Wax the Coping: Sean Cliver Interview
In 1988, at the age of 19, Sean Cliver submitted art to Powell Peralta in response to an artist-wanted classified ad that ran in Thrasher. Cliver was chosen for the position and joined the company's design team, thus dropping out of college in Madison, WI, where he was studying commercial art and moving to Santa Barbara, CA. This fateful event undoubtedly changed not only the course of Sean's life, but the future of skateboard graphics as a whole. Sean went on to join Steve Rocco and Marc McKee at World Industries where they shook the skateboard industry to its very core, creating iconic graphics for World, Blind and 101. Sean was on the ground floor of Big Brother magazine, part of the jackass crew and is also the author of Disposable and The Disposable Skateboard Bible. Not one to rest on his laurels, Sean is now embarking on a new project: his own board brand, Paisley Skates. I hit up Sean to get the scoop on this latest venture and to talk about some other nerdy shit. —Michael Sieben
So, Sean, what made you decide to start your own board brand?
I’d like to say it was for the fast cars, cheap thrills, rich girls and fine wine, but I think my partner Paul Urich and I started the wrong company to achieve any such stuff. We were a bit more altruistic in the conceptual stages of Paisley, where we imagined it could be a company that celebrated the graphics aspect of skateboarding and the artists who try to live, thrive and survive in the profession, but it has taken on a larger life beyond that now. We’re still sticking to our original plan, though, by having all the graphics screened by hand, as opposed to doing heat transfers—and I don’t mean that in some shitty Portlandia “artisanal” way. It’s just how boards are meant to be done, because the paint looks, feels, smells, and skates way better than a sheet. Anyway, there’s not a whole lot of bean counting going on in the operation at present, which from what I’ve heard always ends well.
Sean Cliver, 2016
Do you think there are any kids out there that actually care about boards being screen printed vs. having heat transfers applied to them? Or do you think it’s just something old guys are holding onto?
Considering many of them started out skating on heat transfers, they probably don’t know any different, but there’s a reason you have guys like Jim Greco and Jeremy Klein going the added distance and cost to get their boards hand-screened. It’s not purely for aesthetic purposes. We’ve had a number of people respond to the difference and feel after skating our boards. Again, the screened graphics just feel right—the added bonus being it’s nice to not look like something found on the shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us or Target. I guess that’s what my beef has always been with heat transfers.
Going the distance
Back to bean counting, did your work with jackass afford you the luxury of not having to worry about day-to-day income? Can you cherry pick projects at this point in your career? Can Paisley exist as a vanity project or do you need it to ultimately make a certain amount of money per month to survive?
In short, no, no, no, and fuck yes. In long, I was only part of the crew on jackass and didn’t participate in any of the serious back-end royalties. Mind you, I’m not complaining, as I wasn’t a creator and was fortunate to even be involved. Not to mention it made for a really ridiculous decade-plus of my life doing stupid shit with friends that I wouldn’t have traded for anything. Sure, the movie years would provide a cushion for a bit, but before long it was always back to the freelance hustle and juggling an assortment of jobs all at once. Skate graphics are the one ball I’ve consistently kept in the air—ever since 1989 when I began at Powell Peralta—whereas many of the others, like writing, photography, or production, fall in and out as the opportunities present themselves. So I’m very much on the month-to-month grind. Paisley is, in part, my attempt to try and provide some form of consistent work flow; however, it’s still very small and nowhere near a steady source of income—especially if I persist in doing boards that take ten passes or more to screen.
Stacks of stoke
You've been involved with brands that have had super elite skaters associated with them. Will Paisley have a team? If so, are you concerned with trying to find top-tier athletes to represent the company?
From the outset we hadn’t planned on having riders, but over the past several months a squad has indeed begun to coalesce. This evolution is pretty rad to see, because the last thing I wanted was for Paisley to be regarded as a “wall-hanger company.” That was never our intent and there’s already too many companies abusing the “limited-edition” board gimmick as it is. I’m sure some would accuse us of the same, even though we’ve never marketed them as such. Our boards are limited in the sense that we can only afford to produce so many through PS Stix at a time. But as far as “top-tier athletes” go, no, we’re more interested in the individuals that got into skateboarding for the similar underlying reasons we did: because it’s not the cool thing to do and it’s still one of the most creative fuck yous to society in general. Actually, Kevin Wilkins summed it up well on thegoodproblem.com, where he wrote “skateboarding has been running its own asylum for decades … to lazily recruit the weirdos, the jokers, the derelicts, the artists, and thankfully, the goofs.” We want Paisley to be one of the wings, or at least a room in that asylum, where our collective of friends can continue to carry on the fucked-up, fun, and counterculture traditions of skateboarding.
Matt Pugh grabbing some tail Photo: Clinton Perry
What’s your take on the current direction skate graphics are heading? Do you appreciate the more collage-y, design-y stuff or are you primarily drawn, no pun intended, to hand-drawn imagery?
Can we run that Instagram image you posted of your flannel shirts here? Because that was amazing and I’m pretty sure you could have filled more than a few orders with that proposed line.
Program "Wardrobe Series"
To each their own, of course, especially when it comes to skate graphics where there are no boundaries unless you’re bound by the flavor of the month or a box between the trucks, but I’ve always gravitated more to the conceptual or illustrative sort. The first time I ever walked into a skate shop, those were the type of graphics and artists that caught my attention—Santa Cruz/Jim Phillips, Zorlac/Pushead, and Powell-Peralta/VCJ—not the new wave, design-based imagery of say Vision or Sims. Fuck, call me a heretic, but I wasn’t into the first Mark Gonzales Vision graphic at all. That style always struck me as being more suitable to the ski industry. Had I known who Mark Gonzales was, yeah, sure, maybe that would have changed my perception, but I had no idea about anything. I mean, how else can I explain my first board being a Mike McGill? No offense to Mike, but I was a kid from the sticks of Wisconsin who didn’t relate at all to vert/bowl skating or sleeveless t-shirts. My choice was based solely upon the graphics. What made you buy your first skateboard? Did you know anything about anything or were you a blank slate, too?
I knew nothing. My first board was a Rob Roskopp street model. And nothing against The Barn, but I only bought it because of the Jim Phillips graphic on it. So what’s up with this most recent Big Brother offering? Was that meant to coincide with the shit book which was recently released?
You would think, but no. It was pretty much a plate-of-shrimp coincidence. When we started Paisley back in the summer of 2015, slick bottoms were at the top of our wish list to produce; however, my own coloring book art-style doesn’t really lend itself to exploiting the slick possibilities, so I tapped some of my friends whose work did, like Jeff Tremaine and Dave Carnie. The Big Brother aspect was slightly hard to ignore at that point, so I added Chris Pontius to the mix for an even-numbered, four board story. Incidentally, it wasn’t until assembling the big book of shit that I realized you’d been a contributor to the magazine in its last gasps of life at Flynt Publications. That was a curious surprise.
Getting the gang back together: Tremaine, Carnie and Pontius' Paisley graphics
Yeah, I had a couple of articles in there at the tail end. Those were actually my first paid writing gigs. Thanks, Dave! So this last graphic you did for Paisley is a Nazi on a Segway taking a selfie. Historically, your skate graphics have had an irreverent/controversial tone to them. Do you think it’s still possible to shock the youth, or do you think because of growing up with the Internet that they’re unable to be fazed?
Yeah, the Internet sure has made a mess of everything. Like, it’s really taken the mystery and wonder out of the world. Information at your fingertips is cool and all, I suppose, but there’s still something to be said about the perseverance and rewards of a quest. Take boobs for instance. As a kid, pre-Internet, to see a pair of bare boobs was on par with the Holy Grail, and it used to be a real big Indiana Jones deal to find a picture of some. Nowadays you can just go to Wikipedia. Boobs, vaginas, buttholes, wieners in every state from repose to erect—it’s all there in a single simple search. But I don’t think my intent is ever just to shock… I just find it funny to do the things you’re not supposed to do. And not always for the most intelligent reasons, either, but just to see how ridiculous it would be to see the idea printed and produced. Kind of like that old “Nude Beach” board I did for Chico Brenes when he was on World Industries in 1994. I mean, what kid in his right mind would want to buy a board with a bunch of naked old people on it? But it is funny to see how commonplace everything has become. The word “fuck” used to be a real go-to for simple shock purposes; now it’s more shocking to see a company not use it in some manner. What’s really shocking to me, though, are all the serious officially licensed collaborations in skateboarding. What’s the fun in that if you can’t fuck with the characters or logos in some manner? That’s a shift that has really taken the piss out of skate graphics, I think—and, in a way, being a skateboarder, too.
World Industries, Chico Brenes "Nude Beach" 1994 and Paisley Skates "Dandy Horse" 2016
Are there any brands or entities that would be a dream collaborator for Paisley? With you having free reign to modify the art, of course.
I don’t know about any brands. Artists, for sure, or maybe a few former-pro skaters with whom we’ve had affiliations over the years, but not brands—or at least not from outside of skateboarding or without any real purpose or meaning. Otherwise it just feels grab-ass and abusive to a marketplace that’s already glutted with X this and X that. But fuck, if I have to dream in a hypothetical manner, then I guess I’d put all of my imaginary licensed money on Robert Crumb. He may not be a skater—and he probably hates them—but he’s certainly got the right sensibility.
How many board graphics do you think you've done to date? Which one are you most proud of and which one do you absolutely hate?
I honestly have no idea. Every number sounds simultaneously too high and too low. Maybe 300 give or take? But maybe only 15-percent of those are graphics that I’m actually proud of doing, like a smattering of stuff I did for Powell Peralta—Ray Barbee’s may still be my favorite to date—and some of the earlier boards I did for World Industries, Blind, and 101. But then I kind of got stretched thin between working on Big Brother and jackass and phoned in an awful lot of stuff. It wasn’t until the first round of Supreme boards I did in 2008 that I felt revitalized. The worst board I’ve ever committed to the history of skate graphics would still have to be the Tony Hawk “Toe Knee Hawk” model on Powell in 1990. It wasn’t my idea, but I still shouldn’t have half-assed it as poorly as I did. And not that you asked, but I have to give it up to Marc McKee, who is without a doubt the single most prolific and consistent artist in the industry. Todd Bratrud is a close second.
Powell Peralta, Ray Barbee "Ragdoll" (Barbee I) 1989, "Hydrant" (Barbee II) 1990, "Angel" (Barbee III) 1990 and Tony Hawk "Pictograph" 1990
What's the craziest thing you remember from the Big Brother days?
Crazy has become a relative term over the years, but for the time and place it had to be the Mardi Gras tour in 1995. We had such an eclectic mix of skaters and personalities that it made for non-stop craziness, the high water mark of which came late one night in New Orleans when a group of us—I want to say Rob Dyrdek, Duane Pitre, Scott Conklin, Jeff Tremaine and myself—were skirting a darker edge of the French Quarter. Before any of us had a clue what was going on, Tremaine yelled, “HARLEY DOWN!” and kicked over a Harley-Davidson parked outside a bar. I don’t know how many blocks we all ran, but it was a fucking lot and maybe the fastest I’ve ever run in my life.
What do you think you'd be doing right now if you hadn't won that Powell-Peralta art contest?
Well, delivering pizzas in Stevens Point, WI, isn’t out of the question, but I’ve always had a more technical style of illustration, so it would probably be something to do with rendering nuts and bolts. Then again, I guess computers can now do that way better than I ever could, so let’s just stick with the pizza thing and call it a professional day.
Two of Powell Peralta's "Artist Wanted" ads
Are there any contemporary brands out there that you're really psyched on?
Odd as it may sound, I kind of like what Welcome has going on—at least in a graphic sense. They’re like a modern-day Zorlac and instantly recognizable on the store racks, whereas many others from the contemporary crop are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
What are you guys working on next with Paisley? Are you currently working on any other side gigs that you’re excited about as well?
We’ve got a few boards due out in the next month or two that will be fun to release, but for the majority of this year I’ve been working with Patrick O’Dell on a documentary project about Big Brother. We still have a few more months to go, so it will be interesting to see how it all comes together in the final edit, but up until now it’s been a trip—and an embarrassing one at that—going through archival footage and seeing myself say and do things I can’t even recall. Like there’s this one clip where we’re standing in Disneyland with Slayer and I’m drunkenly going on and on about there being a bar that serves alcohol in the park, and it kind of makes me wish Tom Araya would’ve just punched me in the face then and there.
Hang in there… Paisley Skates "Balloon Boy" 2016
For more on Paisley Skates, visit their site here.
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