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Beach Meets : V. Courtlandt Johnson

Beach Meets : V. Courtlandt Johnson Unless you skate yourself, it’s hard to quantify the profound effect a skate graphic can have on you; I think this is why, a lot of the time, people who skate can be a bit funny about non-skaters buying boards or whatever – even though the artwork might appeal, and look nice on the wall, it doesn’t quite have the same resonation as it would with a skater. For a period of time – you’ve spent days on end with this artwork or design, slowly eroding it, having a good time, drinking beers, hanging out and really enjoying yourself.

Most skaters will have an old graphic that, when seeing it, will be transported back to a time in their life when they were riding that graphic. Your esteemed writer remembers a Tim Brauch Santa Cruz board (Sean Cliver, I think) that takes him back to a French exchange trip.  Or an old Blueprint deck that reminds him of a Summer visiting a park a day in Essex. Good times.

So it seems a shame that, sometimes, these guys who’ve in some ways soundtracked your life don’t get a little more recognition. Maybe that’s because, as I’ve mentioned above – the resonation’s a little niche – but even so, in the skate world it tends to be the company that gets the recognition.

I suppose that’s the pitfall of being an illustrator, and, I suppose, where we at Beach try to give a little recognition. So it was with much excitement that we got a reply from VCJ – Vernon Courtlandt Johnson – after getting in touch and asking if he’d like to answer some Q’s. Known for his iconic graphics in the 1980’s for the equally iconic and era-defining Powell-Peralta, Court’s recently re-joined George Powell over there and is back working on some great new stuff that’s in a similar vein to what you’d expect. Few people won’t recognise his ‘Ripper’ graphic, Mike V’s Elephant, and the Tony Hawk Skull graphic, and these were, in terms of graphics, as genre-defining and as inspiring – as the board riding in Powell classics such as Animal Chin and Future Primitive. Court talks light heartedly and with good humour to our fan-boy questions, so here’s what he has to say about working back at Powell, his inspirations, and endless parodies…

You’re back working for Powell-Peralta since 2011. Tell us about some of the graphics you’ve done for them in the past few years. Do you have a favourite?

Returning to Powell after 20 years away, I put other interests aside for drawing. Sculpting in ferro-cement was harsh on the hands, but I loved the real physical work and a fast technique for building form. Commercial design is only as harsh as the ink that gets away from me. I love to draw. It’s magic. Of the many graphics, since 2011, I have no favorites, but perhaps some images. I watch as others take my black and white work thru its various stages, towards printing. It’s out of control and I like it. The winged skull was drawn during my heart attack last year. I sat in the hospital drawing this as they monitored my recovery. It made my surgeon wince. The nurses laughed.

Could you tell me some artists (or perhaps other stuff) that informs and inspires your practice?

It’s probably obvious that I have been influenced by M.C.Escher, Albrecht Durer, Dr. Seuss, R. Crumb, Fritz Eichenberg, Rick Griffin, Hokusai, Hiroshige and others, but I owe so many other sources of inspiration. Music has been a powerful invisible friend and ally in creativity. I play guitar and sing as a way to stay resilient for drawing. I would send an attachment for “Soul Tide Rising” , as a sound bite but you’ll have to wait for the album… (Ed: a bit of dilligent web research led us to Court’s Soundcloud)

A lot of your work has inspired homage graphics in the skate industry – I know Foundation did a ‘Ripper’ nod – do you enjoy seeing how people appropriate your work? If so, do you have a favourite?

The “Ripper” design has caused a wave of parodies. It sets a soul off to behold the genius design of a human skull, and to contemplate the box that the large brain occupies for each incarnation. It’s a beautiful sculpture that hides beneath our skin-bags! I have both, emulated and parodied the masters in my time, with no apparent shame. If you should run into Gustave Doré, don’t tell him where I am. Tell him I thought he was dead. To all who have played with the Ripper, I say ” It’s probably more fun to trace a Playboy centerfold”, which they are also free to do…

Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Powell-Peralta and skateboarding?

 I was a starving artist living in an old county warehouse, playing with different media, sex, and drugs, and rock&roll, when my brother-in-law George Powell offered me a job building a factory. 1,000 square feet of space. Just enough room to mix it up in. I had never been on a skateboard, but loved the effect of making a Quicksilver deck out of aircraft aluminum/epoxy-maple core, and then riding it. So smooth, so fast and… OMG the advent of ruby-red-sexy polyurethane wheels… I rented a small house, began eating food, like most other humans, and really enjoyed the multi-media creativity of manufacturing a factory. My rudimentary engineering skill came into full bloom, long before I actually began drawing for the company.

Do you still take an interest in skateboard graphics? If so, Who do you think are making interesting boards right now?

A skateboard has a lot of surface upon which to do your thing. Anyone can put an image on a skateboard, and it’s fun. What image makes its way into the market and sells ? There is so much art that is not being seen unless it gets published in a conspicuous way.

I live in my own little world, ignorant of so much contemporary creativity. I have no clue of what’s popular. I am more interested in what is timeless. I like to think that a “real artist” makes art because they have to, tho It seems “autistic” to those who can’t pay the rent, or to the landlord who’s waiting for the rent check. I have seen the work of the masters in print form.Thank God for the publishers and marketeers who love it as a game worth playing and send it around for others to see and have a piece of.

As one of the pioneers of artwork-under-a-skateboard, how do you feel the two intertwine? Where and how do you see it’s evolution?

It was my fate to come into the industry when I did. There are other sports that offer the artist a surface to decorate. The possible variations in skateboard art are infinite, my doubts are finite. Whataya gonna do ?

Selling art is a bother for me, but I love to conjure that which attracts a skater to a board, the way a fish is attracted to a lure. The graphic is not going to affect the way a skateboard works, or ….is it ? What would I prefer to feature on the underside of my ride ?

I don’t think of myself as ” a skate-board artist”. I am not a tattoo artist, but my works have been adapted to skin. The future of skateboard art and tattooing is wide open.

Thanks Court! It was a pleasure chatting to you…