Todd Francis belongs to a rare breed of artists who have parlayed raw talent into commercial success. A product of the creative collision between the visual arts and skateboarding in the 1990s, he has managed to occupy a specialized niche of the art world with both his street cred and his integrity intact.
Along with a degree of self-awareness and common sense unusual in someone driven by an undeniably wild imagination, Francis can credit at least some of his success to a longtime love of…birds. It’s an affinity he’s been cultivating ever since he made a name for himself as the visual mastermind behind Antihero’s famous pigeon logo—arguably the skate-world equivalent of Raymond Pettibon’s Black Flag design.
Since then, the native Californian, who grew up skating the boardwalks of Venice, has designed countless graphics for brands including HUF, Spitfire, Nike and the NBA. Most recently, he collaborated with Vans on Worst of the Worst, a sweeping retrospective featuring Francis’s refreshingly un-PC skate graphics, along with rarer examples of his more traditional (but still irreverent) fine art.
The traveling exhibit, which launched in Brooklyn, is currently on view this weekend at Shepard Fairey’s Los Angeles gallery, Subliminal Projects—another baby born of that 1990s cross-pollination of art and skate culture. PLAYBOY sat down with Francis and Fairey to discuss the current state of that relationship and Francis’s role within it.
Todd, this retrospective is a tour de force representing many facets of your career, from a Costco-size inventory of skateboard decks to a strangely introspective illustration of fucked-up pigeons ruminating on Kim Kardashian’s butt. What’s your main inspiration right now?
FRANCIS: My main focus on a daily basis remains doing graphics for Antihero. I was there from the start and I’m there now and it’s still really fun. So day in and day out, a big part of my thought process is “What’s the next thing for them?” I also do a monthly piece for Penthouse and have a lot of other clients I’m juggling. Whether it’s skateboard or clothing graphics or studio art shows or stuff for print, I’m always thinking about the next, hopefully interesting, idea for the people I work with. I don’t generally look too far to the horizon, though, because I’m always under a deadline and engaged in what I’m doing at this moment.
What’s your favorite piece in the show, and why?
FAIREY: “Thanks a Lot” —a large-format charcoal piece of a wolf and a bear in trees, with a flooded landscape below. I love it because it’s beautifully rendered and has a lot of depth compared to the screen-printed skateboard graphics of Todd’s that you usually see. But it still has a punky defiance to it; it’s just delivered with a more elegant style.
FRANCIS: That’s sort of like picking your favorite child. I don’t really have a set favorite. My favorite thing about the show and the weird life that I live in general is that I get to dance around among a bunch of different mediums, so I never really get bored. Doing those big charcoal drawings is physically the most fun because it’s this large-scale challenge, but I get just as much joy out of seeing a skateboard series come out as well as I’d hoped. Also, since it’s a retrospective, you get to boil it down to your favorite stuff and leave all the other stuff in a box at home. Every day there will be a different favorite depending on how angry I’m feeling.
Subliminal Projects has always made a point of spotlighting known and unknown talent, from Michelle Guintu to Banksy. Shepard, what do you look for when choosing an artist to exhibit?
FAIREY: I’m looking for whether they have a unique style and voice, to see if it’s work I think deserves to have the spotlight put on it. I tend to like risk-takers and people who are outspoken, but those aren’t requirements—some very soft-spoken people, from Raymond Pettibon to Ravi Zupa with his Black Lives series, are making work that speaks loudly for itself.
How did this show with Todd come about, aside from the clear connections both of you have to skateboarding and graphic design?
FAIREY: I first met Todd 21 years ago and have liked his work ever since. My background is in skateboarding and punk rock, so the skateboarding connection, as well as the irreverence in Todd’s work, have always resonated with me. Worst of the Worst was a result of working with Todd in a group show of skateboard artists, Agents Provocateurs, at Subliminal in 2015. We stayed in touch, and when the opportunity to show his solo retrospective came around, we were excited to host it with Vans.
Who are some of the most interesting artists on your radar right now—from the skateboarding world or elsewhere?
FAIREY: I think Ben Horton is doing some amazing board graphics and fine art. He’s clearly influenced by Raymond Pettibon but also brings his own flavor to the mix. I’ve always been a fan of the playfulness and spontaneity of Mark Gonzales’s work. Evan Hecox’s boards for Chocolate have always had the perfect balance of illustration, design and color theory. Not everyone can make his or her fine-art style translate to screen-printed board graphics, but Evan has mastered that.
Todd, you clearly have a solid relationship with birds. What’s the story behind the pigeons?
FRANCIS: The pigeon thing started with Antihero. At the time, we were all living in San Francisco, and San Francisco in the early 1990s was a much different place than it is now. It was pretty grimy. There have always been street pigeons everywhere, and they’re not exactly the master race of street pigeons—they’re pretty messed up. You’re generally looking at pigeons who are missing toes or eyes or have big bald spots. San Francisco is extremely dense, and whenever you have that kind of density, I think the pigeons sort of bear the brunt of the damage. The New York pigeons and the San Francisco pigeons really take a hit. A city’s only as pretty as its pigeons, I guess. Anyway, when we were talking about a team identity for Antihero, the writers came up with the idea of a really grizzled, sort of tough but damaged street pigeon as the logo. It was eventually replaced with the eagle and different things, but I always enjoyed the street pigeons. The Antihero pigeon has this rough sense of humor that I’ve never really walked away from, and I’ve been doing them ever since.
You’ve both had prolific relationships with art and skateboarding that date back to the 1990s. How would you describe the relationship between those two worlds today?
FAIREY: When we originally founded Subliminal as a skateboard brand in 1996, the concept was to highlight the relationship between art and skateboarding by giving artists pro models. Since then, the creative nature of skateboarding and its relationship to visual art has been acknowledged more and more culturally. A lot of skateboarders are excellent artists, but I think they’d be able to succeed as artists regardless of what skateboarding’s creative cachet is at this point. I’m happy that skateboard culture has been acknowledged here and there by the art world, but skateboarders probably don’t care that much because they have their own scene on their own terms.
FRANCIS: I think it’s changed a lot, in the last five years especially. The graphics are so much more wide open. When you walk into a skate shop now, there are a lot more schools of thought on graphics and an almost art school kind of approach that a lot of companies are taking. It’s a little more abstract and relies more heavily on Photoshop. Part of this is because of the things you can do with heat-transfer graphics, which is a way of printing that’s different from when I got my start in the 1990s, when everything was hand separated. Now you can print perfect photos on skateboards and it looks like it came out of a laser printer. The boundless possibilities have opened things up. The scale has changed. You get a lot more abstract expressionism. Skateboarding is also obviously a lot more popular now than it was back then. There’s greater variety than there’s ever been, and I think that’s commendable.
Do you see a distinction between the artists from back when you started and artists who are doing skate graphics now?
FRANCIS: I think the main difference is that a lot of people doing it now have been doing it for a short period of time, so they haven’t necessarily made names for themselves. Will they be able to keep it up? Will they be able to sustain a vision, or are they looking at skate graphics as a launching pad for their art careers? Maybe I’m one of the weirdos. I’ve been doing it for a very long time and I still love it more than anything else I can do. I’ve stuck around and have never used it to leverage some other type of career. I’m just still really passionate about skate graphics. I think I’m the weirdo, because most people with more business sense, or people better at seeing the horizon, have leveraged it to maybe more well-rounded careers. I think a lot of people today will say things like “Hey, I did a set of skateboard graphics for so and so, and then people saw me do that, and then I went on to do a bunch of stuff for Urban Outfitters,” or some shit like that. I just sort of question the sincerity of that, that’s all. That’s not my thing.
Worst of the Worst Antihero and Beyond: A Todd Francis Art Retrospective is on display at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park, Los Angeles, through August 12, 2017.
All images courtesy of Morgan Rindengan