Still Pushing Buttons: Sean Cliver on Skate Graphics and His New Brand

Paisley Skates' provocative designs and more.

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Nov 22 2015, 1:10pm

All images courtesy the artist and Paisley Skates

In the 90s, World Industries’ art department was responsible for redefining what a skateboard graphic could be as well as completely changing the format and tone of skate magazines. One of the driving forces behind the renaissance of raunch, raciness, and utter disregard for rules, laws, and sometimes decency, was illustrator and author Sean Cliver. With his cohort Marc McKee and some occasional co-conspirators, Cliver went on to create several graphics that grew larger in popularity than the actual riders at times, but the biggest lanes they opened were ones that lead to commentary and controversy.

Following owner Steve Rocco’s lead, Cliver and McKee were encouraged to piss on convention and let their hormone-driven minds create a look that hadn’t been seen before. Exploring anything from satanic imagery, masturbation, drugs, and even naked old people playing volleyball—a stark contrast to the skulls and serpents associated with skating at the time. Oh, and those are some of Cliver’s more “mellow” images. Once World started Big Brother, Cliver's cavalier attitude was a perfect fit for print, which parlayed into the crew forming the Jackass franchise, but that’s a separate and equally provocative story.

One hallmark of Cliver’s work has been his wit and skill. He’s a pure illustrator. Like his idols before him, Cliver inked his way into skateboarding’s conscious, with his perverse takes on cartoon characters and social satire, becoming as iconic at any Pushead, Jim Phillips, or VC Johnson work.

Despite his skateboarding pedigree and work in print, TV, film, and graphics, Cliver’s never actually owned a skateboard company—until now. Paisley Skates launched recently, with Cliver’s Serial Party deck selling out in roughly an hour. The San Francisco company is the vehicle for Cliver and fellow skater and artist Paul Urich. Cliver’s still pushing the limits of the graphic medium and continues to be one of the most important visual artists in skateboarding. He penciled us in for a conversation:

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The Creators Project: One thing that always struck me about your graphics was the sense of mischief in them. Were you a bad kid?

Sean Cliver: No, not at all. In fact, just the other day my mom was telling my girlfriend how I was the “perfect child.” And most anyone that meets me finds it hard to believe I’m the same guy attached to all the things that I have been throughout the years, like Big Brother magazine, Jackass, and World Industries when it was owned by Steve Rocco. Morrissey may feel the need to wear black on the outside because that’s how he feels on the inside, but I’ve always favored a more understated demeanor. I’ve always had a fascination with the subversive, offensive, and controversial.

When I was deep into comic books as a kid, it didn’t take long for me to dive straight through all the dudes in tights to the underground comix of the 60s and 70s: Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Richard Corben, Vaughn Bode, Dan O’Neill and the like. I had silly aspirations to become a comic artist, making several minicomics in my mid-teens, but my style was never so loose and flowing. I gravitated more and more to “one-off” illustrations, so once I discovered skateboarding and the attitudes and imagery that came along with it that became my whole new reason for being. 

What appealed to you about Pushead's work and the skate graphics you first connected with?

Prior to skateboarding, I was already into horror, blood, and gore. Similar to my affair with comics, I sought out the best of the worst in cult films, or at least what I could find back then in the mid 80s—the era of the VHS tape—while living in central Wisconsin. Skulls, demons, all that stuff instantly grabbed me when I first walked into a skate shop, especially those central image graphics drawn with clean, technical precision.

The classic Pushead Zorlacs, any of VCJ’s Powell-Peralta designs, and the first Jeff Grosso Demon board on Santa Cruz (which I only later discovered was “inspired” by a Virgil Finlay illustration): these were the decks that battled it out for my first hard-earned 50 bucks in 1986. The Powell Mike McGill Skull & Snake finally won out and I babied that board with every conceivable form of plastic accessory. Any scratches were dutifully retouched each and every night with Sharpies and Testor’s paint pens.

Your work is technical—much like Pushead—what do you think of more "artsy" graphics that turn up on so many boards today?

I can appreciate it, sure, but it’s never been my personal taste. When I first started skating in the 80s, anything with a more graphic design approach was completely off my radar: Sims, Vision, the earlier Brand-X boards, anything of a strictly geometric or “new wave” nature. It’s just not my thing. That said, I’ve always admired the work of say Mike Hill or Don Pendleton, where it’s a fine mix of illustration, design, and execution.

Have you ever wanted to explore a different lane, like, "now I'm a painter" or do a cartoon for Adult Swim?

Not really. Maybe because I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do and there aren’t really any boundaries; or maybe because I’m a perfectionist and hate being trumped by something I can’t master right away, like painting. I’ve only done about six or seven paintings in my life and they were all done under duress for slick bottoms in the 90s. They were crash courses in airbrush, oils, acrylics, and gouache...not to mention color. I’m a diehard pen ‘n’ inker. Colors are always an afterthought when I draw a graphic, and it’s only after I’ve finished the ink when I realize, ‘Shit, now how am I going to color this up?’

Skating's graphics have always really appealed to horny boys, but with it growing and being more diverse, what kind of stuff would you create for a brand like Meow or Hoopla? Hot dudes?

Maybe. It’s about time someone jumped on Tom of Finland. But that’s the kind of graphic I would enjoy doing... something that no one would ever want to ride, let alone see printed on a board.

What's the worst rip-off graphic you had to create or a rider recommended from back in the World heyday?

Hands down the Chico Brenes Travelodge Bear for one of his “quick cash” World Industries models. This was in 1992, and what would usually happen then is that McKee or I would embark on some graphic for a slick bottom that would take three, sometimes four weeks to finish, so we’d have to supplant these works with some ego-less quickies in the interim. McKee would always find a more clever approach than what the rider originally requested. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for myself.

My first Travelodge Bear rip off was so bad that Rocco made me redo it after the first run. And the second time around I just “improved” it by putting the “Travelodge” name on the board, because I couldn’t get past how inane a request it was. Regardless, that was no excuse for me to half-ass it, because that’s the kind of shit that can haunt you through life. I know this because I’m also responsible for being the drawing hand on the pictograph travesty for Tony Hawk’s Toe Knee Hawk Powell-Peralta model in 1990. That’s about as high-profile an embarrassment that one could ever hope to achieve.

The Jenkem/Cliché collab was fantastic, who came up with the idea and do you think more subversive voices like Jenkem are keeping the spirit of Big Brother alive?

It was a collaborative idea between Ian at Jenkem and Al Boglio at Cliché, world leaders hitting on some Jenkem, and I threw in a few details of my own, like the Illuminati nod and the iPhone action. I was just stoked they settled for me, because I respect what Jenkem is doing. What was funny about that graphic, though, is that I was in the process of finishing it up when that whole North Korea/The Interview deal blew up in the world news. Oh, and one trivial thing about the graphic: the design on Kim Jong’s iPhone case was an obscure, not to mention obscured, nod to a concept of mine that got nixed at Prime Skateboards in 1996 when Mark Oblow wanted to do a whole series of Sanrio characters meeting their demise—similar to the Blind Guy Mariano Bye Bye Kitty board I’d done in 1992 or ’93. Anyway, the gist of it was Hello Kitty getting raped by Keroppi the frog, and Oblow thought it was too gnarly.

 It's been exciting to see Paisley roll out so ominously. After all this time, why did you want to start a brand?

About a year ago, I was interviewed by Chris Nieratko during the 10th anniversary re-release of Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art, and he touched upon the issue of how much artists get paid for a graphic and it caused a bit of a stink—or as much as anything does on the internet these days. Anyway, I was with my friend Nick Halkias at the time and I half-seriously joked about wanting to start a company where the sole purpose was to support artists in a more substantial way. Not only with decent pay, but to provide them with the potential for royalties, to really share in the success of a graphic. It seemed a bit of a pipe dream, like any idealistic hot flash, but he put me in touch with another friend of his in San Francisco, Paul Urich, who shared a similar fantasy. So the two of us started out with it in mind as a small project and it has slowly snowballed from there into an actual company—albeit a very a small one.

Tells us everything you can about the brand, the art, artists, is there a team... the whole shit... it's exciting as hell.

From the outset, our goal was to recreate some of that “early 90s” vibe we loved about skateboarding—the spirit, the shapes, the hand-screened application of graphics versus heat transfers—mix it up with a counterculture influence, and provide artists with a platform and the means to produce defining work. Sounds like skateboards for skate nerds, I guess, but we didn’t want to just make “wall hangers.” We wanted to make fully-functional, quality boards, and we were fortunate in that Paul Schmitt was willing to take us on as a customer.

We’re only about to release our first two boards, one by me, the other by Grime. I first met him through collecting skateboards back in 2001, and only later discovered he was a ridiculously talented artist; Paul knew him through the tattoo world where he’s widely renowned for his work. Anyway, it’s been a hell of a learning process and we’re still trying to figure out a lot of shit, like being able to take on foreign distribution and sales, but right now it’s only us handling everything with some help from friends along the way. 

I assume the name has some connection to San Francisco, especially since you have a Zodiac Killer themed shirt, but why did you and Paul choose Paisley?

We went through a long list of dumb names before settling on Paisley. Too many were already similar to something else, or sounded like something you would expect from a skateboard company (especially one focused on artists and graphics), like really on the nose. Paisley just seemed right. It smacked of a broader counterculture and rebellious vibe—not in a "flower power" way, but rather the more radical, underground sect of the time period that sought to bring down the establishment. That all sounds way too heavy and serious though, so I also want to credit Morrissey and Prince. Make of that what you will.

Learn more about Paisley Skates by clicking here

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