The phrase “art on wheels” conjures images of taxi billboards, tour vans with flaming skulls and purple ponies, fancy ice cream trucks with neon graffiti and occasionally even cleverly wrapped buses. But look a little further – specifically, further down – and these words might also encompass another, much more fleeting form – skateboard deck art.
Primarily placed on the flip side of skateboard decks, these graphics are unnoticeable until the skater gives a peek of paint and sticker via a kickflip or railstand. Although it’s tough to appreciate a deck artistically while in motion, decks have still garnered appreciation for their intense graphics that are political, religious, gender-infused; smacking culture around with a flippant force that ranges from the shocking to the quirky and is seldom dull. For this reason, skateboard decks are becoming a focus for many an art gallery in the last few years, forcing them to stop rolling and stay put, fascinating many an art aficionado who might not otherwise encounter a seven-ply piece of North American maple on wheels.
“I started messing around with deck art when I was in 7th grade, and I made my first actual attempt for Black Market Skateboards when I was a junior in high,” he explains. “The deck was called ‘Fear of a Black Market Planet’ and had all the members of Public Enemy on it.” His art made it all the way to Japan to be mass-produced. A technical issue kept it from release, but it was enough to light Crowley’s fire.
“From then on I was always making stuff for skateboard companies. Skater artists like Ed Templeton really psyched me up to do skateboard art. It’s nice to be able to go out and skate, and when you’re done you can come home and still keep the creativity flowing on a different scale.”
Gene Evans of Luckystar Studio also started early in the mixing of skating and paint. “Skateboarding is just something we did in the trailer park I grew up in. I drew and painted on everything as a kid. I’ve always painted over existing artwork – something I still do to this day. I’ve been painting and trading painted decks since I was a kid [in the late 70s].”
+ Building a Better… Board
Most young skaters start out on plain decks – or ‘blanks’ – because they cost less. “The more bland or boring decks (blanks too) are basically for people that just want to skate (or are poor like me),” Crowley explains.
Mike ‘Beer’ of Beer City Skateboards owns a shop in Milwaukee that offers both decks with graphics and blanks. Beer said that his blank decks are about $15 – $25 cheaper in general than decks with art on the flipside.
Beer says his blank deck customers are not necessarily lacking in art appreciation by purchasing a board sans graphics – they are often likely to get creative with the blank canvas their newly bought board provides. “We’ve had skaters and artists that have ordered boards from us, then sent us photos and said, ‘Hey! Look at the graphics I made!’”
So, how does a skater interested in prettying-up his/her ride go from blank wood to mini-Warhol? Crowley mentions a plethora of materials he uses for drawing up a template for a new design: “Oil pastels, colored pencils, ink, rubber stamps, acrylic paint, pens, markers and Adobe Illustrator. I also use collage. I went to a local skate art show at Moda 3 a few months back and saw that a lot of people just draw on broken or used decks. I think stuff like that is pretty raw, but I seldom do it myself.”
Some artists, like Evans, still prefer to go the ‘raw’ route. “I had used silkscreen over the past few years but recently went back to my favorite medium: spray paint and stencil…One Shot, a sign paint, is probably the best if you’re going to hand paint.”
Raw boards are a fine medium for skaters who want to save some cash and still put their personal stamp on their favorite mode of transportation. For those not quite as concerned with price, artistically challenged, or simply appreciative of the art of others, there are mind-blowing amounts of boards to choose from – from decks created by local artists commissioned by an individual skate shop to pieces created for companies such as Chocolate, Toy Machine, Baker, Stereo, Birdhouse and Zero.
One Step Beyond
Aaron Polansky of Sky High skateboard shop in Bay View carries shop boards created with the ‘Sky High” logo done by Joe Misurelli, with transferred pen and ink drawings that are both clever and striking in their simplicity. Polansky also carries boards by Chocolate (“Chocolate’s art is always clean, simple and witty. It appeals to everybody; it transcends age. Young kids are into it and older guys really respect it” ), Zero (“It’s popular with the younger kids…graphics change up every couple of months, not just every year, so most companies don’t do huge runs on one board, but Zero has this board with skulls dripping blood on it. The kids really like that one. What kid wouldn’t like that?” ), Shut (“Shut isn’t that popular, but I really like the graphics – they’re clean and simple” ) and Western Edition (“they’re more of a mature taste” ).
Yet the decks that are created and branded by large companies aren’t the ones that will hang in a gallery. It’s local artists like Misurelli, Evans and Crowley who will have the honor of participating in a show.
Evans mentions a benefit show he had helped to put together for Mel Fleming’s HotBoards (a local nonprofit that provides kids with boards to practice their skills on), which raised money by presenting decks created by local artists who are well-respected in the art scene. “There were over 40 artists in the exhibit…Shiro, Logan Hicks, Seizer One, Adam T., Harvey Opgennorth, Mark Winter, Jake Evans (my son), Tony Stonehouse, Gabe Lanza, Bridgit Griffith Evans, Aaron (from Sky High), Adam Bomb and Laine, Von Munz, James Kloiber, Brian Peterka and ME!!! There a few more, but that’s all I can remember off the top of my head.”
Evans says that although he has no plans for another exhibit soon, he still plans to display a few decks over the summer at Luckystar, and has “a handful on the work table right now…I’m always working on skateboards”.
And just because these shows are sporadic doesn’t mean that there are fewer chances to appreciate deck art in Milwaukee. Visit any number of area skateboard shops and you’ll find something to ogle. If it’s hometown flavor you’re after, make sure to check out some local creations recommended by skaters and artists alike. Crowley recommends Tim Olson and Beer really digs Conscience Skateboards. “It’s really different and pretty clever.”
Polansky himself created a board for the Brew City Bruisers, of which his shop is a sponsor. “I wanted to do something that was a bit softer with a bit of a hard edge,” he says of his photo transfer of a heart-shaped box of chocolates inlaid with a cleverly placed set of brass knuckles.
Polansky’s next project is to focus on a series of East Side businesses after the Bay Boards get snatched up. He said that after a visit to Paper Boat, a Chicagoan took home one of the specially crafted boards by Faythe Levine, one of the owners of the Bay View boutique and gallery.
+ Express Yourself
The trucks and wheels of a skater’s choosing can be added to any deck, and usually far outlast the deck itself. Those that are truly used are quickly annihilated by a serious skater, whose repeated 50-50 grinds will soon deface the original artwork. And precisely because of its short life, a deck will often reflect not only on the changing moods and attitudes of the skater, but of the whole of skate culture and, to some extent, mass culture as well.
Crowley is certain that if people can look past the perception of skaters and their art as a fringe element, most will find something they’ll enjoy. “Skateboard artists do other work than deck art, and it’s fun to trace them to the other work they do. Anti Hero put out a deck recently called the Tramp Stamp. It’s pretty funny. I know that it will never be put in a gallery, but who cares? Stuff like that needs to be done. It makes people laugh.” VS