I try not to judge a book by its cover, but I can never quite help myself from judging a skater by their griptape.
This strip of sandpaper is not only functional, it acts as the skater’s form of self-expression, and you can often guess someone’s trick list or personality profile from their grip job of choice. (Punk patchwork? Sweepers gonna sweep. Burberry graphic? Get ready for late flips.)
Despite applying it to our decks for years, many of us haven’t even asked some of the most basic questions about the stuff: What’s it even made of? Who’s making it? And what’s up with those pro models? This curiosity led me to griptape geeks, manufacturers, and marketers the world over who gave me the dirt on our beloved sandpaper.
As surfers developed the first skateboards in the ‘60s, it quickly became apparent that more grip would be needed to garner enough board control on the streets. For a while, skaters experimented with Slip Check – an anti-slip spray for surfboards invented in 1965 – and DIY concoctions of resin set with sprinkled sand. Others would re-use safety tape, peeling off 1-inch strips from school staircases or truck side steps. The grit was an issue, however.
One type of griptape used by skaters was so gritty it was nicknamed Pizza Tape – its rough surface was reminiscent of pizza toppings. “That stuff was dangerous!” recalls Beau Brown, who started skating in the early ‘70s and went on to found the first-ever skate griptape brand, Flypaper. “The lower the grit number, the bigger the grit per square inch – and Pizza Tape was probably 50 grit, where today’s griptape is around 70.”
When skating took off in the ‘80s, brands of industrial non-slip tape such as Wooster and Mactac started selling their products into the skateboarding market, as a way to make money on the same product they already manufactured.
That was until Bud Smith, who worked for industrial manufacturer Jessup, really seized the opportunity to tap into the fast-growing skateboarding market after his son got a Vision board and told him a lot of kids were getting into it. Brown said, “Bud was the one who started really bridging the gap between manufacturing and the skateboard industry, attending the skateboarding trade shows and making connections.”
After Bud Smith got his first order off Powell Peralta, the skate industry followed on a global scale, and he built Jessup into the biggest-selling griptape brand in skating at the time.
Fast-forward to 2020 and fundamentally nothing has changed. Most skate grip is made with silicon carbide, and we’ve figured out the optimal grit sizes and how to get it to stick to the deck. Whatever griptape Koston was skating in Menikmati is virtually the same stuff on your board today.
THE GRIPTAPE INDUSTRY
While grip itself hasn’t changed much, the market has evolved. Manufacturing’s moved out towards Asia, but there are still only a few actual grip manufacturers in the world. Some well-known competing brands even use the exact same factories for their products.
Amongst the leaders, Jessup is understood to be the only brand both manufacturing and selling skate griptape itself in the US, and Mob does have its own exclusive facility. However, there are a number of companies who have grip produced in Asia and get it cut and printed in the US. “Basically all the smaller brands come from the same source,” notes Ben Woody, VP of Product at NHS, which makes Mob Grip.
Levels of grit vary slightly, from Jessup and Mob’s M-80 to the grippier standard Mob, as do available widths, but the core is pretty standard.
The industry is dominated by a few leading brands – some born from within skateboarding, like Grizzly and Mob, and others originating from a wider manufacturing background like Jessup.
According to ActionWatch data from earlier this year, Mob firmly leads on sales to the skateboarding industry in the US. The data shows Shake Junt was also outselling Jessup, marking an interesting development as mid-tier brands look to dislodge the top two.
On a commodity like griptape, margins are slim. “We only use the best raw materials, so we do have a pretty high per sheet cost,” says Woody at Mob. “With additional processes, equipment, and labor, it’s a big investment. But although prices have started to rise a little over the last few years, a regular black sheet of Mob is maybe only a buck or two higher at retail than it was 10 years ago.”
Alongside the leading brands, hundreds of smaller grip companies exist across the globe. Paul Labadie, founder of Euro griptape brand Ashes, told us that in 2013 his thinking was, “I just wanted an outlet where I could have total creative control and be able to build a team with all my favorite skaters. No one in Europe had a griptape sponsor back then so I could really pick everyone I wanted.”
Paul quickly realized getting hold of good griptape was not that straightforward. “The issue is that I never knew who I was really talking to – some claimed to be the factory itself but were in fact just agents shopping around. So a couple of times I’d received some samples I was happy with, only to find the whole run of grip was totally different once I received it.”
Today, he’s successfully settled with a Taiwanese company, but he wouldn’t exactly recommend starting a griptape brand as a sustainable way to make a living: “I don’t think there’s room for a lot of griptape companies. To make money with griptape, you can either buy in shitty griptape, or you’re going to need to sell a hell of a lot of it… My accountant wonders why I’m even doing it!”
HOW TO STAND OUT
Die-cut teddy bears and spray-painted Spongebobs might seem like a strictly modern griptape phenomenon, but they’re part of a branding tradition that goes back more than thirty years.
In the ‘80s, Madrid skateboards were making boards for a lot of different companies, which led to the idea of using distinctive imagery on the grip side so that anyone would easily recognize a board that came from out of their factory. They decided to punch a fly shape out of the tape as a way to make it recognizable – Flypaper, the first branded griptape, was born. The imagery even ended up on the first Vans collaboration ever with the Vans Fly model back in ‘87. But although Flypaper is still produced today, you’re more likely to see teddy bear cut-outs at the local park.
Grizzly initially started as a wax company, named after a bear-shaped baking mold Torey [Pudwill] and his friends used to make the wax, before evolving into a DIY cut-out used on sheets of grip they managed to score for free and resell to a couple of shops, which has turned Grizzly into one of the most recognizable skate brands ever.
Outside of griptape colors and graphics, the most popular companies find other ways to make themselves more memorable. Shake Junt is one of the only griptape brands to have produced full-length videos.
Jessup just announced they were now the “official griptape sponsor of USA Skateboarding.” Mob in the meantime claim to have the “biggest and best team in skateboarding”. They’ve all got a point.
“We’ve been selling more colors over the last 5 years, as well as things like ultra-clear, ultra-white and new colourways,” says Rob Jessup, President & CEO at Jessup. Pro model graphics and collaborations with artists have also risen in popularity, from Jessup’s Signature Series featuring artwork by Silas Baxter-Neal and Danny Wainwright to Mob’s graphics by Nora Vasconcellos and Eloise Dorr.
Vibrant grip does tend to divide opinion, however. Dutch pro skater, Candy Jacobs, even cited her love of colorful griptape as a “bullshit reason” for brands not taking her seriously.
According to Jessup, “black is still the biggest selling part of the market.” Despite this, most grip companies have capitalized on the trend, identifying a new way of increasing retail price and those famous squeezed margins.
FUTURE OF GRIP
So what does the future hold for griptape? Are we due a revolution from a technical standpoint? Despite well-oiled R&D departments, labs full of microscopes and patent filings, it’s looking unlikely.
There’s a short history of folks trying to reinvent the tape: Simon Woodstock skated his way to 9th place in a 1993 comp on a carpet-covered deck, Mob developed air bubble-preventing micro-perforations for those of you too lazy to apply grip correctly, Gou Miyagi famously skated using fabric, and a German company called “Save Your Shoes” is offering grip made out of synthetic fiber – but true product innovation remains marginal.
Sustainability is higher up the agenda, as brands like Jessup double down on using more recycled materials and enhancing manufacturing processes to limit their impact on the environment. But what’s most likely to keep on significantly changing is the market. Small griptape brands will continue to proliferate, and branding from clothing and deck companies will increasingly make their way from stickers under the board to graphics on top. “Griptape is now an item that other non-griptape brands are incorporating into their product lines, like RIPNDIP, and deck brands who are printing their own designs and logos. Everyone is trying to cash in on the top of the board – everyone wants a bite of that real estate,” says Shane Maloney at Full Circle, which makes Flypaper.
As much as it’s fun digging into the griptape world, grip is definitely one of those things you tend to only think about when it’s not quite right. A good sheet of grip is really one you don’t even notice. “If I had to bet on it,” says Labadie, “just like boards have pretty much been the same for at least the last 30 years, I’d say we’re still going to be using sandpaper for a while.”