American Board

Slick skateboard retrospective celebrates gnarliest names in art and design


By Joe Nolan / Photographs courtesy of the Museum of Design Atlanta

Skate It or Hang It may not seem like a completely silly title for a show about skateboard art and design, but having seen this exhibit at the Museum of Design Atlanta, I can assure you, this show isn’t just fun and games. A sprawling display of boards by some of the biggest artists and designers in the history of the sport, Skate is a primer on boarding culture, a history lesson in underground art and an inspired celebration of DIY aesthetics.

Skate traces the evolution of skateboard graphics from the 1970’s to the present. The show even touches on the very earliest skateboard designs, citing the efforts of “sidewalk surfing” pioneers who fashioned primitive boards by attaching roller skate wheels to plain wooden planks. Skateboarding as the expressive, acrobatic freestyle sport we know it as today developed in the empty swimming pools left in the wake of the 1976 California drought.

As the skating changed, so did the skateboards. Skaters started adding hand-drawn designs to their rides, creating unique looks for themselves and their teams. These early efforts evolved into stylized screen prints and eventually into the heat-transfer images that grew in popularity in the early 2000’s. This technique allows an artist to wrap a board in imagery from edge to edge. Heat transfer has liberated contemporary creators while simultaneously being rejected by “old school” traditionalists.

In Skate’s main gallery, a succession of rounded rectangles traces the development of skateboards, highlighting both their structural and artistic evolution. The earliest boards are much fatter than their contemporary counterparts and many of today’s boards have kicktails at both the front and back of the board – an added advantage when it comes to performing tricks.

Just as the shapes of boards have changed so have their looks. The Sims Skateboard Company issued a signature board for star rider Christian Hosoi in 1983. Featuring a Japanese-flag-inspired rising sun theme, the board echoed the use of similar imagery in the break dancing and early hip-hop cultures of the time while also paying homage to Hosoi’s Japanese heritage.

Throughout the chronological display, the graphics change with the times, reflecting everything from Star Wars to Suicide Girls to images of Jesus to Skate Mafia’s “Girl” series that’s a pop reflection of internet pornography culture. For me, the highlight of the show was a board designed by the legendary Wes Humpston. In the 1970’s Humpston was one of the original “Z Boys” on the pioneering Dogtown team. Humpston’s 1976 board is a battered, unfinished wooden model with an early version of the Dogtown cross symbol scrawled on its belly with a magic marker.

Despite all the fancier, high-tech hardware on display, nothing in the show says more about the punk rock self-reliance, the street-smart inspiration or the sheer gutsiness of skateboarding than this does.

Special thanks to Laura Flusche, Ph.D., Associate Director
Museum of Design Atlanta
1315 Peachtree Street
Atlanta, GA 30309
Phone: 404.979.6455

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