DO “SHOCKING” SKATEBOARD GRAPHICS STILL HAVE SUBSTANCE?

May 26, 2015/ Anthony Pappalardo/ ARTICLES/ Comments: 26

Robert Williams. "Appetite for Destruction" (1979)

Robert Williams. “Appetite for Destruction” (1979)

A woman lying in an alley. One breast poking out from her blouse, one shoe askew below her underpants which are pulled down to her calves. Robert Williams’ 1979 painting titled “Appetite for Destruction” also depicts a robot rapist and a giant ghoul adorned in skulls, bones, and knives seemingly about to exact revenge on the robo-rapist.

During a recent trip to Fucking Awesome’s webstore, I noticed an Anthony Van Engelen deck bearing a repeat pattern of a detail taken from Williams’ controversial painting. Without the robot and vengeful ghoul, the graphic shows only the sexually assaulted woman 30 plus times cast against an eye bending background. Is the message here supposed to be something about the pattern of rape culture? Is it an artistic statement of some sort? Or maybe it’s “just a graphic, man – stop reading into it!”?

We all know there’s truth to the cliche that “sex sells,” especially when you’re market is made up of horny adolescent boys, and Fucking Awesome is another company in a long line of skateboard brands that have employed sexually subversive imagery to sell their products.

But what exactly is being subverted in the Fucking Awesome “Appetite” deck is questionable and up for discussion.

AVE's Fucking Awesome "Appetite" Deck

AVE’s Fucking Awesome “Appetite” Deck

To better understand the cycle of appropriation the Fucking Awesome deck is a part of, let’s look at another instance of Williams’ painting being used to market a product. In 1987, Axl Rose approached Williams to ask permission to use Williams’ controversial painting as the cover art for Rose’s band’s first major label release, also titled “Appetite for Destruction.” Williams warned the young Rose that the image would be received poorly out of context, and may even be banned from store shelves. Low and behold, when Guns N’Roses released their album with Williams’ art, retailers refused to stock it and the label replaced it with the now iconic cross and skulls image.

”Williams has criticized the pop-art movement, saying it’s limited to repurposing other people’s original ideas – much like the Fucking Awesome graphic.”

Robert Williams’ art is praised and considered “art” because his lowbrow modern images are executed in a classical style. His “Super Cartoon” series (of which “Appetite” is a part) takes the pulp comic imagery Williams grew up on and spins it into something that can be considered high-art.

Using the techniques of the Renaissance Old Masters, Williams worked with hand-made oil paints and multiple layers of varnish to painstakingly create classically composed paintings of inherent contradictions: robot rapists and sexually assaulted women painted with enough skill to rival Raphael. They sold well, and have managed to transform the limits of high-art’s content. He considers himself a surrealist rather than a cartoonist or pop-artist. In fact, Williams has criticized the pop-art movement, saying it’s limited to repurposing other people’s original ideas – much like the Fucking Awesome graphic.

Robert Williams photo: Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles Times

Artist Robert Williams photo: Katie Falkenberg

This is important. Despite the violent, sexual, and often perverse images he employs, Williams has always been aware of context and audience – the differences between high-art and commercial art. So, what the hell does that make the Fucking Awesome graphic? Well, since the image has been appropriated and decontextualized into a mass market commodity, it’s closer to pop-art than anything else.

Also, like many modern skate graphics, it’s also kind of arbitrary – an image meant to say “fuck you,” but without really addressing why.

Subversive skate art doesn’t have to be so derivative or seemingly empty of meaning as the FA “Appetite” board though. Marc McKee’s graphics from the early-90’s are the perfect example of creative, often-obscene images that do more than give the viewer a quick laugh or shock. McKee’s colleague, Sean Cliver (who has his own spin on subversive skate graphics), lauded McKee’s ability to make meaning out of obscenity. “McKee had a knack for making a graphic more than just a naked chick – even if it was just a naked chick,” says Cliver. “He would always find that one detail to make it relevant to the company or rider, or at the very least make it funny.”

Randy Colvin's World Industries deck packaging... 1991

Randy Colvin’s 1991 World Industries deck packaging…

Check out the board Marc McKee designed for World Industries’ Randy Colvin in 1991. Sold in a black plastic bag bearing a sticker that read “Censorship is Weak as Fuck,” the graphic featured a full-on female masturbation scene. Skateboards in 1991 had never had full frontal nudity before, and the packaging was a brilliant take on those clandestinely wrapped porno mags found at bodegas and newsstands around the USA. Kids can’t buy porno? We’ll give them porno!

”Kids can’t buy porno? We’ll give them porno!”

The graphic itself is interesting not just because it featured a sex act, but also because it featured a woman pleasuring herself – no man, or skater boy, needed. It could be argued that Colvin’s board was tasteless, but it’d be hard to press that argument to say that it had no meaning at all. It’s message commented on the status-quo of skateboarding culture at the time, feeding the adolescent male desire for the consumption of pornography while presenting an image that shows a female personally exploring her own sexuality outside of the traditional male-female hierarchy.

Randy Colvin's World Industries deck designed by Marc McKee

Randy Colvin’s 1991 World Industries deck designed by Marc McKee

Taste and meaning are always going to be changing based on the viewer’s social climate, cultural awareness, and the ever changing societal norms they live within. Art’s meaning is subjective and personal, and it’s up to the individual to make up his own mind about an image’s value.

Personally, I’m probably never going to buy a deck with a naked girl or guy on it, as that doesn’t appeal to me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valueless. Context is key for an individual to engage with an image’s meaning, and the Fucking Awesome “Appetite” deck, devoid of the high-art techniques of Robert Williams’s original, or the intelligent self aware humor of Marc McKee’s work, seems to be rehashing the same decades old shock tactics with no greater intended meaning. If you chop the dick off Michelangelo’s sculpture of David and slap it on a board with no commentary, it’s just that: a cock and balls.

It leads one to wonder what could possibly be controversial and subversive in today’s skateboarding culture. We’ve done the sex, the drugs, the violence, the corporatization… How can skate artists continue in the tradition of Robert Williams, Marc McKee, and others if there’s nothing new to subvert?

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Comments

  1. Jason Meadows

    May 26, 2015 5:06 pm

    Oh but there is!!! And you’ll see it from me some day. I ain’t no realistic draughtsman like those guys, but I am a pretty funny cartoonist and I’m working right now on improving my drawing skills as much as possible and about to be studying old cartoonists as much as possible. Right now I’m making decks for local shops in my southern hillbilly country state of Arkansas. But someday I want to design for some real companies. And I’ll show you some new stuff buddy! So keep an eye out for me in the future. Yeeee!!! ;)

  2. schwab

    May 26, 2015 5:56 pm

    regardless of their art, FA boards are made with poor quality wood. wether their pro’s and am’s are on decks pressed seperately idk but i can tell ya i snapped two exactly the same way and i don’t flip my board…. skateboarding is like the rest of the world where populated and filled with too much. too many companies too many zumies too many opinions this is reality, skateboarding needs to die before its reborn and i think alotta people involved need to go with it too.

    • KeithRichards liver

      May 27, 2015 8:39 pm

      Do you know what wood they use? You either don’t know how to skate properly. Or are a big dude. Because FA’s wood is not the problem! But I do agree with the death of skateboarding thing you posted though. I wish it would tank ASAP! Hopefully It would get rid of all the cling on kooks!

  3. travis

    May 26, 2015 7:56 pm

    Interesting article, AP. Obviously Jenkem draws a mixed bag of readers to the table, so naturally some are gonna dismiss the conversation you are starting here. That’s cool too through, right? Skating is dismissive… Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtfulness here and the push to keep skateboarding self-critical. We are all awkward, self-conscious teenagers at heart right?

  4. dominic

    May 26, 2015 8:34 pm

    heres the thing man, super fucking clowns get away with clowny ass shit in skateboarding bc the main demographic is pre teen boys. Its the same thing in comic book land. Skateboarding is as post modern as post modern can get, just like everything else in our wasted, plastic, played-out culture: completely aware of its own irony and using that irony in a sincere way purely for the sake of profit. Jason Dill openly says FA is a joke, an inside joke. The joke is he puts out ridiculous and ironic imagery and laughs as the money roles in. Skating was once truly punk rock and underground, but now its mainstream to be underground. So the meaning of Williams’ piece, whatever it may have been, has here been Andy Warhol’d out of relevancy and into a meaningless, disposable product. Except Warhol was taking products and making them into art. Dill is taking art and making it a product.

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