Stuart Smith, (more commonly known these days as ‘Lovenskate Stu’) started his own board brand in 2001. Back then Stu was fresh out of University where he’d studied a degree in fine art printing, and with the help of his parents, who donated their garage space to the emerging Lovenskate empire, Stu embarked on turning what he’d learned in academia into a skateboard brand with a clear vision of what it wanted to be.
Thirteen years later and whilst staying true to his original ideals, Stu now employs a couple of full time staff members, travels all over the world doing bespoke printing work for all manner of clients, and, most importantly for the matter at hand, has grown Lovenskate from a one-man operation based in his parent’s garage, into a respected domestic board company with riders, videos and European distribution. We caught up with the permanently hyped Mr. Smith recently over a cup of tea to discuss the craft of screen-printing, his personal influences, and why he decided to drop a board graphic paying homage to the Kurdish YPG.- For more on what Lovenskate do go to www.lovenskate.com
I’m assuming that the lion’s share of responsibility for the graphic output of the company is yours: is that right?
Yeah, I’d say I do about 70% of the graphics…
You produce your graphics in a very traditional hands-on manner, rather than opting for the industrial techniques favoured by a large proportion of the skate industry: is that reflected in the end outcome of the graphics you work on?
Yeah, without being too nerdy about it, it’s called ‘process-led design’ so anything you design, you work within the confines of the methods with which you’re going to produce the finished article. We print using silk screens, use certain inks and use certain shaped screens so that sort of dictates what you can and can’t reproduce as far as artwork is concerned. Also it has a very particular look that I love so I’m not really ‘shackled by the limitations of screen-printing’ because I’m fully into the specific look and aesthetic that screen-printing gives to skateboards. It’s a definite choice for me.
How much time and work goes into each graphic?
Quite a lot to be honest: I’d say the average skateboard graphic that we produce will have 5 colours, and each layer of that image needs to be made, either in Photoshop or cut out by hand, and if you choose that option then you’re limited as to how much detail you can have, dependent on your control of the knife. When you’re creating layers physically like that it always looks stylized, more so than if you create perfect lines with a computer.
So there’s a definite craft aspect to the process?
Absolutely, it’s very time-consuming but the end result is much more interesting for me precisely because it’s not perfect: I think graphics produced in that way have something that perfectly executed art work that uses industrial techniques don’t have…
Are there particular graphic artists who have influenced your approach?
Yeah plenty: obviously people like the Pop Artists have had an influence on me, Rauschenberg, Warhol, all the obvious ones. Also an artist called John Baldessari who is an American artist who uses a lot of screen printing techniques in his work, lots of big flat colour with found images, photographs and whatnot. He definitely influenced me as I really like that collage style, the way you can take images and text and change the context to come up with new meanings.
There’s a definite political element to collage-based artwork, does that appeal to you in the sense of being to create a message within the piece?
Definitely. The Russian Constructivist movement are responsible for that kind of revolutionary approach to making art – repurposing found images and text and incorporating it into their own stuff – kind of classic Socialist imagery I guess…
What about within skateboarding culture – which graphic artists influenced you within skateboarding?
When I first started skating around 25 years ago the vast majority of skateboard graphics were still being produced with screens in the same way that I make them. It’s process-led design at work again, because working like that meant that they couldn’t just use a full-colour photograph based graphic, they had to work within the boundaries of the process. Artists like Steve Walker and Jim Phillips, they were very aware of the limitations of the process and what you could do with flat colour screen printing and hand-cut stencils, and because of that they innovated and took risks to make their graphics, which are still popular today and considered to be classics within the genre of skateboard graphic art. It’s definitely easier to use industrial techniques but for me, and many other people if the re-issue market is anything to go on, the end result of traditionally produced graphics just has something special to it…
I do have this belief that if something takes a long time to make and the process involved is dirty and physical and hands-on that the thing that is produced as an end result is king of a ‘luxury item’ in a way.
I’m assuming that a lot of current skateboarding graphic output is fairly uninspiring to you then, looked at from that perspective at least?
Yeah, as far as the actual look of the vast majority of contemporary graphics goes, I’d say that it feels to me as if something has been lost. It’s down to what you can do with modern heat transfer printing techniques – you can literally just take a photograph from the Internet and print it identically straight onto a skateboard. Speaking personally, there’s very little to challenge you there: either from the point of view of creating graphics, or from the consumer’s perspective. Whereas back when screen-printing was the norm, every time a graphic was produced the artist was physically cutting the key line out by hand. The key line is the final black line that forms the outline of whatever it is that you’re printing and ties in all the other colours together. You can see this in the early Sean Cliver graphics for example, where it’s clear that he has hand cut the key lines as precisely as he was able to, but looked at from today’s perspective they’re not perfectly precise, which is what gives Cliver’s earliest stuff its specific look in my opinion.
So what you’re describing in essence is the difference between a human-led process and outcome versus a mechanised or industrialised one?
Yeah exactly, and because of that it is difficult to adequately explain the difference if people aren’t invested in one of the two aesthetics I suppose.
It’s almost an intangible difference between the two but it’s instantly noticeable when you look at two graphics side by side, which have been produced using the traditional and industrial process – well for me at least. I’m not a collector of skateboards by any means but I’ve got a few old 80’s boards and it’s really interesting to see the process within the graphic. I’ve got a Vision Mark Gonzales board for example, not the original one, the 87 version, and on there you can see where the artist had used pieces of tape and the marks where the stencils had been cut by hand which gives it a kind of sketchy look. To actually see that, the process by which this thing was created, that’s what gets me excited about graphics. It shows the time and effort and human involvement that has been put into the graphic, which for me gives it more value as a ‘thing’. Ironically though, I’m well aware that however important this might be to me, the vast majority of people out there probably don’t give a shit, (laughing). And that’s fine too. It is interesting that there are these two takes on it though and that’s part of what makes skateboarding so fascinating…
Isn’t there an element of nostalgia at work here though?
I guess so, but talking purely from a personal point of view that can’t be the only reason why people gravitate towards graphics produced in a traditional way otherwise I’d never see anyone under the age of 30 riding Lovenskate boards, (laughs). The whole reissue market is definitely influenced by nostalgia, whereby people want to possess boards that remind them of a certain point in their childhood, but going on what we do as a company, it seems as if there are plenty of younger skaters that like the end result of process-led graphic printing too.
I’m not really ‘shackled by the limitations of screen-printing’ because I’m fully into the specific look and aesthetic that screen-printing gives to skateboards. It’s a definite choice for me.
From your perspective as a company owner/screen-printer/graphic artist: what is the purpose of skateboard graphics in a more general sense?
That’s a difficult question to answer but I’ll give it a go. What I can say is that although I’ve never made a conscious decision to not make logo boards I guess by not making them for my own company I’m kind of setting out a sense of what I think skate graphics are for. Without wanting to sound like a “it’s a platform for my vision man" type of ponce, (laughs), as I hate that shit but, I think it would be such a shame to reduce the possibilities of what you can put on a skateboard to a basic brand-based image. It’s really hard to think of a better answer to your question...
Do you have a message? Is that the motivation?
Well honestly, part of it is personal self-indulgence without a doubt. I’m able to make graphics in the manner I personally prefer because I have the facilities to do so. But beyond that, I genuinely love the look of the end result and I love it far more than a digitally outputted heat transfer board. The final result, for me at least, justifies the extra effort that goes into using more traditional methods because when the boards are finished and sitting in piles ready to go out, I think they have much stronger look. As I say it’s difficult to put my finger on the ‘why’ but I do have this belief that if something takes a long time to make and the process involved is dirty and physical and hands-on that the thing that is produced as an end result is kind of a ‘luxury item’ in a way.
But at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that it should be that way. It’s a consequence of the way consumerism works I guess – to me if you’re running a business making something (whether it’s skateboards or food, or furniture or whatever) then wanting to create a ‘luxury item’ for the end consumer should just be standard practice, even though clearly that’s not the case. Obviously this is going into a wider debate and you can apply the same idea that I’ve expressed to anything really but I’m of the opinion that although the process takes longer and might be a little self-indulgent and, more obviously is definitely not the most economically sensible way of doing things – that it is still the best way to go about making skateboards. I believe in doing it this way basically…
That leads us on perfectly to the specific reason we’re chatting Stu, which is to discuss the back-story behind the new ‘Devrim Zamani’ board that Lovenskate have just released. Tell us about where the idea for this particular graphic came from please…
I went to pick up a van in Leyton with Ewen Bower to go and transport a flat bed printer, a sticker-printing machine; I was a bit early so I went into a little Kurdish owned mini market to get a drink. When I went to the counter to pay, the guy sitting there was reading a paper called ‘Politik Art’ which was a cultural supplement from a Kurdish language newspaper. On the front page was one big photograph of a very pretty girl holding a rocket launcher with a whole load of other pictures of women dressed in camo gear holding AK47s. It was a really striking image, even though at the time I didn’t know who she was or what the photograph meant. On the back of the same supplement was a picture of butterflies in the countryside. The juxtaposition struck me so I asked the guy what it was about. He went on to explain that it was an article about female freedom fighters up in the Kurdish controlled Syrian mountains who are part of something called the ‘YPG’ in Kurdish and the ‘People’s Protection Units’ in English.
So the girl on the board is a member of the female corps of the YPG?
Yeah that’s right. The guy explained to me in fairly broken English about what these female fighters were doing and gave me the paper to take with me.
I went home and read a little bit more about it to try and find out whom these people were fighting for because I found it fascinating. The more I found out about the YPG, the more interested I became. They’d gone into the Syrian mountains to help protect the Yazidi people who were being forcibly removed and murdered by groups under the banner of ISIL, and weren’t motivated by any particular religious perspective from what I could work out – they’d just taken it upon themselves to stop the slaughter and displacement of innocent people.
Why did you decide to put the female fighter on the board? Is it an act of support?
On some levels it is yeah but not solely for the YPG. I love the idea that in a part of the world where gender roles are much more stringently applied than in the West, that this feminist group had taken it upon them selves to protect the Kurdish people and those who they felt couldn’t protect them selves. One thing I loved about the Kurdish people’s attitude from what I found out after first seeing this newspaper photograph is that theirs is a very secular society, with many different religious groups living together, who have been massively persecuted over the years and yet the YPG, and these feminist guerillas in particular, have taken up arms for the good of everybody. I thought that was amazing.
The text on the board, ‘Devrim Zamani’ means ‘Revolution Now’ in Kurdish, and is used in a lot of hash tags and what have you within Kurdish culture.
Do you know the name of the woman on the board?
No I don’t actually.
It just occurred to me that Lovenskate is probably the only male-owned UK skateboard company who sponsor a female skateboarder as well. Is there a connection?
Yeah, before I decided to make this graphic I actually sent the idea over to Lucy (Adams) to see what she thought of it. I explained a bit about it to her and she liked it. Without wanting to stretch it too much, it did seem to me to relate to women within skateboarding on some level, as well as just being this incredibly striking image, even if you don’t know what it is referring to.
There’s also another aspect to it because we printed the board using CMYK in the same way that newspapers are printed and that’s a particularly complicated way to screen print boards. I’d never done a graphic that way before but I thought ‘fuck it, I’ll give it a try’ using a brand new water-based ink which I hadn’t used before as well. I just thought it would be funny to tie the process itself into the ‘Revolution Now’ message and try something new that was quite revolutionary, for me at least. I don't want that to take away from the power of the image or what it represents though and I’m not trying to piggyback off it, but everything just tied together perfectly on this board.
Thanks very much Stu, let’s end this on an obvious one. What else is on the horizon for Lovenskate in 2015?
We’re actually filming for a video at the moment, I’m not entirely sure what format it will come out on, whether it’ll be DVD or online but we’re well into the process of doing it. We’ve got a bunch of new graphics coming out straight away as well, and we have a new member of staff starting with us to help with all the printing that we do for other clients. Hopefully that’ll give me a bit more time to work on interesting ideas like this one.
The text on the board, ‘Devrim Zamani’ means ‘Revolution Now’ in Kurdish...