Marc Mckee On Designing Some of the Most Iconic Graphics in Skateboarding
Among many other things, Marc is responsible for Flameboy and Wet Willy – the World Industries characters who decorated your year 8 hoodies.
Illustration: Marc Mckee
The No Comply Network is a London-based, UK-wide network of artistically creative skateboarders, founded by Birmingham-born skater Jason Caines. Every week, we'll be profiling a new No Comply member.
Marc Mckee is a skater and artist from Marin County, California who has created some of the most iconic skate graphics of all time. Starting his career as a skateboard graphic designer in the late 1980s, he was discovered by Steve Rocco, owner of 90s street skating super-brand World Industries, who hired him as a designer for the company.
World was the biggest skate brand in the industry at the time, and Mckee's designs played a key role in that. He invented the brand's mascots Devil Man, Flame Boy and Wet Willy, which took the company to another level: from the skatepark to the hoodies and T-shirts of kids who might have owned Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, but had never stepped on a board in their lives.
Alongside working as an editor at Big Brother magazine, Mckee went on to create a series of notorious graphics for World's sister brands, Blind, 101, Darkstar, Cliché and Almost. Some were celebrated, some were criticised for being wildly offensive – but more than anything, they helped him firmly secure his spot in skateboarding history.
As he's a No Comply Member, and one of the hardest working men in skateboarding, I thought we should have a chat about World, Rocco and creating Flame Boy and Wet Willy.
VICE: How is skating now compared to when you started, Marc?
Marc Mckee: Things have changed a lot. In the 80s and early-90s, skateboarding was still looked down on by a lot of people as a delinquent activity. I still have that image of skating in my mind when thinking about graphics – like, 'What would I do in order to impress the bad kids?' When I got started, my favourite graphics were from Powell-Peralta, Santa Cruz Skateboards and Zorlac. I’m a little out of touch with what’s going on now, so I still look back on that era for inspiration mainly.
Fortunately for me, by the mid-2000s, when World and Blind became completely kid-oriented, there were still artists out there like Todd Bratrud and Neckface who were doing stuff that was pretty raw. Seeing their stuff – and graphics Sean Cliver had done around that time – pushed my graphics in a direction more reminiscent of the 90s. Al Boglio was one of the skaters who was key in making that happen. World's holding company acquired Cliché around 2007, and Al was their brand manager. It wasn't long before he had me doing stuff for them inspired by that earlier time.
Tell me more working for World Industries. You invented their iconic Flameboy, Wet Willy and Devil Man characters – how did that come about?
The first World character was Devil Man. Rocco thought he should have a sidekick, so that’s where I came up with Flameboy. He was supposed to be Devil Man’s assistant or whatever, made from pure hell fire, and Wet Willy would be pure holy water. I have to credit JT, though for helping me come up with Wet Willy. By the way, this is the same JT who was one of the original Alva Boys. At the time, around the mid-90s, he had retired from his pro career and was working in the World Industries art department as art director. Anyway, he noticed that Flameboy was kind of teardrop shaped, and he suggested that I make another character that looked like a water droplet and have the two do battle. As they say, "the rest is history".
What effect did creating Flame Boy and Wet Willy have on your life and career?
They basically saved it. Around 1995, World Industries was on the verge of going out of business. Steve had sold 25 percent of the company to our Japanese distributor just to keep afloat. As a result of the money situation, the new CEO of World changed the pay structure for how artists were compensated. Up until that time, the way I would get paid as a freelancer was to just keep track of the hours I spent on each graphic and submit an invoice upon completion. That’s how a lot of the really complex hand-painted graphics got done in the early-90s. I could work on a graphic for weeks at a time and then turn in a huge invoice. But then that all changed and we were now told that we would only get $500 per graphic. That had a lot to do with World’s art direction changing to the character graphics, which were much more simplistic. Luckily, when they took off I was able to get back on salary.
What are some of the World board graphic designs you're most proud of?
Most of them would come from the very early years of working at World. Back then, everything was so unstructured and there was so much freedom to do whatever we wanted to do.
What was your creative process for designing a World board?
I worked there for such a long time and things changed so much that there's really not any one way I would go about things. In the beginning I would work a lot more with the riders and their ideas, and Rocco would also have his input. In the first few years of World, Rocco really worked hands-on as creative director. Occasionally he would shut down ideas if he didn’t like them or, more often, he would have me work with the initial rider concepts and change or add stuff.
Like with the Mike Vallely "Barnyard" [board], the original "Please Don't Eat My Friends" concept was Mike's, but it was clear that Steve wasn’t into it when he explained it to me. So he encouraged me to add something more to the graphic, which is how the Barnyard came out to look so cartoonish and have the added Animal Farm theme that I put in. I did remove the scene of two horses having sex behind the barn, though, at Mike's request.
Later on, in the mid-90s, when boards starting coming out way more frequently, the riders began having less and less interest in their graphics. It was probably a combination of the board graphics being so short-lived and also because, for most skaters, I think the way they find to best express themselves is through their skating – not visual art. Everyone's not Neil Blender or Ed Templeton or Mark Gonzales. So the result of the new demand for more and more graphics and the riders just wanting their royalty check was it really opened up the chance to come up with more stuff on my own. Rocco even started to have less interest in the graphics too when his focus shifted to his various new shoe companies, like Dukes and Duffs and Axion.
Much later, when World became more of a kiddie brand and we were deep into the "Devil Programme", with all the Flameboy and Wet Willy boards, I would actually get ideas submitted to me from the guys in the sales department. They were the biggest fans of those graphics because of how much they sold.
For the actual technical process, I usually wait to come up with an idea in my head before starting anything new. That hardly ever happens while sitting at a desk or in any "brainstorming" meetings, which I think are a total waste of time. I guess my mind has to be kind of wandering, like when I’m driving and listening to music, or just lying in bed.
Do you have any stories about working for Steve Rocco that you'd like to recount?
Part of working for Rocco was that it didn’t seem like work – at least, that was my experience. He let us have our own keys to the office and the World park, which also served as the first Big Brother magazine office. We were free to come and go as we pleased. At World we had a darkroom for developing black-and-white photos, which doubled as the weed smoking room. That was really fun to do with just the safelight on. For about a year he hired a chef to cook lunch for everyone every day in the office kitchen. For the shipping manager’s birthday he hired strippers to come in. He did that for the riders too on other occasions. One time the UPS man came in to watch. A lot of time was wasted bouncing on the office trampoline, and then there were the years when he had his place in Hawaii on the island of Lanai. He would fly the riders out there just to shoot ads or ride around on his fleet of quad runners. He had these aviator headsets that we would wear that had mics and Sony Walkmans connected to them so we could talk to each other and listen to music while cruising around on all the dirt roads. It was great while it lasted….
Music was a big part of your time working at World, right?
Definitely, one of the best perks of my job was being able to listen to music the whole time while I worked. Later it was mostly through headphones, but early on, when I worked with Sean Cliver at World Industries, we shared the art department room and would play music on these really loud Bose speakers all the time. Usually we’d have the volume turned up so loud that the effect was that no one would want to come anywhere near us, which is exactly what we wanted since we were both extremely antisocial. Also, we had this thing that I called "conditioning", where we would listen to the same CD over and over on repeat all day long – also very off-putting. Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden was one of the CDs, but mostly it was Danzig.
Do you have any recent or upcoming releases that you'd like to mention?
Just the Rocco 3 Devil Bear Sofubi figure coming from Japan early next year – February, I think. I also finished a graphic for Cliver's new skate company, StrangeLove Skateboards. It's drawn as if it were the long-lost fifth graphic in a series of World boards Sean and I did in 1992. The original group of boards was called the "Rocco Tribute Series" and featured various portrayals of Steve in various grandiose ways. Each board was the first pro model for four of the ams from the Love Child video, Daewon Song, Shiloh Greathouse, Chico Brenes and Jovontae Turner. There were plans for Jed Walters to go pro, too. That never happened, though, and Jed pretty much disappeared. Sean caught up with him earlier this year, so now he'll finally be getting a board.
Last question, do you have any advice for budding artists in the UK when it comes to getting design jobs in skateboarding?
Everyone should do their own thing and not listen to anyone else. The best way is probably to first get work through your friends or people you already know. That’s basically how I started out with World Industries. I think, unless you’re already a working artist, it will be very hard for some random company to hire you. So just try to start something with your friends.