Down Under

Skateboard art is in a perpetual cycle of creation and destruction.

Art's truest underground -- skateboard art -- is part of a thriving industry that nobody's ever heard of. But now it's the subject of an exhibition illuminating a genre that rarely even sees the light of day, let alone a mass following. Or so it would seem. The result of a suggestion by modern art collector Peter Johnson to Bethany Kriegsman, then the director of the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History Gallery, The Underside: Skateboard Art Revealed, an eye-opening exhibit of skateboard decks, is currently on view at the DU art space.

For the uninitiated, the deck is the bottom side of the skateboard, often decorated with flashy graphics derived from the graffiti and underground-comic and poster art of earlier generations and created by the most individualistic and iconoclastic of American subcultures. Produced by board manufacturing companies representing pro boarding teams and often run by boarders themselves, the decks make fly-by-night political or fashion statements in street-savvy visual lingo. And then they're off.

"What's fascinating to me is that it's perishable art," Johnson says. "Kids buy the decks either because pro riders ride on them or because they like the image. After a few times grinding the board on a rail, the image is gone. This continuous process of image and creation keeps fueling the industry: Once an image is gone, they're constantly having to re-create an image that still represents the core of skate art. There's a real push-me, pull-you element to it; sometimes they've had to cross the line and be commercial about it, without overcommercializing the product." The result? "Once you see these images on the wall, they'll all be gone."

On deck: Skateboard art screeches into the DU School of Art and Art History Gallery.
On deck: Skateboard art screeches into the DU School of Art and Art History Gallery.

Johnson, whose Boardride Project is dedicated to bringing recognition to the perishable artform and its unorthodox perpetrators, says board culture is a societal substratum that influences youth culture dramatically yet stealthily. "A lot of what you see is produced by little one- or two-man shops, and they're just kids, literally," he says. "The skateboarders who are running these businesses are just eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. I don't think the general public sees much beyond a bunch of kids riding decks. They don't see it as a legitimate business."

But their message is powerful. "Skateboarding is the only sport and the only medium where they can really push the envelope," Johnson notes. And, as if to prove the point, images ranging from the in-your-face social commentary of Marc McKee's Accidental Gun Death, depicting shocked parents walking in on a between-friends tragedy carried out by a ten-year-old with a smoking firearm, to renegade graphic logos such as Flameboy and Devilman (instantly recognizable within the boarding culture) jump at viewers from the show's wall-mounted decks.

The skateboard intelligentsia affects culture in concrete ways, as well. One company, Consolidated, built an anti-Nike campaign inspired by the ubiquitous "Just Say No" slogan: "Just Don't Do It," Consolidated exhorted, and the skateboard constituency took note. "There's a pattern: Nike gets involved in a sport, then they buy the industry," Johnson explains. "But these are young riders who took blood, sweat and tears to build to where they are. Then, after the success of the X Games and MTV and so forth, Nike wanted to come in -- at that junction, Nike decided, 'Well, now that it's marketable, let's get involved.' And the companies said, 'Wait a minute -- just Don't Do It.'

"The campaign was effective," Johnson concludes. "You don't see Nike in skateboarding." Swoosh! It happened just like that.

 
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