Sean Cliver Interview

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Sean Cliver’s story is an inspiring and uniquely magical tale and we are glad we got to delve into it a little in this interview. His work has entered our lives at so many pivotal moments in skateboarding’s rich history, it’s a deep part of it on many levels. We are so grateful to Sean for taking the time out on his travels to answer these questions for us…

Let’s start at the beginning. What was your first exposure to skateboarding?

The summer of ’86 through my best friend Brad Overacker. Punk music had infiltrated our small Midwestern town of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and skateboards were one of the main accessory items for the time so pretty much everyone in the scene had one for a hot minute.

I wasn’t that into music in general—comic books were my particular vice—but Brad had picked up a board and I didn’t want to be left friendless in the dust. So I had to get one, too. Like many others in town, though, Brad soon ditched the board to start a punk band, but I stuck with skating like I’d never stuck to anything before.

What was your first board, do you remember picking it out?

Odds are it will be the one thing I never forget in life. Granted, my first one was more of a mistake board… I didn’t know shit from shinola about skateboarding, so it was a 25-dollar Taiwanese complete that I bought at a discount store on the outskirts of town. The board was a chunk of crap, of course, not even on par with a Nash or Variflex, much worse, but I was hooked nonetheless.

Everything changed for me when I bought my first Thrasher magazine—that’s when I realized there was a whole other and much better world out there. Fortunately a local bike shop stocked a surprisingly large amount of decks from most all of the companies in business then, so once I finally mustered up the courage to cross the threshold it was the Powell-Peralta brand that ultimately caught my eye—the Mike McGill “Skull & Snake” model in particular.

What other graphics were out there which almost made the cut?

The only other one that came close to edging out the McGill was Jeff Grosso’s first “Demon” board on Santa Cruz. I liked the artwork on the Zorlac boards as well, but I’ve always been relatively meek and clean cut and could have never lived up to the barbaric Texan standards. So it was the Bones Brigade for me.

Did skateboarding quickly take over everything?

In a word or two, fuck yes. I started selling off chunks of my comic collection along with anything else semi-collectible I may have had to fuel the monthly need for new decks and ridiculously unnecessary plastic accessories. There weren’t really any ramps or transitions in our area, so all of my time outside of school was spent hucking my 500-pound board at weather beaten curbs, benches, and ledges.

Fast forward to 1989. You respond to a Powell Peralta Thrasher competition ad and find yourself hired by George Powell and in Santa Barbara working on graphics. That is a Charlie and the Chocolate factory scenario that sounds like the universe conspired to make sure you were one of the visionaries behind the art that reached young eyeballs. Was it overwhelming? Was the gravity of the task in hand in your head at all?

Let’s just say I went in to work every day expecting to be fired, especially after showing up to discover that the artist responsible for Powell-Peralta’s whole graphic look, VCJ, had abdicated his throne. In fact, his entire office had been torn down and a lone, empty art table was all that remained. He’d burnt out, I guess, and left the company on a sabbatical of sorts.

Anyway, I about shit myself when the second or third day on the job I was asked to start thinking about a new graphic for Steve Caballero. I mean, this was the Bones Brigade team and they all had very, very, very strong graphic legacies. So yeah, I definitely felt the pressure of not becoming the artist that derailed Powell-Peralta… although, shit, I guess it was only a couple years later that the whole company was in the toilet after dominating the industry through the ’80s, so maybe I did?!? Ha!

What was your first job there?

Fortunately Caballero was experiencing a sponsorship crisis— rumour had it he was weighing an offer from Santa Cruz—so he never called me back about the graphic I surely would have shit the bed on. Instead, I was given the task of designing a simple black border for a Winged Ripper banner. Soon after that, though, I was told to pick up where VCJ had left off on a couple projects for Tony Hawk.

The first was coming up with a front logo on the T-shirt that accompanied his “Claw” graphic; the second was redrawing another Hawk creation of VCJ’s for Tony’s new street model that became a very minimalist ordeal. I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on at the company then, but tensions were running pretty high between George Powell and Stacy Peralta and it seemed a lot of it had to do with what was going on in the direction of the art department. So yeah, I guess you could throw that onto my mountain of stress as well. It’s a wonder I didn’t bust out in ulcers.

I want to thank you for designing the Tommy Guerrero “Iron Gate” board. That was the first pro board I got, I bought one second hand and then got another because I loved it so much. I have an original pink one in my very small collection and a re-issue on the wall. It’s the graphic embedded in my brain, the ornate symmetry of it fascinated me, it’s the one I tried to copy and quickly realised my destiny is different to yours. Can you tell me a story about designing that board?

Well, for one, I’m not sure Tommy was that thrilled about the continuation of the dagger motif, but I’m stoked you liked it because I’m actually kinda proud of that one in that it wasn’t a direct-direct descendant of VCJ’s, unlike several of the Caballero designs I did.

I remember wanting to do something that looked like elaborate wrought ironwork and it ended up being more decorative in an understated manner, which I thought went well with Tommy’s style then and I loved seeing the graphic show up in photos of him in the magazines.

What graphic that you produced for Powell was your particular favourite? Did you work closely with any of the skaters on ideas or was it left up to you?

Ray Barbee’s, of course, because it was the first graphic I worked on that was all mine and it ran in very stark contrast to everything that had come out before from Powell. The first time I met Steve Rocco at a trade show in 1989, he was like, “You’re the guy who did the Ray Barbee graphic and saved Powell!”

That was pretty crazy to hear, because Rocco was vilified and regarded as The Devil by everyone at Powell. But the only other skater that I can recall who expressed a sincere interest in his graphic was Ray Underhill. We worked closely on his first board and I was really happy with how that one came out, seeing as it was again a bit outside the Powell-Peralta box.

The first time I met Steve Rocco at a trade show in 1989, he was like… You’re the guy who did the Ray Barbee graphic and saved Powell

What was the first instance of mind blowing skateboarding you witnessed after starting there?

March of ’89, when three unknown kids showed up at the factory for an “am jam”: Gabriel Rodriguez, Guy Mariano, and Paolo Diaz. Stacy had just put them on the team and no one had any idea who they were. Once they started skating around the course, though, it was clear the new future of skating had arrived.

Did you receive a Powell field manual?

No, those were strictly for the team riders, although there may have been an employee handbook? I can’t remember what was in it exactly, but I probably should have paid more attention to it because several people at the company were less than enthused when I started showing up to work in the occasional Blind or World T-shirt and Ghetto Wear gear.

Before your move to working with Rocco at World were you producing much work that wasn’t working at Powell? Were you having to curtail ideas a little?

You have to understand that the climate at the company in 1991 was very, very weird. George wanted to go in one direction, Stacy in the other, and everyone else was torn between because you wanted to somehow please both? But there were a couple specific instances with graphics where I managed to disappoint or upset.

One that Stacy didn’t care for at all was a generational graphic for Per Welinder’s last model that had a cartoon-ish background design of sperm chasing after a female egg. From my office, I could see Stacy staring at the T-shirt samples of Per’s graphic on the floor in the art department and the disappointed look on his face was soul-crushing… because it’s Stacy Peralta, you know?

Coming from Wisconsin at such a young age all of these people I was now working and drawing for were still legendary figures in my head—especially Stacy, the guy I’d watched a million times in the Bones Brigade videos. And then there was George, who once returned from a trip to China and flipped his lid in response to a Clint Eastwood graphic I’d drawn up for Frankie Hill.

I guess he thought I was trying to sabotage the company by getting them sued, but I think he was more upset then about losing control of the graphics after all the other department heads ganged up on him and demanded he loosen his grip on the artists because it was stymieing production.

Again, it was just a really strange time, because Powell had bought this immense building right before the whole skateboard industry took a surprise nosedive after sales peaked in 1990 and they were now sinking in the polar opposite direction of the new titan on the block, World Industries.

Starting at World and the floodgates are open as to what is possible. What was the first thing you produced that made you laugh that you were able to put it out there?

Well, my first graphic there after getting laid off from Powell in November of 1991 was the Claudia Schiffer series for Blind, which I was at first nervous to do because Powell had reclaimed my first version of the art I’d drawn for Adam McNatt’s debut model, but Rocco’s giddiness and the speed at which the redrawn graphic was produced left me with the impression that anything truly was possible at World—aside from making fun of Plan B graphics, I guess.

Anyway, a few of my other earlier graphics there for 101 and Blind were real turds, so I’m happy no one recalls them in favor of the few later ones that branded me to the “Early ’90s” period of skateboard art.

Were any ideas ever kiboshed for being too out of hand? Is there a graphic you produced that never ran you would have loved to?

There was really only one that got shut down… the “Fresh Freddy” graphic that was being drawn up for Ron Bertino’s first model on Blind. It was meant to be a jab at Plan B’s graphics, but Mike Ternasky and Danny Way made sure that never happened. So that idea gathered dust for 26 years until I finally did it for a StrangeLove board last year.

What is your favourite graphic you ever produced there? Is there one you feel is more important or had a bigger effect than others?

Probably the 101 Adam McNatt “Charlie Manson Brown,” because it incorporated the best of what I feel a “rip off” graphic should be: taking beloved characters from the mainstream and twisting them to a skateboard aesthetic—or at least in an “early ’90s” sensibility, incorporating satire, humour, and the profane.

I guess that’s why I have such a hard time swallowing the licensing fad that’s got a grip on the balls of many companies these days, but I also come from a different cynical, sarcastic time and kids nowadays don’t necessarily share this point of view. Many seem perfectly happy riding graphics that could, for all intents and purposes, be sold in a pop-culture mall store like Hot Topic or even Wal-Mart in some egregious cases.

Thank you for making Disposable. This biblical documentation of the magic of your craft is priceless and something every skateboarder should own. It’s also your love letter to something so impactful and yet so “disposable”, these one off creations we all romanticize were at a point replaced somewhat by catalogue filling series with less thought behind them. How do you feel about the state of board walls nowadays? Do you think they need shaking up a little?

I make it a point to stop into skate shops as often as I can just to stare at the board wall. It’s like a Sunday church service that I’ve been attending since I was 16-years-old, because that very first time was about as “Come to Jesus” as it gets. I do wonder what it’s like for a first-time buyer now, though, because the wall is indeed a very different landscape than it once was in the ’80s and ’90s—as it should be, of course, but it all does seem more “disposable” than ever.

The past several years have seemed very “follow the herd-ish,” or at least that’s how I feel while looking at the board wall where 15 different companies are virtually indistinguishable from one another. So yes, I do appreciate companies like Welcome, where the graphic look is distinct, unique, and easily identifiable on the racks without having to rely on a huge logo—those are the true eyesores.

I make it a point to stop into skate shops as often as I can just to stare at the board wall. It’s like a Sunday church service that I’ve been attending since I was 16-years-old

Do you think people producing board graphics have a responsibility to challenge brains, perceptions and the world we are presented as being normal?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about skateboard graphics it’s that anything goes. What I once viewed as completely wrong on the bottom of a board is now considered totally acceptable, so it’s hard to say what I even know anymore? Sure, the palette is there to do challenging or controversial themes, it’s a part of skateboarding that I’ll never let go of myself, but the sad sales fact remains that a lot of people a) just aren’t confident in who they are as individuals; b) don’t necessarily want to be seen on anything controversial; or c) still have superstitious hang-ups.

Not to mention that many shop owners simply don’t want to deal with any headaches or blow back from customers, e.g. the cash-wielding parents coming in with their kids, because it’s hard enough having a skate shop as it is. Maybe that isn’t a concern in the UK, where I was surprised how chill and polite everyone was at the somewhat “inappropriate” content of the House of Vans exhibition, but here in the US of A there’s still a lot of puritanical hammers being thrown about by the offended who absolutely love to express their outrage.

Who out there do you feel carries the torch?

I can always count on Anti-Hero to come out with something I wish I’d thought of, all credit due to Julien Stranger, Todd Francis, Christian Cooper, and whoever else may be flinging creative shit at their particular wall under the Deluxe roof.

What is your favourite issue of Big Brother magazine and why?

Issue 17, hands down. The Mardi Gras tour in 1995 will always have a special place in my heart. It’s not often you get to experience the road life with such a mixed bag of nuts as Rob Dyrdek, Duane Pitre, Scott Conklin, Steve Berra, Ed Templeton, Karma Tsocheff, and Simon Woodstock, all of whom were caught in the force of nature that was Jeff Tremaine then. I mean that’s like chemistry experiment shit.

What moment from the Big Brother days do you look back on as being the height of its insanity?

It’s hard to pin down a high water mark… every year had its moments, but those first two years—issues 2 through 12—were always very touch-and-go on the volatility-scale. You never knew what you were going to walk into at the office every morning, and yes that does include the business end of Sean Sheffey’s palm.

You never knew what you were going to walk into at the office every morning, and yes that does include the business end of Sean Sheffey’s palm

Are you still compelled to write?

Yes, but I often have a hard time switching gears in my head while going from drawing to writing. I don’t know why, but one will always be more dominant over the other depending upon the income stream at the time. The past few years it has mainly been illustration work, so the writing has languished a tad. I do have a blog on strangeloveskateboards.com, though, where every so often I’ll take out the mental trash, so to speak.

Favourite board graphic of all time? Is there one where you think, “I wish I had done that.”

The era you begin skating will always leave the longest lasting burn scar, so I’ll have to go back to the ’80s with Pushead’s John Gibson graphic on Zorlac; however, another part of me wishes I did the Guy Mariano “Accidental Gun Death” graphic on Blind, if only because it is far and away the one that everyone compliments me on doing and it’s always a bit embarrassing when I have to tell them it was actually one of Marc McKee’s.

You just had a show at House Of Vans with Todd Bratrud. How was that?

I think it went well? The people who came out seemed to enjoy it… or maybe they just came for the surprise screening of the Big Brother documentary? Whatever the case, the space was amazing and it’s a trip to think it once housed dead bodies because of its cellar-like qualities. Hats off to the crew there for pulling this off, because I really didn’t think it was actually going to happen until the week before I left to London.

Can you give us a favourite Todd Bratrud graphic?

Easy. The one he did for Consolidated with the rabbits, where one is giving his foot to the other as good luck. I have a print of that one hanging in my bathroom and it makes me smile every time I have to poop or pee.

I would ask you for artists to look out for but you mentioned quite a few in this Q & A with HOV. Can you recommend a film, book or album that will enrich our lives or all three?

Well, considering Daniel Johnston just passed away, which was a real bummer to hear, I’m partial to recommending his album “Artistic Vice.” If anyone is looking for a surprisingly good and quirky read, I’d say Millard Kaufman’s “Bowl Of Cherries” would fit the bill. And as far as moving pictures go, I have to say I’m still entranced by the long-form final season of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” on Showtime.

Did you enjoy your time in London? We were stoked you stopped by the shop…

Definitely. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the House of Vans, but they took care of all the hanging chores, giving us ample time to walk around and explore the city. Fortunately we weren’t staying all that far from Covent Garden and South Bank.

Do you remember visiting Slam City Skates on previous London visits?

Yes, because I was confused by the new location and thought I was in the wrong spot… but the last time I was there may have been way back around 1998 on a DC Eurosupertour?

Anyway, someone once told me they ran into Morrissey on the steps coming out of Rough Trade, and I always thought that was a lovely London tale—even if he is the most charming despised man in the UK now.

It was also sick to see you skating while you were here! Do you still get time to skate regularly, is it still vital to your well being?

I try to, as it most definitely is vital, but like it or not there have been some lulls in life when I haven’t been able to actively do so. Consequently, I’ve lost a lot of what I was once able to do, but at my age I’m still happy to be rolling, sliding, and popping up on whatever whenever I can. It’s still the one thing in life that just feels right no matter how wrong my body may feel afterward.

Tell us something we don’t know about Strangelove skateboards. Is there anything we need to be on the lookout for?

A better question would be does anyone know anything at all about StrangeLove? I feel we are still flying pretty far under the radar and I wasn’t that surprised to not see anything of ours on the wall at Slam City. But maybe that will change now? Ha!

Obviously I’m in it for the love of skateboard graphics and getting to work with some of my favorite artists, but we’re also starting to build a solid team and have some interesting stuff happening early next year that I can’t formally divulge yet, so that’s what I’m currently working on—or should be working on, but you guys really saved our ass in London with the gift of hooded sweatshirts so I’m happy to take this time to repay the favor. We seriously didn’t pack for the brisk wind coming off the Thames.

Any advice for aspiring artists reading this and wanting to follow in your footsteps?

This is actually one of the topics I intend to touch on in the next “Disposable” book that I’m slowly working on. So many young artists would like to get into doing skateboard graphics and the upside is that it’s never been easier to do so what with the increased visibility on social media and the million-billion companies currently cranking out boards. The downside is that if you’re looking to make a career out of it that’s where it gets tough.

Artists in the industry suffered the most once accountants gained the upper hand on the bottom line and skateboards became more of a commodity item. I’m sure some bean counters would love to argue with me on this, but I still feel that graphics are a marketing extension of the company—not to mention our culture as a whole—and should not solely be factored into a budgetary line item on the production cost of a board.

Another cautionary tale is one involving contracts and usage rights, because you never know when a company is going to keep using your graphics 30 years later or your art will suddenly pop up on various mass-market accessory items, toys, shoes, apparel, or even T-Mobile phones.

I’m just saying a little royalty love goes a long, long way, especially for the freelance artists in our industry who will never know the luxury of having insurance or retirement perks through an employer and often get abused through the bro-ness of it all—however unintentionally it may seem. So if you get into skate graphics, maybe think of it as a stepping-stone to something greater and not the end-all-be-all dream that I did. Ha!

Last words for the community…

Well, since I’ve got the damn soap box out… I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard some more-hardcore-than-thou individual say “graphics don’t matter,” but sorry, they’re wrong. Not only have I witnessed people get lost in a fog of fond memories while flipping through pages of the Disposable books, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have many come up and tell me how much a graphic I’d drawn had an impact on their life.

My wife pointed this out to me after a few such exchanges at the House of Vans exhibition, saying most professional artists go their whole life and never hear of anyone having such a visceral connection to their work in the way that skateboarders do. Look, I know I’ve lived in a foxhole for damn near most of my existence, but I like to think what we have as skateboarders, the weird world-away-from-the-world that we’ve created, it’s something incredibly special and unique. I can’t think of many (any?) other activities that celebrate and cherish the artistic culture as much as we do.

I mean, can you imagine the baseball—or in maybe in your UK case a better analogy would be football—community coming together and rallying around someone’s art show at the local sporting good’s store? Or someone mid-lifing in their ’40s who’s desperately trying to track down the first cricket bat or ball they had as a kid? Who knows, maybe they do and I’m just making shit up to support my case for the importance of art in skateboarding, but what do you expect? I’ve been very lucky to have this as my labor of love for the past 30 years and I intend to keep doing it as long as my hand holds out.

Interview by Jacob Sawyer

Make sure you visit Sean Cliver and Todd Bratrud’s show at House of Vans London which runs until the 27th October…