Skateboarding’s Most Provocative Graphics
A recent study conducted by me has found that 90 percent of skateboard graphics in 2014 suck. That wasn't always the case, as Sebastien Carayol's new book, 'Agents Provocateurs,' proves.
Cover art by Ben Horton
A recent study conducted by me has found that 90 percent of skateboard graphics in 2014 suck. Over the course of my 11 years as a skateshop owner I have watched in horror as the imagery on the bottom of skateboards deteriorated from works of art worthy of gallery walls into something like midterm projects from a graphic design 101 class at a community college.
In the 90s the skateboard was used as a canvas for artistic expression. Today, most brands just recycle and regurgitate their boring, uninspired logos for the bulk of their boards, regressing our culture to the 70s slalom/surf era. Sadly, the current generation of skaters have been brainwashed into paying top dollar to act as moving billboards for corporations. In most skateshops logo boards sell ten times as well as their counterparts with hand drawn/painted artwork.
'Banfield' by Paul Parker, 2010
This was not always the case. In the 80s and 90s the imagery and pros' names drove board sales. Standing in front of a skateshop's board wall during that time was blinding and overwhelming—like your first visit to the Louvre. As the 80s came to a close skateboarding took on a more urban, street-focused look. Powell Peralta, with their biker-style skulls, swords, and dragon images fell from prominence and World Industries rose to power with its edgy, satirical commentary, thanks in no small part to masterful designers Marc McKee and Sean Cliver. Suddenly skateboard graphics were no longer for little kids. They were naughty and dirty and laden with blatant sexual, political, racial drawings that disgusted parents, making skateboarders want them all the more.
'Fuck the World Trader' by Brice Raysseguier, 2011
Sebastien Carayol, a French writer from Narbonne has spent the better part of his life immortalizing the 90s era of skateboarding in various books, museum exhibitions, and his Memory Screened column and website. Carayoladmits he's not much of an artist himself, which is why he chose to document that side of skate culture. "The only time I felt like an artist," he said, "was when I tagged 'Zorlac'—with the O looking like the Public Enemy target logo—all over the walls of my small village in the south of France, in 1989. The critical, ahem, acclaim that followed persuaded me to stop my artistic career right then and become a writer instead."
Carayol recently released a book of 100 subversive skateboard graphics called Agents Provocateurs (Gingko Press). I sat down with him to discuss the heyday of skateboard design.
'Randy Colvin Censorship' by Marc McKee, 1991
VICE: What prompted you to make Agents Provocateurs?
Sebastien Carayol: In 2011 I had the opportunity to curate a board exhibition as part of the "Public Domaine" art show in Paris. In order to avoid just displaying boards in chronological order, I decided to pick the theme "provocation"—boards that had something to say and addressed classic taboos such as sex, religion, violence, racism, politics, etc. It fed both my admiration for the greatness of the 90s—the time during which I started skating—and also the history of provocation in general.
I showed 52 boards at "Public Domaine" and thought it'd be cool to turn it into a book. Thanks to the tremendous help of Sean Cliver, I got in touch with Gingko Press, and it was on. I worked on the book itself for about a year, juggling it with other shows and projects. At the end of the day, the publisher told me these were some of the gnarliest images he had ever put in a book. It made me all warm and fuzzy inside.
'The Disneyland Memorial Orgy 1967' by Wally Wood, 2012
How difficult was it to confine yourself to only 100 subversive skate graphics?
That was the hardest part of the book, because for all I know we could've picked 1,000 graphics and it still might not have been comprehensive. First off I didn't want this to be a rehash of books Sean "Category Killer" Cliver already had out. Secondly, my idea was to dig a bit outside the obvious vintage World Industries/Antihero/Alien Workshop/Consolidated graphics so even the heavy board collectors would be able to see a few decks they might not know or have seen before, hence a presence of lesser-known companies such as Witchcraft, Politic, Boom Art, Trauma, and Yama. I also tried to find as many modern decks in that genre as I could, but it's not very easy. All that in mind, I am very happy with the final selection, and just can't wait to get upset emails from people saying, "Why didn't you include this board or that board?" Actually, it's already started!
Jovontae Turner 'Napping Negro' by Marc McKee, 1992
Which graphic has the best story behind it?
I'd say the World Industries Jovontae Turner Napping Negro by Marc McKee, perhaps the most controversial of all the "reverse racism" decks ever made. An excerpt from the Thrasher ad that promoted it read: "Negroes have always shared a bright and colorful history with white people. Beginning in the 1600s they were taken from their homes, shackled, piled into ships, and then transported to America. Over the next three centuries they were bought, sold, enslaved, tortured, raped, and killed. Then, in 1954, they were allowed to drink from the same water fountains and that pretty much took the fun out of everything."
As horribly racist as a deck summing up all the clichés about black people may sound, critics always forget that Jovontae Turner himself, an African American pro skateboarder, submitted the idea. "When World started asking me what I'd want for my graphics, I said I wanted some old school black slavery stuff, you know what I mean? Something of that era," Turner said. "Basically to give back, and make fun of it, kinda. My first board was called 'Jovontae at Night.' I came up to them and said, "You know how they say you can't see black people at night unless they smile?" Then we did one with a runaway slave hiding in a tree, and the Napping Negro. My mom and I brought Marc McKee all these postcards of what they called black folklore, which were really bad cartoons representing black people. I liked it when it came out. I liked the controversy. It just makes people trip off it. I like to fuck with people, and it actually worked."
From the 'Chore Series' by Ben Horton, 2010
What's your take on the modern era of logo-driven, boring skateboard graphics?
You mean the ones that make skateboards look like skis? I just think it's a shame that this cheap trick still works. But very recently I've noticed some companies—Polar, Welcome, Palace, $lave, just to name a few—still understand the value of graphic design.It's crazy to me that some of the top-selling companies happen to be the ones with the lamest graphics: "Oh, we have the best pros, it doesn't matter. Kids don't care."
Chico Brenes 'Day at the Beach' by Sean Cliver, 1994
The decks you chose from the pre-internet 90s were shocking at the time, but do you think teenagers today, having grown up on the internet with its shocking images of beheadings and fistings and whatnot, will be shocked by anything in this book? Do you think there's anything shocking for teens in 2014?
I think about this every now and then, but it's very difficult for a 40-year-old who grew up in rural France, pre-internet age, to know what will shock a teenager today. Which is fine with me—I'm not sure a modern day teenager would go as far as buying a book, right? There's Street League to watch! Far more interesting.
Jim Thiebaud 'Hanging KKK' by Natas Kaupas and Kevin Ancell, 1990
I really do believe that the only great taboo left within skateboarding is homosexuality. Despite a few people having finally come out in the past couple years, it's still this thing that nobody dares to address, and it's a shame. I would love to see an openly gay skateboard company celebrating its difference—it would be amazing, and actually help kids to be more open-minded.
Matt Mumford 'Positive' by Ben Horton, 2012
Don Nguyen 'Gooks of Hazzard' by Jason Moore, 2012
Marc McKee and Sean Cliver were at the forefront of dastardly skate graphics in the 90s. Who do you feel is doing it best in 2014?
I think Sean still does it. Marc McKee, too, and a few other vets such as Todd Francis never disappoint. Among the (relative) newcomers, I really like the works of Ben Horton for Slave, and the occasional scandalous genius burst from, say, SkateMental or enjoi. Oh, and the whole turmoil around the "Gooks of Hazzard" deck by Baker in 2012 (TMZ story, et al) got my old fart's soul all teary-eyed—kids still manage to do it today! It's a miracle that provocation still works, right when you thought people had seen it all.
Bo Turner 'Stabbing' by Mike Hill, 1993
What are some of the best stories the artists told you in the course of making this book?
Besides the classic tales that were already heard here and there (non-racist skinheads protecting the Real team at a demo after Jim Thiebaud's "hanging Klansman" board came out, etc), I like how Mike Hill did this old Alien board, the one with a puppet being stabbed, just out of wanting to make a graphic "that looked like what Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me album sounded like."
'Anaesthesia' by Eli Morgan Gesner, 1996
Other great insights came from Eli Gesner, the mastermind behind early Zoo York stuff, who did Illuminati skateboards in the 90s as well. For each board, he sent me three-page long email explanations in which I found out things like this little-known fact about the death of Illuminati Skateboards that I was unable to fit into the book:
"We hit a critical mass at Zoo, where we wanted to expand and were not sure whether to just focus on growing Zoo into a clothing brand or 'diversify' and create more skate brands (like 'World Industry' or 'Deluxe'). Oyola and all of us at Zoo decided it would be best to create our first 'spin-off' brand for Ricky, Illuminati. In retrospect I might have gone conceptually overboard with Illuminati. I'd like to hope not. It actually deeply saddens me that at one time, skaters would respond to such intelligent ideas as the things we used to do with Illuminati, and in the end 'Jackass' and 'Rob and Big's Fun Factory' won out... True irony! In the end, we were hit with a 'cease and desist' order from the crappy, nerd-a-rific playing card game 'Illuminati'. Turns out that 'games and sporting goods' exist in the same copyright and trademark sector in the United States. So Dungeons and Dragons is considered nearly the same as the NFL, according to our government. Imagine that. To this day I still get 'Why did you guys kill Illuminati? It was rad!' Well, it wasn't us, friend. We were forced out by the card game. Or were we? I suspect that there was a deeper, darker conspiracy at work! We get all the kids to start asking questions and THEN 'Jackass' gets picked up by MTV? Coincidence? I think not!"
'Colored Only' one-off by Alyasha Owerka-Moore, 2012
What's your personal favorite skateboard graphic?
It's too hard for me to choose just one that was actually sold in shops—I love them all. So I'll go for the one-off that Alyasha Moore did in 2012, which he sold at auction. He took an old, beat up 1950s skateboard with metal wheels and simply wrote "Colored Only" on the bottom—a way to acknowledge that the oh-so-cool 50s weren't just Happy Days. Simple, hard-hitting, tells a story in one word. Perfect. Sorry if it's a bit serious (I do love naked retired people playing volleyball as much as the next guy) but to me that's the key with provocation—tell a smart story in one smart idea.
Cairo Foster 'Dog Meat' by Winston Tseng, 2009
Lastly, we are discussing artists who have shaped the visual landscape of skateboarding for decades. Their work has inspired many to become artists, skaters, or both. What do you think about the fact that after all these years and all the money these artists have made for companies, the going rate for a commissioned board graphic is still just a mere $150 to $300?
Yeah and then you get to wonder how much the designer for a logo on a vacuum cleaner gets paid, right? I think it's pretty unfair, but it also says a lot about rushed graphics—when you see that Sean Cliver spends like a week, minimum, on a handmade graphic, do the math and think about what kind of hourly rate that amounts to... I am not sure how to reverse that, all I know is that I'd love for this kind of book, or Cliver's, or any skateboard design book, to help at least put names to the graphics that deserve to be seen more than their three weeks' shelf life in a skateshop. It won't get these guys paid better, but at least it'll make them more visible... so they can pile up more of these fantastic $150 gigs!