The Importance Of Being Art Director

Ten years ago, an article about skateboard artists wouldlikely have focused on names such as Mike Hill, Andy Jenkins, MarcMcKee, Mark Gonzales, and Ed Templeton.

Those guys are todays household names in the world ofskateboard artand still going strong.

But with the passage of time, a newer generation of artistshas emerged worldwide to establish themselves in the world ofskateboarding. And theyre really making heads turn. Heres a lookat four contemporaries who have their own thing going on. TheresMatthew Irving, the 24-year-old art director of Element, whos fromArmstrong, British Columbia. Theres witty and whimsical 31-year-old Pete Hellicar, CEO and art director of London, EnglandsUnabomber skateboards. Theres Todd Bratrud, the 27-year-old “artguy” at NorCals Consolidated skateboards, who hails fromCrookstown, Minnesota. And theres Eli Gesner, the 32-year-old artdirector of New York City-based brand Zoo York. These guys are allcarrying the art torch and have been doing so for some time now.Theyre deciding what pretty pictures kids will see on the bottom oftheir skateboards, on the sides of their wheels, on stickers, T-shirts,and magazine ads.

Irving and Gesner got turned onto art by their parents,and both consider themselves artists beyond being just “graphicdesigners.” Hellicar loved making up imaginary brands, andBratruds first joy was drawing Snoopy. Hellicar and Bratrud arereluctant to dub themselves “serious” artists. Although all of themhave been lucky and talented enough to turn their passion into acareer. The single characteristic that bonds these guys, beyond theirwork, is their devout passion for skateboarding. And theyve beenaround long enough to know about skateboarding. Theyretalented and opinionated. None of them went to school beyond abachelors degree in art studies, or had any special trainingjustinspiration from skateboarding. Whats even more appealing is thatwhat they have in common is outweighed by theirindividualitytheyre all different from each other, with differentideas and goals relating to art direction in skateboarding. Thesedifferences are the fundamental details that keep skateboardingfresh, exciting, creative, and progressive.

Consolidated

Todd Bratruds take on Consolidateds art direction is soexactly how you would expect it by looking at their line. Admittedly,he doesnt put that much thought into things beforehand. He justgoes with the flow and likes things that look good. You wont hearany rhetoric about art and society and expression from Bratrud, buthell proudly tell you that he has never tried to create an “image”for Consolidatedthey just go with what they like, and sometimesthey dont even like what they go with. Todd described poor artdirection as “the way I do it.” But considering the obvious rise inpopularity of Consolidateds products lately, he must be doingsomething right.

Bratruds pursuit of art, visions, and Consolidated are oneand the same, so he has no complaints there. However, with thepopularity of skateboarding so much greater than it was in the past,theres a lot more for him to do, and he needs to do it faster.Working last-minute as frequently as Consolidated does, deadlinesare troublesomehe would prefer to put more time into certainprojects. But Bratrud can understand why many things throughoutthe industry do appear to have less thought put into them. Trying tocreate graphics for the pros just as they envisioned them is anotherchallenge.

Looking back at older 80s and 90s graphics, Todd feelsarts role in skateboarding has diminished a bit: “The stuff V.C.Johnson and Cliver were doing for Powell Peralta and the stuffRocco was putting out at that time seemed so much cooler than howthings look now.” And Consolidateds sometimes-militant, in-your-face messages in their ads and somewhat kooky, possibly”controversial” graphics are perhaps a reminder of WorldIndustries early days.

Consolidateds graphics tend to do a great job at keepingskateboarders humble and reminding everyone why they startedskateboarding in the first place. The hope is that way of thinkingremains.

Element

Element is a force in skateboarding that obviously cant beignored. It seems obvious that their graphics, on top of an amazingteam, have been a contributing factor to their popularity. MattIrving runs the show at Element as far as art direction is concerned.Like many of us, he views skateboarding as art and enjoys simplethings: “A frontside noseslide, if done well, can be so visuallystimulating.” He cringes at the word “image,” but understands thatElement does have one that, through dedication, flows fairlynaturally when company Owner Johnny Schilleref and TeamManager Ryan Kingman are constantly brainstorming with him.

Keeping that image consistent is a bit tougher, though.With three designers and up to ten contractors, Irving admits thingscan get sketchy. Also, due to a demand for new and originalproducts, creating different T-shirts presents a challenge, as doeskeeping teamriders psyched on the stuff.

Irving would love to incorporate more social or politicalissues into his work but understands that in doing so may lose theinterest of younger skateboarders. He feels that this is because theart side of skateboarding is more important to skateboarding thanits ever been. Irving recognizes that social issues are something foran older skater who perhaps was more of an “outcast” back in theday.

With the majority of Elements inspiration and influencecoming from nature and the natural environment, Irving feels veryat home there: “We have all come from nature, no matter howdomesticated you think you are. I think companies have aresponsibility to be proactive toward its participants. This is aconsumerism game that were all playing in, but try to inspire youraudience, rather than brainwash them into submission.”

For Irving, inspiration shows conspicuously in anindividuals work. Its simple to differentiate between good and badart direction: “I think chasing trends is the best way to show poorart direction. You need to believe in what you are doing and thesuccess will follow.”

Unabomber

The highly opinionated Pete Hellicar was worried a fewdays after our interview that his answers were “too harsh.” Hellicarwould prefer people to pontificate on art a little less. He labels therelationship between art and skateboarding as “self-expression,” andhell tell you that poor art direction is anything “uninspired.”

At Unabomber, Hellicar likes to make things fun andsubversive. He enjoys subtlety and doesnt go for the instant-saleroute. As a smaller company, Unabomber has a lot of freedom to dowhatever they want, but a smaller budget to do it with. This leads tothe quest for cost-effective ways to create a maximum impact. ButPete isnt complaining. He even views the “gnarly” salesdepartments as becoming more receptive to accepting ideas thatthey may not necessarily understand.

With Unabomber, Hellicar would like to get people to seethings for what they really are. “Skateboarding has alwaysencouraged people to think a little more about the environment welive in. We get to see the abuse that is netted out to those whochoose not to toe the line.”

Hellicar feels the bite and has plenty to say about thecorporate side of things, money, and how corporations tend to”strip the soul right out of skateboarding.” He says, “The reasons weare doing this in the first place have been forgotten. Expression andan antiestablishment attitude are at the core of what we do. Ourideas are not good for the mainstream.”

Hellicar finds art more significant than ever in skating, butfeels that the industry tends to look within itself too muchwaitingfor the other guy to make the first move, and this ultimately makeseverything bland. ” A run of the mill Hurley image is only a stepup from Wal-Mart,” says Hellicar, who understands that creatinganything of substance takes time, intelligence, and patiencethingsthat sales teams and accountants sometimes lack. Mass consumerismleads to the generic, basic images t
hat are so dominant in theindustry today.

Earlier this year, Hellicar relocated from London, Englandto Southern California to take a position as an art director for SoleTechnologys Etnies brand. Hellicar continues to run Unabomberfrom Englandits offices have relocated from London to nearBirmingham. And Hellicar, who returns to England several times ayear, remains involved with Unabomber and maintains everythingthat it stands for, which simply put, is skateboarding.

Keeping an image consistent is a simple task forUnabomber: its formula is to simply keep moving in its owndirection, while keeping people guessing.

Zoo York

Eli Morgan Gesner is Zoo York. He feels how artchallenges and reflects the set cultural system. So naturally, theprime directive of Eli and Zoo York has been to represent New YorkCity street culture in all its forms. He began skating in 1982 whenskateboarding offered an incredible opportunity for artisticcreativityfrom crazy griptape art and slappy grinds to drawing onyour sneakers. Now he sees skating as more rigid and definedmore”mathematical,” with much less to invent. “Today we one-up tricks,rather than invent new ones. We have plain, uncut sheets of blackgriptape. Setups are no longer a work of art that reflect the skaterwho is riding them,” he says. But all is not lost, and he shouts outthe Gonz for keeping the originality juices flowing.

Gesners primary challenge is confronting the term “ZooYork” and trying to come up with new ways to present it on a dailybasis. And as much as skateboardings popularity destroys therebellious cutting-edge aspects that all the die-hard skaters love somuch, as a designer this popularity allows Eli to have unlimitedresources and possibilities from a design standpointnot beinglimited to four-color screen prints and maybe someembroidery.

How would Gesner describe poor art direction? “To me, artis binary. Yes or noit either works or it doesnt. They (certainbrands) suck so bad and are so shamelessly exploitative itshilarious! Theyre so bad its almost good! Except theyre not in onthe joke.”

As far as image and identity are concerned, Eli feels thatonce he has a concept and understands what it represents, thegraphics follow naturally. Keeping the image consistent may be achallenge, but Gesner is adamant: “Anything done right should be achallenge.”

Back To The Future

Judging from the perspective of these four individuals,skateboard art direction may be headed back toward the olderthings. Its no secret that the biggest trends in skateboarding overthe past couple of years are rooted in skateboardings retrospectivepast: reproductions of old-school graphics, basic shoes, and ofcourse, the hesh-punk-rebel craze. Perhaps the art side of theindustry will revert back to a time when “series” boards didnt existand some pros drew their own graphics.

Regardless, its comforting that for the most part, none ofthese guys are on the same page. After all, thats what makes them”artists.”