Wax The Coping: Don Pendleton Interview

Don Pendleton is one of the most prolific skate-graphic designers in the history of this whole damn thing, and has an aesthetic that is instantly recognizable. He cut his teeth at Alien Workshop, but Mr. P has gone on to design decks for numerous other brands, created loads of personal art and won himself a goddam Grammy for album-package design along the way. I hit him up to see what's good in his Ohio 'hood. —Michael Sieben

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What's up with Darkroom? Are you still making stuff?
Darkroom started out as a place to put artwork I'd done that didn't fit anywhere else. It was started after the AWS years and I had some free time and then I was entangled with Element work and didn't have time again. It laid like a corpse for about five years, then it was resurrected. I kind of learned my lesson about stretching myself too thin. But like Bela Lugosi, it will always remain undead and will resurface in different ways from time to time. I knew from the very beginning that it was a project rather than a company so I could walk away when I didn't have time to do it.  

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Where does the bulk of your income come from these days? I know you're a freelancer, but there's only so much money in skateboarding for art dudes. 
Oh, I have a Xanax tree in the backyard so I produce locally-grown organic Xanax. With that and the scrap metal business, I do okay. 

What's the weirdest check you've ever cashed?
I think the weirdest checks are the ones I didn't cash—royalty checks for $1.32 or something like that. I did have a check signed by Natas Kaupas that I kept around for a while because I didn't want to cash it. It was for a Designarium graphic. The 16 year old that still lives inside me was more excited about the signature than the money. I will always feel that way about Natas.

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What would be your dream project to work on?
I've been lucky over the past few decades—I try not to get too ambitious about what I want out of a career. Any time I can work with a client that gives me some artistic freedom and wants to do things for the right reasons, that's a pretty perfect project. 

Are there any companies or products that you would absolutely not work with?
Absolutely, I have turned down a lot of projects over the years with companies that I couldn't justify being involved with. That's the thing about being an artist: people see what you do and sometimes you get judged for it but nobody really gets to see the list of opportunities you turn down to protect your name or your work.  

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Have you ever turned down a big check because of ethical reasons?
Yes, very recently I opted out of a project that would've paid a lot because I had a few issues with the company and concerns about how the project was being pitched. I have always been picky about where my name and art are used. That's all I've got at the end of the day. 

Can you give me a company name or an industry, specifically, that you've denied?
I won't name names but I've had offers from a car company about art adhesives as a sales promotion. A big beer company wanted me to use a certain hashtag on Instagram to help promote some proposed art bottles and that ended the project. It comes down to how each company presents the art and how they want to use it and what kind of light it will put me in as an artist. I'm not going to obligate myself to do anything that compromises my name or work. 

Run me through winning a Grammy for your work on the Pearl Jam album, Lightning Bolt
Jeff Ament, the bassist in the band, contacted me to do a logo and that just evolved into being involved with the cover and illustrations. Jeff is the raddest. If there truly was a director for that project, it was him. He's a skater; he's also helped build a bunch of parks around Montana and on Native American reservations. He always has new ones that he's working on. So it was really an enjoyable process and it just happened to win the Grammy that year. I didn't go to the ceremony and there were no parties or anything but it was nice to get a souvenir from the project: that little statue with my name on it. My mom was stoked.

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Has your life changed since winning that award?
Not at all. But to be fair, I didn't want anything to change. 

What's it like working with a band like Pearl Jam as opposed to designing skate graphics?
The process was really similar to be honest. And to be even more honest, I had more freedom with that project than I have with some skateboard companies. And I think that says a lot about the band and how they view the creative aspect of what they do. They could've hired some giant design firm to do it all but instead you've got Jeff managing it himself and Eddie Vedder and the other guys are involved as well. Nobody was trying to control the process; they just let it happen very naturally. So it was fun. There wasn't any part of it that I would have changed. 

Back to skate graphics, what was the first graphic that really jumped out at you as a kid?
I was a fan of the Vision stuff when I started. My first board was a Vision Old Ghost Guardian and I loved that Old Ghosts series. So much so that I wrote to John Grigley—who was a pro but also did some of the Vision graphics—and he wrote back to me, which is amazing as a young kid in West Virginia, getting a letter from a pro skateboarder who was super nice. But the very first graphic that blew my mind as a kid was the Vision Gator graphic with that geometric spiral on it in florescent colors. 

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What's your favorite skate graphic of all time? How about favorite skate-graphic designer?
I think for most people it goes back to that first board you get or the magic of when you discover skateboarding. If I had to choose one, it would be the G&S Blender Coffee Break graphic. Perfect in its simplicity, so many good color ways. There have been a lot of great artists come through skateboarding—it's just my opinion that Blender was the best and I don't even think he was really trying, which makes all that stuff even cooler.

What's your take on contemporary skate graphics?
It's like anything else at this point. Skateboard culture kind of steered so much of pop culture back in the '80s and '90s and now it seems like pop culture drives skateboard imagery. There is some great stuff being done out there but there is a lot of mindless, pointless shit too. I'm just not sure if the average skater can tell the difference or even cares anymore. But as an old guy, it's kind of irrelevant what I think. 

Did you really get your job at Alien Workshop by answering an ad in the classifieds?
That is 100-percent true. And I typically never checked the classifieds, it was just that my apartment had burned down that week where I was living and I was kind of desperate for something different. If my apartment hadn't burned down, I probably would've never seen that ad. 

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How long did you work there?
Around seven years, between 1998 and 2005.

How many board graphics do you think you made during those years?
Including logo boards and Seek boards and all the series stuff, maybe around 500 or somewhere in there. I'm not totally sure. I was doing a lot of t-shirts and the websites and other stuff too at the time so it was kind of a blur. It was definitely a pretty sizable grip, but admittedly some were worse than others.

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Do you have a favorite deck or series?
Not really. I always put the most effort into Dill and Pappalardo's boards. And then when Berra got on, I put the same effort into his because those guys actually cared about how their boards looked. It wasn't about sales because I knew that was something I couldn't really affect. I just wanted them to be stoked on the graphics they were riding.

Was your art style already fully developed or was it shaped by Alien's art direction?
Looking back it was probably a mix. When I first got there, I wanted everything to fit in and look like it belonged as part of the company and the more work I did, I hope my style developed into its own. Mike Hill and Chris Carter just let me draw and play around and that kind of freedom is where everything came from. None of it was ever taken too seriously. I mean, what other company would have let me do a Serif vs Sans Serif graphic or an Xtreme Rabbits graphic? The first making fun of companies taking the whole skateboard art thing a little too seriously and the second mocking the idea of youth alt-marketing. Both of those graphics were pretty bad but they fit into the landscape of what we were doing so they got produced. So in that kind of environment, things just kind of take on a life of their own. 

Did Mike Hill's papier-mâché characters influence your own character designs?
I've always credited Neil Blender with being a huge influence where the characters are concerned and I think he was for most skaters my age who grew up with an interest in graphics or art. But I loved the papier-mâché stuff that Hill did. I was working in a shop when those came out originally and they were a completely unique direction for graphics at the time. 

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What's your best Jason Dill story? 
Oh, man. I would never spill any dirt on Dill. I like him too much and he's doing really well these days. We ate at Long John Silver's last month when he was in town. What some people may not know—or maybe some do—was at one point early on during Photosynthesis editing, he was considering using the song "Fucking in the Bushes" by Oasis for his part. And obviously that didn't happen but I think it would have dramatically changed one of the best video parts of that era. It's hard to watch that part and imagine any song other than "Polyethylene."

Were you around when Lennie Kirk was part of Workshop? If so, got any tales?
No, I got there right at the tail end when they were still dealing with him but I heard a lot of the stories. At some point they realized he was genuinely mentally ill and both Carter and Dyrdek really tried to help him. He kept getting into legal trouble and I think it was just too much for anyone to help with. Gnarly skater, though. Definitely my favorite part of Time Code. Carter and Hill cared about all of those team guys. I think it was really hard for them to see Lennie get to the point where he was beyond their help.

Who was the hardest team rider to deal with? How about the asiest?
The whole AWS team was really easy to deal with, honestly. I mean, if I had been the team manager I might not feel that way but where I was concerned, it was a group of genuine, decent guys. Nobody ever called to yell at me about their graphics or how I cropped a photo wrong in a catalog or anything like that. I think Freddie was a handful for the TMs at times, but he always came through and nobody can stay mad at Freddie for long.

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Were you surprised when you got let go? Did you see yourself retiring at the AWS warehouse?
It was kind of a shock at the time but it worked out for the best for everyone. Carter and Hill couldn't have been more fair during my time there. They gave me total freedom when I was there and they had my back the whole time. Situations like that are tough because you work so closely together for the same thing. You're around each other constantly and that makes things hard whenever there is a shift in direction or priorities or whatever. But the company comes first and I understood that.

Do you keep up with Hill or Carter at all?
I do keep in touch with Carter regularly. He's been a friend and also mentor to a lot of people who used to work for him, myself included. I know Hill has his hands full with doing Alien but we haven't talked in a long time.

And you worked at Element after AWS, right? How long did that last?
I was there from 2005 until about mid-2008. Absolutely the strangest, most disappointing years of my skateboard art career. Remind me to tell you the story about the rasta anteater sometime. 

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What are you currently working on? You've been painting a lot lately, right?
I just finished a series for Primitive that should be coming out soon. I've worked with Paul before and he's always been supportive. And Oliver Barton is their brand guy and he's been fun to work with. It was one of those projects where they just let me do what I wanted and those are the kinds of projects I look for.  And I am painting for a museum show that's coming up next year. And the whole scrap metal thing, you know—if things don't work out.

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What keeps you in Ohio? Do you think you'd get more work if you left the motherland?
I mean, it's cliché but I'm just not very social and I spent a very long time trying to deal with some pretty overwhelming anxiety. The idea of sitting in traffic and maneuvering through crowds to grab something to eat or get some groceries is kind of grueling to me. And I have a nice little hideout here, a quiet neighborhood, quick access to everything I need. Plus, if I get bored, I can go somewhere else for a while. I have sacrificed opportunity for convenience and security by staying in Ohio, but again, I was never very ambitious or I would have bit the bullet and headed someplace where it would've been easier. I always thought it was funny during that era where people were talking about outsider art and most of those artists were based in LA or NY. How much of an outsider are you if you live in those cities? It's just kooky. Fortunately, the Internet has made all of that easier. If someone wants to work with me, I'm pretty easy to track down. 

How many skateboards do you have in your basement?
Man, I wish I had a basement. I would set up a laboratory down there and try to bring things back to life. Or maybe build one of those mini halfpikes.

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Are you still afraid of spiders?
Not the normal ones. That's one part of Ohio I don't like...I found a giant dead one all curled up at the end of the couch the other night and went to scoop it up so I could toss it out and it sprang to life. Possum spider. Full on resurrection. The ones we get are those giant wolf spiders, like the size of a small mouse and just as fast and just as hairy. Ironically enough, I love mice. 

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Last question: do you still skate?
I'm not heading to the local session or park but I still skate. I'll never not skate, I just have a running list of the tricks I've lost over the years and I pull it out every once in a while when I need a good cry.