Todd Francis talks "Look Away"
The name Todd Francis is synonymous with the creation of one of the most iconic brand logos in skateboarding, the Antihero Skateboards eagle logo. But his contributions to the world of skateboard art go far beyond Antihero. For the past two decades, Francis has contributed artwork to a variety of brands, ranging from Real to Spitfire to Stereo to New Deal to Element. And he's been able to seamlessly adapt his artwork and themes to the ethos behind the brands he's worked for. This past summer, WINS Publishing released a printed collection of Francis' artwork in "Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis." Working with author Seb Carayol, Francis' book compiles his personal favorite works from the past two decades, plus over 200 classic and never-before-seen decks, illustrations, paintings, and sketches for companies such as Antihero, Real, Element, Stereo, Oakley, Vans and more. Recently, Francis spoke with XGames.com about his experiences in the world of skateboard art.
XGames.com: Can you explain the origin of the monkey suit series and what you were looking to achieve with these board graphics?
Francis: That was a series I did in 1999, and I'd had the phrase "monkey suit" rolling around in my head for awhile, and wanted to come up with a funny way for it to tie into the anti-business stance we'd taken with Antihero since its start. At the time, everyone in San Francisco was paying close attention to the NASDAQ and tech stocks and IPOs that nobody had known much about prior to the first tech bubble burst, and it was pretty gross. I thought it'd be funny to watch these apes in suits freaking out as their profits plummeted in an economic downturn. It was definitely also inspired by Devo song lyrics, which have always been a source of endless fuel.
You've done a lot of pigeon graphics. What prompted the "Pigeons Revenge" series?
The "Pigeons Revenge" set was my official return to the Antihero nest, and they were generous enough to let me really go nuts. Since the original Antihero pigeon was something a bunch of us always loved, it seemed appropriate to hop on the pigeon's back and ride him into the gutter. A lot of people got really fired up on this set of decks, and it really made me feel great about being back with the boys. I recently started a t-shirt line called Special Crud, with a pigeon as its icon, so clearly I'm stuck on the grimy suckers.
Can you explain how you felt after designing your first board at Deluxe Distribution?
Well, when I first started doing board graphics, I was scared to death of picking colors. Up to that point, so much of my work had been black and white, and having to pick Pantone colors for a deck terrified me, because one mistake and you've got a stack of several hundred decks with bad colors chosen. Since we worked so fast on deck graphics, I had to quickly choose colors, and looking back on them now, they could've been so much better. I was spooked, what can I say? Once the decks came in, and nobody yelled at me, I relaxed a little and started to trust my instincts a little more. But the next day, it was time to start the next graphic, so there wasn't a whole lot of time to reflect or anything.
Designing for Stereo, it seemed like your drawings had a softer tone. Were you given guidelines or did you have free reign?
By time I stumbled into the job at Deluxe Distribution doing art for Real, Stereo and Spitfire, all their brands were fully realized, each with its own look and feel. Stereo had its entire vintage jazz aesthetic nailed by then, and the graphics they were doing were just amazing. Jason Lee and Chris Pastras had a clear vision of how everything should look, and that's why it was such a groundbreaking company at the time. As a graphic designer, my job was fairly easy: pay attention to what they've already done, make sure it fits into that mold and don't screw up. All the decks I did for them over the next few years were the direct result of their originality and philosophy. I'd always be sketching up board graphic comps for them to approve, and sometimes they were good and sometimes they weren't there yet. But those were fun times working on Stereo graphics with those guys.
What was the Rove series about? How did you develop each character and how was it received?
Nobody cared about that New Deal series when it came out. At the time, New Deal was dying a slow, inevitable death. It was a company not very many people cared about or bought, which was strangely liberating for me. I got to draw pretty much whatever I dreamed up, with very little at stake. Those were the years right after 9/11, where there was war and uncertainty and death everywhere, and I've always been hung up on images of Earth without all the stupid people running around. These guys were just the few survivors, and they'd made protective gear out of duct tape and street signs. Once I started doodling up their various adaptations and survival gear, I got into a groove. I wanted to mix sadness and desperation with a little bit of absurdity, like they've lost their minds wandering around alone for so long. I sure liked them though, even if nobody else saw them.
What was it like designing decks for Bam Margera and Element?
There was an insatiable demand for Bam boards for quite a number of years, and Matt Irving (Element's art director at the time) and I had our hands full trying to keep up with the demand. How do we redraw his name and recolor this stuff without seeming lazy? Does everything really have to be purple? Is it time to draw another flock of bats already? The funny thing to me was the graphics were for the most part really goth and serious and all that, despite his personality being all about having fun and being funny. I think I did one graphic for him in all that time that was actually funny, and it was just a drawing of him hitting his dad in the head with a plunger. Years later, there was still a big demand for his boards, and we talked to him about where we should take it, so its not just the same old thing. He takes a lot of pride in his Philly roots and the history of the area, so we got to have some fun doing some graphics based on American Revolution-era, 'don't tread on me' ideas. Some of them came out pretty great, and I think the variety was appreciated.
The "End the Hunt" graphics have a watercolor painting-look to them and these graphics were heat transferred as opposed to silkscreened. Is that type of detail on the production important? And also, what is this series about?
These days, you really don't have a choice in how boards get printed. It's all heat transfer once you're working at a certain production scale, because of the economics involved. Plus, you're able to print things in great detail which you never had with traditional silkscreening. I love supporting the remaining few companies dedicated to old school silkscreening, because that's how all my stuff was printed prior to around 2001, but the reality is most companies can't work like that... The "End the Hunt" set of graphics were a t-shirt and deck set of graphics that I wanted to be all about my favorite endangered animals, the ones that are diminishing due to being hunted for their organs by people who think you can actually become more virile by eating animal parts. So I wanted these apex predators shown in these proud, powerful poses, and then you look closer and see a dead hunter and a broken rifle crushed beneath the animal. I really liked the way the art on these came out, particularly on the t-shirts, and I'm always looking for an excuse to break out the watercolor, I've always loved working with it. You just don't see it very much on board graphics especially.