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Decked Out: Skate Graphics Scrutinized
Skateboard graphics are the most readily visible symbols in skate culture. The graphic is sometimes the deciding factor in which board to buy and is most likely the first thing a non-skater will notice about a skater.
"Praise the board," proclaims a deck graphic by the now defunct skateboard company PopWar, and that's just what J. Namdev Hardisty's book, New Skateboard Graphics sets out to do. Rather than retracing the greatest skateboard graphics of all time, Hardisty focused on designs released within the last two years.
Showcasing over 400 designs from both obscure and well-known companies, Hardisty states his case that graphics are no longer a solely artistic venture, but an integral part of the overall marketing and branding of a skateboard company.
Hardisty explains that as skateboarding has evolved, the thin wooden boards have become more expendable, leading companies to develop cheaper team logo boards that represent the brand instead of the individual rider. As veteran designer Michael Leon writes in the book's foreword, the shift has placed an importance on company branding rather than individual graphics.
The emergence of branding reflects a corporate takeover in skateboarding. In recent years, large corporations have bought up many skate companies that originally established their brands as independent entities.
For example, in 2001, Element was purchased by the surf company, Billabong and Zoo York, founded in 1993 by Rodney Smith in New York, is owned by Ecko Clothing. Zoo York was a well-respected East Coast company not only because they operated far away from the commercial hub of California, but also because, aesthetically, they stayed true to a raw street-skating spirit.
Some skaters will complain that these companies have lost their credibility because of corporate influence, yet both companies remain very popular, and this demonstrates the often dichotomous nature of skateboard marketing. Skateboard companies must promote themselves without being seen as mainstream. To do this, many companies find a niche market catering to a certain style of skater or a defined artistic style.
Element is well known for its Earth-conscious graphics and sustainable practices, but the idea of branding a company that cuts down thousands of trees a year as "green" seems paradoxical. Although the serene forest and valley graphics may seem almost ironic, they do represent a certain environmental awareness by encouraging skaters to consider the ecological impact of their beloved boards.
Many companies fashion themselves as wild hedonists, drinking and partying as much as they skate in a thinly-veiled ploy to use skateboarding's rebel image as a marketing tool. Yet some companies, like Toy Machine, manage to balance branding and personality, even adding a bit of social commentary to the mix. Also known as the Bloodsucking Skateboard Company, Toy Machine urges it's "loyal pawns" to "avoid future regret, buy these decks now."
Ed Templeton is Toy Machine's owner, creative director and one of its pro riders. As celebrated in the art world as in skateboarding, Templeton's graphics reflect a childhood in the conservative stronghold of Orange County, Calif. Monsters and devils are drawn spouting word bubbles filled with Templeton's thoughts on everything from the skateboard industry to American excess.
Toy Machine's graphics and ads mockingly embrace branding, exposing the deceptiveness of advertising and promoting consumer awareness in the skate community. As Templeton responded to one email from a customer angry that Toy Machine openly supported Barack Obama's campaign: "Not supporting companies you don't like is the real power we regular people have in this country."
Image Cleaned Up
However, not all companies are so outspoken with their views. After all, graphics that may be deemed offensive in one way or another may scare away potential buyers. One fallout of the skateboarding boom has been the trend of self-censorship that has seeped into every aspect of skateboarding from media to advertisements.
The mischief is not totally gone from skateboarding as graphics from Enjoi, Bueno, and Bueno's return from the dead, Roger, will attest. Bueno and Roger owner/designer, Michael Sieben, uses cartoonish violence coupled with pseudo-marketing phrasing to poke fun at the preposterous nature of branding in an industry that has long prided itself as D.I.Y. and anti-establishment.
Enjoi has been skateboarding's Monty Python since its inception, irreverently doing everything a profitable skateboard company would never do. Its graphics embrace all things '80s, colorful and silly, and their ads are more likely to feature a team rider sporting a hot dog costume than actually skateboarding. So, while skateboard companies are toning down the explicit nature of their graphics, new avenues for creativity have opened up.
While skulls and guns will always be a part of skateboard graphics, more and more companies are beginning to use graphics as a medium for promoting social awareness both inside and outside of skateboarding. Though some companies bow to the dollar sign and print uninspired graphics to promote a brand name, companies like the ones featured in Hardisty's book are looking for creative alternatives to sell their boards without sacrificing the individuality of their riders or designers.
(Images courtesy of Mark Batty Publisher)
Adrián Castañeda is a 22-year-old freelance writer and reporter who has spent the last 10 years traveling and skating around the world and only regrets he didn't start skating sooner.