Skateboarding is a time. Tokyo 2020 is the first time the sport – popularized by California surfers as a way to pass the time when the waves were low – has been included in the Olympics.
The lockdown has also seen an increase in the popularity of skating, suitable for social distancing. MySkate, an app that helps riders find skateparks in the UK, has seen an increase of 180,000 users every month over the past year.
Now is the perfect time for British skateboarding company Clown to make a comeback. Founded in 2000 by Jeff Boardman and Vikas Malik, the group brought together the best skateboarders (led by Simon Skipp) and added distinctive visuals to the mix. Design was embedded in the company’s DNA from the start, says Boardman. Banksy, a friend of Boardman, designed the Clown logo as well as his first collection of boards.
The collaboration started with a boozy evening with the street artist. Boardman helped Banksy put on his first show at Rivington Street in London and Banksy provided work in progress for the Clown logo. “The skating back then was pretty serious,” says Boardman. “We wanted something that was ironic, a little dark, and that didn’t take itself seriously.” The gun-wielding clown logo, inspired by the 1995 crime drama Dead Presidents, set the tone for the company.
During the 15-year “energy nap” between Clown’s closure and rebirth, Banksy has become a household name. In the skating community, Clown has also established his own heritage. And while the landscape has changed – sneaker culture has driven up resale prices of boards for collectors, according to Boardman – design is still crucial to Clown’s mission.
“We are not a one-ride pony”
Tips are generally divided into two categories; more expensive artistic collaborations and more affordable boards to ride. Clown also publishes a professional series for society’s skaters. Leading collaborators include artist Adam Neate and Brian Anderson, the first openly gay skateboarder.
The more casual boards were a chance for the Clown team to revisit their design heritage. Take the Oujia board, an exact replica of a design produced in the early days of Clown. The black and yellow board was born after another “messy affair” on the brand during a team trip to Paris. The Clowns team was staying at a supposedly haunted hotel, so decided to hold a shoot – and Skipp scribbled the drawings for the Ouija board. “I’m happy to say we haven’t contacted anyone,” Boardman says.
New designs have been worked out between Boardman and Clown Creative Director Sunil Pawar. Pawar was keen on advancing the Clown Police and avoiding anything off the shelf, Boardman explains. Its bespoke typeface, named Bullet Boy, echoes the original logotype (creation of Boardman) and is expected to be released as a free font next year. It was also used in the Manifesto series which carries the updated Clown slogan: “Here to end what we started”.
Recently, the clown’s ears inspired the very first Clown motif, which was designed for the company’s 21st anniversary collection, 21 Gun Salute. Pawar used the logo to develop a camouflage-like pattern, available in three colourways that will form the basis for future work. It is also a conscious effort to reinvent the roots of Clown. “I love our logo – thank you so much Banksy – but we’re not a one-ride pony,” he adds.
“I never saw a black girl on a skateboard until I did”
When it comes to celebrity ties, they’re not much bigger than Beyoncé. Last year, the singer revealed Black Parade, a directory of black-owned businesses. Among them was Ohio-based skate brand Proper Gnar, founded by Latosha Stone. Stone believes she is the first black woman to start a skate business – a rarity reflected in her designs, which seek to capture another side of skate life.
“I never saw a black girl on a skateboard until I did,” Stone says of his boards. She was drawn to skate culture after playing Tony Hawk video games and started designing for her friends’ metal bands at school. Initially self-taught via YouTube videos, Stone founded Proper Gnar while studying art and design at a community college. After an initial set of clothes, she reinvested funds and was able to move on to her vision of designing skateboards.
The gap in the market was obvious to Stone. “I feel like the whole skate industry is about guys and the stuff that they’re passionate about,” she says. “There was no feminine stuff or cute stuff.” Stone’s designs feature many shades of pink and heart shapes in order to appeal to an under-represented demographic in skating, although she recognizes these won’t just appeal to women.
A big fan of anime, Stone’s boards often incorporate cartoons with a Proper Gnar twist. Earlier this year, a collection with artist Jasmine Anita Glen was prompted by their mutual love for anime. “We redesigned the characters to represent all the black girls who were into this stuff,” she says of the release of Black Girls Anime. Another youth-focused series with artist Hakim Callwood builds on his character Space Girl, an adventurous black girl.
Other designs are even more personal. When Stone recently took a DNA test, she discovered that she had Ghanaian ancestors. For Black History Month, Stone applied a pattern to her boards, based on Kente Cloth, a traditional Ghanaian textile, and chose blue and pink to evoke “positive vibes,” she says.
This embodies his vision of Proper Gnar, Stone explains, where design can combine skating and diverse cultures. In America, many African Americans find resonance in Kente fabric, according to the designer. “A lot of us don’t really know what country in Africa we are from, so we hang on to that as an African tradition,” she says. “It was cool to be able to bring that to people.”
“You never want to do something that has already been done”
The urge to create something new drives many card designers. “There is a global demand to do something that has never been done,” says Eric Gorvin, artistic director of California-based Girl Skateboards and its subsidiary Chocolate. Like Stone, Gorvin was first a skateboarder and designed for his friends’ bands (although his main influences were pop-punk bands like Blink-182). After years on the road, he joined Girl Skateboards as a graphic designer. It was here that he was able to bring his many ideas for skateboards to life, says Gorvin.
He highlights three parameters in terms of design. Graphics should fit inside the thin rectangle, feature the logo and also encapsulate “brand flavor”. Girl Skateboards dates back to 1993 and that “soul-forged” spirit has been defined over time, he says. “Any project is better with parameters,” Gorvin adds, and he’s particularly interested in how riders will relate to the board as an object.
Gorvin explored this interest in his design work, where he plays with perception. He’s also a fan of perspective-changing directors like Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. For example, the Dot series plays on the moiré effect, where the patterns of interference points create the illusion of movement. The Don’t Trip series has more modern origins. Gorvin saw a meme on Instagram that asked people to view the image from the loader portal. From this angle, the words “Send nudes” became visible.
“I’ve never seen anyone do that in skating,” he says, so he applied type treatments to the boards that only made sense when viewed from a certain angle. “It was only a matter of time before someone else did, and I wanted to have him on the boards before everyone else,” he explains. The boards in the collection have lines like “Don’t even trip” and “Know your own”. “I like characters that present themselves as pictures,” adds Gorvin. “The brain registers it as a shape, then considers it as words.”
“Any project is better with parameters”
One of his first cardboard collections included scans of crystals he had made years before joining the company. Using images of amethyst and different rock crystals, he created boards that looked like something from geology textbooks – with a Helvetica typeface, says Gorvin. The series was called Geol-OG (the logo of the female figure that appears on all Girl boards is called OG).
The collection also highlights how much each board needs a concept, according to the designer. “When I look at the graphics of the skate, it seems almost arbitrary most of the time,” he says. Gorvin aims to find a concept – be it an artistic technique or something visual – as a starting point. “You start with a spark and reveal it, almost like a painting,” he adds.
One of the clearest examples of this approach is the Jungle series. He was influenced by Gorvin’s interest in turn-of-the-century botanical illustrations – a “cross-section of science and art when scientists were artists,” he says. The designer made physical animal collages for the boards and incorporated a Xerox copy of the OG logo in the middle. “I was thinking about skateboarders and how we come from these eclectic places,” he explains. “When I grew up my friends were the trailer park kid, the wealthy kid and also the kid in the band – a classic case of the misfits who took to skateboarding together.”
The idea of being raised in the jungle – a place of “infinite possibility and also terrifying” – made sense to skate culture, says the designer. “I think a lot of skateboarders come from this type of affliction – maybe they were raised in a crappy house – and you can build a community,” he says. “I identify with that and I think other people might identify with that as well.”