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

Those guys are today’s household names in the world of skateboard art—and still going strong.

But with the passage of time, a newer generation of artists has emerged worldwide to establish themselves in the world of skateboarding. And they’re really making heads turn. Here’s a look at four contemporaries who have their own thing going on. There’s Matthew Irving, the 24-year-old art director of Element, who’s from Armstrong, British Columbia. There’s witty and whimsical 31-year-old Pete Hellicar, CEO and art director of London, England’s Unabomber skateboards. There’s Todd Bratrud, the 27-year-old “art guy” at NorCal’s Consolidated skateboards, who hails from Crookstown, Minnesota. And there’s Eli Gesner, the 32-year-old art director of New York City-based brand Zoo York. These guys are all carrying the art torch and have been doing so for some time now. They’re deciding what pretty pictures kids will see on the bottom of their 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 “graphic designers.” Hellicar loved making up imaginary brands, and Bratrud’s first joy was drawing Snoopy. Hellicar and Bratrud are reluctant to dub themselves “serious” artists. Although all of them have been lucky and talented enough to turn their passion into a career. The single characteristic that bonds these guys, beyond their work, is their devout passion for skateboarding. And they’ve been around long enough to know about skateboarding. They’re talented and opinionated. None of them went to school beyond a bachelor’s degree in art studies, or had any special training—just inspiration from skateboarding. What’s even more appealing is that what they have in common is outweighed by their individuality—they’re all different from each other, with different ideas and goals relating to art direction in skateboarding. These differences are the fundamental details that keep skateboarding fresh, exciting, creative, and progressive.

Consolidated

Todd Bratrud’s take on Consolidated’s art direction is so exactly how you would expect it by looking at their line. Admittedly, he doesn’t put that much thought into things beforehand. He just goes with the flow and likes things that look good. You won’t hear any rhetoric about art and society and expression from Bratrud, but he’ll proudly tell you that he has never tried to create an “image” for Consolidated—they just go with what they like, and sometimes they don’t even like what they go with. Todd described poor art direction as “the way I do it.” But considering the obvious rise in popularity of Consolidated’s products lately, he must be doing something right.

Bratrud’s pursuit of art, visions, and Consolidated are one and the same, so he has no complaints there. However, with the popularity of skateboarding so much greater than it was in the past, there’s a lot more for him to do, and he needs to do it faster. Working last-minute as frequently as Consolidated does, deadlines are troublesome—he would prefer to put more time into certain projects. But Bratrud can understand why many things throughout the industry do appear to have less thought put into them. Trying to create graphics for the pros just as they envisioned them is another challenge.

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

Consolidated’s graphics tend to do a great job at keeping skateboarders humble and reminding everyone why they started skateboarding in the first place. The hope is that way of thinking remains.

Element

Element is a force in skateboarding that obviously can’t be ignored. It seems obvious that their graphics, on top of an amazing team, have been a contributing factor to their popularity. Matt Irving runs the show at Element as far as art direction is concerned. Like many of us, he views skateboarding as art and enjoys simple things: “A frontside noseslide, if done well, can be so visually stimulating.” He cringes at the word “image,” but understands that Element does have one that, through dedication, flows fairly naturally when company Owner Johnny Schilleref and Team Manager 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 things can get sketchy. Also, due to a demand for new and original products, creating different T-shirts presents a challenge, as does keeping teamriders psyched on the stuff.

Irving would love to incorporate more social or political issues into his work but understands that in doing so may lose the interest of younger skateboarders. He feels that this is because the art side of skateboarding is more important to skateboarding than it’s ever been. Irving recognizes that social issues are something for an older skater who perhaps was more of an “outcast” back in the day.

With the majority of Element’s inspiration and influence coming from nature and the natural environment, Irving feels very at home there: “We have all come from nature, no matter how domesticated you think you are. I think companies have a responsibility to be proactive toward its participants. This is a consumerism game that we’re all playing in, but try to inspire your audience, rather than brainwash them into submission.”

For Irving, inspiration shows conspicuously in an individual’s work. It’s simple to differentiate between good and bad art direction: “I think chasing trends is the best way to show poor art direction. You need to believe in what you are doing and the success will follow.”

Unabomber

The highly opinionated Pete Hellicar was worried a few days after our interview that his answers were “too harsh.” Hellicar would prefer people to pontificate on art a little less. He labels the relationship between art and skateboarding as “self-expression,” and he’ll tell you that poor art direction is anything “uninspired.”

At Unabomber, Hellicar likes to make things fun and subversive. He enjoys subtlety and doesn’t go for the instant-sale route. As a smaller company, Unabomber has a lot of freedom to do whatever they want, but a smaller budget to do it with. This leads to the quest for cost-effective ways to create a maximum impact. But Pete isn’t complaining. He even views the “gnarly” sales departments as becoming more receptive to accepting ideas that they may not necessarily understand.

With Unabomber, Hellicar would like to get people to see things for what they really are. “Skateboarding has always encouraged people to think a little more about the environment we live in. We get to see the abuse that is netted out to those who choose not to toe the line.”

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

Hellicar finds art more significant than ever in skating, but feels that the industry tends to look within itself too much—waiting for the other guy to make the first move, and this ultimately makes everything bland. ” A run of the mill ‘Hurley’ image is only a step up from Wal-Mart,” says Hellicar, who understands that creating anything of substance takes time, intelligence, and patience—things that sales teams and accountants sometimes lack. Mass consumerism leads to the generic, basic images that are so dominant in the industry today.

Earlier this year, Hellicar relocated from London, England to Southern California to take a position as an art director for Sole Technology’s Etnies brand. Hellicar continues to run Unabomber from England—its offices have relocated from London to near Birmingham. And Hellicar, who returns to England several times a year, remains involved with Unabomber and maintains everything that it stands for, which simply put, is skateboarding.

Keeping an image consistent is a simple task for Unabomber: its formula is to simply keep moving in its own direction, while keeping people guessing.

Zoo York

Eli Morgan Gesner is Zoo York. He feels how art challenges and reflects the set cultural system. So naturally, the prime directive of Eli and Zoo York has been to represent New York City street culture in all its forms. He began skating in 1982 when skateboarding offered an incredible opportunity for artistic creativity—from crazy griptape art and slappy grinds to drawing on your sneakers. Now he sees skating as more rigid and defined—more “mathematical,” with much less to invent. “Today we one-up tricks, rather than invent new ones. We have plain, uncut sheets of black griptape. Setups are no longer a work of art that reflect the skater who is riding them,” he says. But all is not lost, and he shouts out the Gonz for keeping the originality juices flowing.

Gesner’s primary challenge is confronting the term “Zoo York” and trying to come up with new ways to present it on a daily basis. And as much as skateboarding’s popularity destroys the rebellious cutting-edge aspects that all the die-hard skaters love so much, as a designer this popularity allows Eli to have unlimited resources and possibilities from a design standpoint—not being limited to four-color screen prints and maybe some embroidery.

How would Gesner describe poor art direction? “To me, art is binary. Yes or no—it either works or it doesn’t. They (certain brands) suck so bad and are so shamelessly exploitative it’s hilarious! They’re so bad it’s almost good! Except they’re not in on the joke.”

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

Back To The Future

Judging from the perspective of these four individuals, skateboard art direction may be headed back toward the older things. It’s no secret that the biggest trends in skateboarding over the past couple of years are rooted in skateboarding’s retrospective past: reproductions of old-school graphics, basic shoes, and of course, the hesh-punk-rebel craze. Perhaps the art side of the industry will revert back to a time when “series” boards didn’t exist and some pros drew their own graphics.

Regardless, it’s comforting that for the most part, none of these guys are on the same page. After all, that’s what makes them “artists.”Hurley’ image is only a step up from Wal-Mart,” says Hellicar, who understands that creating anything of substance takes time, intelligence, and patience—things that sales teams and accountants sometimes lack. Mass consumerism leads to the generic, basic images that are so dominant in the industry today.

Earlier this year, Hellicar relocated from London, England to Southern California to take a position as an art director for Sole Technology’s Etnies brand. Hellicar continues to run Unabomber from England—its offices have relocated from London to near Birmingham. And Hellicar, who returns to England several times a year, remains involved with Unabomber and maintains everything that it stands for, which simply put, is skateboarding.

Keeping an image consistent is a simple task for Unabomber: its formula is to simply keep moving in its own direction, while keeping people guessing.

Zoo York

Eli Morgan Gesner is Zoo York. He feels how art challenges and reflects the set cultural system. So naturally, the prime directive of Eli and Zoo York has been to represent New York City street culture in all its forms. He began skating in 1982 when skateboarding offered an incredible opportunity for artistic creativity—from crazy griptape art and slappy grinds to drawing on your sneakers. Now he sees skating as more rigid and defined—more “mathematical,” with much less to invent. “Today we one-up tricks, rather than invent new ones. We have plain, uncut sheets of black griptape. Setups are no longer a work of art that reflect the skater who is riding them,” he says. But all is not lost, and he shouts out the Gonz for keeping the originality juices flowing.

Gesner’s primary challenge is confronting the term “Zoo York” and trying to come up with new ways to present it on a daily basis. And as much as skateboarding’s popularity destroys the rebellious cutting-edge aspects that all the die-hard skaters love so much, as a designer this popularity allows Eli to have unlimited resources and possibilities from a design standpoint—not being limited to four-color screen prints and maybe some embroidery.

How would Gesner describe poor art direction? “To me, art is binary. Yes or no—it either works or it doesn’t. They (certain brands) suck so bad and are so shamelessly exploitative it’s hilarious! They’re so bad it’s almost good! Except they’re not in on the joke.”

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

Back To The Future

Judging from the perspective of these four individuals, skateboard art direction may be headed back toward the older things. It’s no secret that the biggest trends in skateboarding over the past couple of years are rooted in skateboarding’s retrospective past: reproductions of old-school graphics, basic shoes, and of course, the hesh-punk-rebel craze. Perhaps the art side of the industry will revert back to a time when “series” boards didn’t exist and some pros drew their own graphics.

Regardless, it’s comforting that for the most part, none of these guys are on the same page. After all, that’s what makes them “artists.”