odd Future was this generation's Wu-Tang Clan. Having toured with them for The Skateboard Mag, would you agree with that statement?
Yeah, definitely. I'm totally a supporter of those dudes and I'm so stoked for those guys because they've built something really special, and built it with a group of friends. I think they see what Wu-Tang did, you know: keep your squad together, keep what you're doing together. Man, it's not easy to be in those guys' shoes. For something to really blow up so big and be like, "OK, what's next." You know, everyone's so quick to judge, and that sucks, especially when you're a kid. It's one thing when you're 40 years old, it's like, okay break me down, tear me down. But yeah for those guys it's totally Wu-Tang related. I always say it's like Souls Of Mischief and Wu-Tang together. They skate and know skating and love skating. I'm always really proud of those dudes and what they do and what they've done. I'm like, let's get a Goat [Atiba's band] and Odd Future show going and they're like, "No, I'm not ready." Then overnight I'm like, I'm not even gonna ask… you guys are too big now. But they'll go to our shows and Ty will be front row and that's fucking rad. You know those dudes really did it and it's so fucking rad to see.
What was it like being on tour with them?
It's just complete hijinx… The funnest thing I ever did, I went on a Big Day Out tour. They call it the Big Day Out because there's so much free time between shows. So this tour came about and Tony [Hawk] asked me to go. It was Tony, Riley [Hawk], Clint Walker, Neil Hendrix, and myself, but there were some other skaters and they would do a demo for a half hour, 45 minutes… So we kinda went just to street skate and hang out. It was cool because that band Battles was on, and Odd Future. Tyler was always the dude who would call in the morning being like, "Let's go skate, let's eat pancakes, let's hang out," and then at night it was Hodgy, Left Brain, and those other guys hitting me up being like, "What club are we going to, where's the party?" So this whole time I was just surrounded by Odd Future around the clock. Like I'd go rage with those dudes, wake up in the morning be thrashed, and then go meet up with Tyler and Taco for pancakes. And being in Australia—a fuckin' white ass country—with Tyler was so funny because he likes to make everything awkward so he was just calling everyone out and they had a lot of bad press for being anti-gay which is so fucking stupid. There were protests in one province, maybe it was Perth or New Zealand, they wouldn't allow them to play, and so they made a tour shirt called Big Gay Out with two cats fucking. It was just a really good time to see those dudes not give a fuck and just go there.
Back when you, Grant Brittain, and Dave Swift left TWS to start The Skateboard Mag, would you have ever imagined that you would wind up working with/for Eric?
No, no I'm really happy it worked out this way because he's one of my best friends and it just reinstates never feeling like you're working when you're working with him. And I think we came out on the other side a lot better than where [The Skateboard Mag] was a couple years ago and that's what people are kind of seeing. We ended up partnering up with Eric and The Berrics and it's giving us a lot more opportunities that we didn't have on our own, and I get to work with my best friend.
Both Koston and yourself are huge into basketball. When you started assisting the photographer for the Lakers would he come out on shoots with you? Did you guys ever hang out socially with basketball players?
Not necessarily. When Shaq was on the Lakers I got a call from Eric, "Dude, I'm filming this 311 video with Shaq, come to the set," and it's super funny because he had to do an air over him. But Shaq, when I saw him was like, "Oh, what's up?" because I was working for the Lakers. Back in the day, we would see them in clubs but we weren't like all at a table or something. Eric's done that and I've done that on separate occasions, but we've never really done it together.
It must be such a trip going back and forth with NBA Players to skaters because the way those guys go out on the town is such a different thing.
Yeah, they're not really going to Black to just like go to a bar. I'm waiting one day to get one of them out but no, they're very simple people. There's actually this old NBA player that used to go to Cha Cha but he was retired. Cherokee Parks. He would rage with us—it was super funny.
When you started getting involved in owning a bar, where were your places of inspiration? Max Fish in New York?
Oh, absolutely. Max Fish—one of the first times I went there was probably '98 or '99 for my friend Marc Razo who was working there. I think every bar wants to be the Fish. I've been to a lot of bars you know, and there's always a skate bar in every town from Paris to Australia, whether it's Changelings in Sydney—skaters like to drink and have a good time and there's always that spot you need to go to. LA never really had it besides Cha Cha.
It's pretty amazing that there's a place you can go and get a drink from Heath Kirchart.
It's kind of like the graduation of when board companies started popping up owned by skaters. Now there's other things like Saint Archer beer and bars you can go to.
Yeah there are bars, there are restaurants… there's a restaurant that not many people know [myself] Ako and and Eric invested in called Dominick's. All that stuff is fun. I think that's the success of a lot of stuff. That's the success of Saint Archer. It's great that skaters support skater owned things.
So you have a beer company and restaurant, a bar, a bag company—which we should talk about—as well as being an original founder of The Skateboard Mag, playing in The Goat and DJing in Blackouts… am I missing anything?
It's unannounced, but I'm stoked because I'm a part of this thing called Grapes—a cell phone charging bank like those portable batteries. I'm really stoked to be part of that because you know everything that I'm a part of is stuff that I use. That's the key someone told me a long time ago is invest in stuff you use. So for me that's an awesome opportunity because I'm always needing to charge something whether it's a camera or a phone, I need electricity. So I got asked to be a part of that with a group of friends and it's awesome to be a part of. All these projects are amazing.
Beside the studio portraits you do—obviously the people you shoot represent the lifestyle of skating. Even Weezy and Big Sean, skaters can identify with them when they look at those photos. But I've alway sort of thought you're not really the "from-the-hip" kind of photographer at all.
No, I'm very stylized. I wish I could be the from-the-hip dude. It's a fine line between calling that stuff simple or shitty photography and calling it art. And the reason why I call it art is because I can't emulate that kind of raw street photographer. Honestly, I think I've been too polished as a photographer because I know too much. And I think that style of photography is knowing the basics and sticking with that and not trying to become polished. It's the same with music, you know. I listen to Dr. Dre and it's the same thing that I feel about Jay-Z and these guys that were really raw at one point in their career and they learned too much about life, money, and success and you can't go back. You know, The Chronic is always gonna be The Chronic because that's him being young, and to shoot raw is the same thing. Like, it's what I would be doing in high school I can't go back to that and I'm fine with that. I've loved how everything has worked out with me and everything that I know I can just walk into every situation—with photography, a lot of things happen on set or when you're shooting and you have to figure out how to fix it. But yeah, I'm not raw or shoot from the hip.
But maybe that's all for the better because if you had pursued filming just as much as you did photography we wouldn't have Sorry For Partying because you might be filming it with a RED or something.
I like pushing myself and I don't just want to shoot one way—I want to learn. Photography for me is an obsession I have and a passion that I have. And whether or not I was getting paid to do it wouldn't matter, I just want to know and make the best photos possible. I always see a photo and see things I can improve on. I never see a photo and think, oh, that's perfect. I'm always like, Fuck why wasn't that here, why wasn't that there? It's not in a self destructive way it's just like, hey let's make the best picture possible.
You and I were talking about social media a while back on the phone and how it's saved photography. But for you, you must have to think about how you are representing yourself as a photographer when you are posting random stuff. Is that something you need to put consideration into?
I used to. Not used to, I mean I did for a sec. Then I decided I'm not gonna put my career on Instagram and social media. I'm not gonna take it seriously—that's like social, I'm here for a good time. [I'd rather] see professional work go to my website. I know people judge that but I'm not gonna sit here and put my whole life/career on Instagram. And for me, it's called social media—not job finding media. To me it's supposed to be social it's supposed to be fun it's supposed to show things you know that aren't in a magazine or a book—it's another resource. I don't even know why I have so many followers, but I feel like hopefully it's because I don't take it serious and because I show them different things they want to see.
What happened to Sorry For Partying, I was a big fan of those videos and I think it's really cool to show people that skate another side. You know, like even Malto skating the streets of NY, goofing around, the party stuff is great! What happened?
It just turned into too much editing. It was just one of those things where I was just over it, you know. But I have to edit it. It's gotta be the way it is. Yeah, I hope to [make more], but at the same time I'm like ah, I'm kind of okay with it.
There was a photo you shot that got published in TSM recently that stirred some controversy with skaters. A lot of comments were about jocks hating on skaters which hasn't really been a problem for at least 15 years since skating is so widely accepted. What do you make of it?
I know it made a lot of people really mad. It's funny because it was almost the cover. I get good comedy and I understand people being made fun of, but I've never made fun of people and never used that to get where I'm at and I think that's why I am where I am. But you know, I get it, I've always hung out with people that talk shit—that's a part of skating. But that one was really funny because no one got where that photo came from. No one really understood that that's a day in the life and that's what we chose to do. And you know, people are just gonna be bitter about that
There was a shop from Colorado—my home state—that cancelled [their subscription] with us and I was like, whoa, you know, that's their football team. You know, I get it. I was that way… Thrasher had a cover that said "Skateboarding Is Dead" in the 90s and I was a kid. I was gonna write a letter that says, "No it's not. It's fucking the best it's ever been…" You know to me it's such a waste of energy to even worry about that stuff. I don't say that in that sarcastic way—I really do care. I was just like, yeah you guys don't get. That that's what we did for our day and that's what we chose to do and that's who we are. But it's the same way if you really read into Instagram: most comments are talking shit or people saying super mean and super cruel stuff, and I just feel bad that that's all these people have in their day.
You know, without this sounding arrogant, I am so lucky to be as successful as I am, I grew up on food stamps and welfare with a single mom who worked two jobs to put food on our table. I've had a job since I was 12 years old bussing tables. No one can ever bother or tear me down because I was never supposed to have the level of success that I have. I was never supposed to be here. So to me, every fucking day that I live is straight paradise. I've just got no time for hate. I've never had time for hate.