Below is a conversation between Bender Hardware Atlanta legend Jeremiah Babb and Slapstik artist Shawn Beeks. These two have known each other for more than 20 years and spoke in July 2017 about the skateboard industry, art, and what it means to be yourself. Additional images and interviews from this time period can be found in zine inserts of the Slapstik Skateboard Art Safety Face 2 deck available online and in select skate shops.
JB----1996, Why start a skateboard company? How did you find sources for boards, printing shirts, stickers, etc?
SB - In 1996, I was splitting my time drawing and painting at the University of Georgia and skating with a core group of about 15 guys all over Athens. I knew at some point I would need to start selling artwork, but couldn't figure out how to do it since it was pretty heavy handed. Skateboarding was going through a period where outsider companies like Calvin Klein and the Army were posting ads in magazines, conflicting with the identity and code of skateboarding that I grew up with in the mid to late 80s. Starting a board company was the best way for me to voice my ideas and beliefs while promoting the artwork coming out of my studio. What it also did was show others with similar beliefs and thoughts that they weren't alone with the voices in their heads, and it was ok to question the things going on at the time. As far as resources go, my friend Woody started a company called Pickle and needed someone to do the art. Woody eventually got out of selling boards and I kind of took over his production account with the manufacture. I worked as a screen printer at Screeners run by a guy named Jeff who allowed us to print shirts on our own time, which give me the hands on experience of learning how printing and design worked. Stickers anyone could get through a supplier called Sticker Guy, who I still use today. Most of this stuff is accessible to everyone with the internet. In 1996 you just had to try a little harder.
----You hand drew every board graphic to size, right? Why go that obviously difficult route? Although there was one Raped Inc logo board, every board has been meticulous art, to scale, right? And primarily black and white.
Right. Up until 2002 I drew everything, including the color separations, by hand. I'm a classically trained artist who entered school at a time when programs like Illustrator and Photoshop were being introduced to the students. I can be really stubborn, and didn't want to change no matter how much more time it took. All the graphics were drawn to scale with pencils, pens, brushes and whiteout pens, and they took forever to complete. Making them black and white cut down on the production time and forced the viewer to pay attention to the message. I didn't see the point in hiding a message behind pretty colors, at least not at the time.
----Each graphic had serious meanings behind them. beaten women, business men using the backs of others as a ladder, Jesus crucified backwards, insulting the Olympics, the CK One graphic, what was the response from shops in the deep south when you showed up with these boards? Was it totally over their heads, or did they even notice the graphics?
HAHA! Everyone noticed the graphics. If they didn't at first, they pulled them from the wall or spray painted over them. Most shops didn't really know what to do. I remember walking into shops and seeing challenging, even offensive graphics covering the racks, but that's what made skateboarding so good. You were sometimes forced into uncomfortable situations, whether physically in the act of skating, or intellectually when looking at art by Mark Mckee or Jim Phillips. Most shops in the southeast didn't get it. They were afraid to ask what the graphics meant, and just as afraid of having customers get offended for not asking as well. One thing I can say is the shops that did ask why were typically the ones who bought the decks and supported the brand because they could understand it.
----I heard the rumor that after the wood shop got the graphics for one particular board, there was a phone call made to you.
You're talking about the backwards crucifixion. Yeah, I got a call from my manufacture about a week after I mailed the artwork and was told he didn't really feel comfortable printing an image of Jesus on the cross mooning you. We had a good talk about its commentary on the branding of religion and he agreed to print it. I'm glad he called and wanted to talk about it rather than just refusing to do it. Again, that represents what skateboarding could be, stopping to ask why before accepting what's put before your wallet.
---- How did Jamie Thomas come to criticize and confront you about not only the name, Raped Inc, but the board graphics?
Where do I begin with this one. Each year, between 96 and 98 all of us in Athens would take a road trip to contest at Tampa to hang out and eventually find our way to Ebor City. I believe it was 97 when I brought a few shirts with me to the contest to get some feedback from people in the industry. I ran into Jamie Thomas and offered him a shirt with the mission statement on it because he was a big name leading the market at the time and I respected his opinion. He took a look at it, long enough to read the name, and handed it back to me stating "You won't sell anything with that name." I wasn't prepared for that because it contradicted his rebellious image, but it did let me know he was first and foremost a businessman. That's all there really is to say about that.
---- I'm sure people, open minded skaters such as DLX, had more of an understanding, right?
Not really. Large brands like DLX do a lot for people under their tent and communities throughout the country, but one thing you have to remember is none of it has a chance to go unnoticed. It's all PR. They're very smart in the way that they've figured out how to maintain their sales by churning out bright, eye catching graphics capable of poking fun of things, but never digging underneath the surface to address serious problems. The best comparison I can think of is a Warhol factory with 15 minutes of fame on a constant loop. There's no room for substance because it will get drowned out by the noise.
----There was always a team, but it never felt like the team was selling the boards. It felt like people were all in or disgusted based on the name and art alone. The team just seemed to be almost the dudes who were carrying a flag and supporting the ideas and direction. Does that make sense? How did you come up with choosing the team?
Yeah, for the most part, that makes sense. I looked for people I could hold a conversation with, enjoyed skating with, and most importantly had a desire to contribute to the image and ideas of the company. In that sense, it was more like a conversation rather than a sponsorship. I could always count on Chris Head to contribute some crazy ideas going well beyond what I thought I could get away with, which gave me a good starting point to work away from. Tyler Kline was always a source for abstract, borderline conspiracy theory input that's gotten more passionate over the years. Jeremiah, Mike Summers, and Nick Turner all fueled with the company with youth and excitement of what was possible on and off a skateboard. It was enjoyable just to watch people grow up.
---- I think that's one of the biggest points missed by kids, is that it really is all business. Every company that's marketed and put out there lives and dies by sales. And it seems that the majority of the "owners" whether they're who the magazines portray them to be or the money behind the scenes, would happily say, "Well, that was fun while it lasted. What’s my next investment?" or, how can we re-brand this into a modern company that kids will buy. It's a shame that reality isn't the romantic video/magazine persona. I've had many times during my sponsor-life, aka the best damn intern you'll ever have, that I said to people, "I should have just stuck with Shawn. At least he's true and I fully believe the vision."
As much as I would have liked to keep riders on indefinitely, I realized that it was in their best interest to see what the rest of the industry was like, even if just to give them some perspective on how it works. I remember telling everyone riding for me that raped inc. or Slapstik was just stepping stone to help them along to sponsors that could do more for them. It was really hard to tell someone that I didn't think it was right for them to come back to the company because as much as I may have wanted to support them, I knew that their ideas and skills needed a place of their own to grow without the limitations of my brands. Sometimes believing in something isn't always the best feeling.
---But the news is just a filtered version of happenings, right? People are super opinionated now, violently at times, but surely there are things to address and ways to do it. I thought the drawing with the Islam water fountain ripped off the wall was brilliant. It was truly a raped inc graphic. And finally, if people are being silenced by those in power, do you think those people are trying to gain some form of power themselves? I know that's not skateboard related, like we're speaking of, but the best thing about your art and brand is that there has never been a struggle for power or acceptance. It's here, 22 years, and if you're interested, come around it. It's been my favorite thing about Raped Inc and Slapstik. Terrible "marketing" strategy, but beautifully romantic, and exactly how I grew up skating and pulling from punk rock tunes.
The majority of the news has been curated in a lot of media outlets to echo the opinions of the people watching it, but that doesn't mean that all the news you may disagree with is "fake." It just means you have to look at multiple news sources from around the world to get a better view of what's happening here. I think your statement about the news easily applies itself to marketing in skateboarding. Kids want to be entertained with images and videos that fit their beliefs and lifestyles. Anything stripped of those elements that boost their self-esteem is often seen as a threat and dismissed. Think of Stereo in the 90s, and more recently Dylan when he rode for Gravis. If you didn't fit, you were dismissed. I've just tried to be a honest as possible, which as you know is a terrible marketing strategy in an industry that is built on fantasies.
---- Do they owe us a living?
Of course they do.