CCS Customs X First Thursdays Interviews: Jay Howell
November 05, 2021 - CCS launches the Customs X First Thursdays program with one of our favorite artists: Jay Howell.
Words by Kevin Wilkins
It’s hard to tell how much time and effort goes into naming anything - from babies to pharmaceuticals to bands - but Paisley Skates seems to draw from a time in skateboarding when skateboarding’s artwork and icons came from a hand-made, first-try POV, which kind of lines up with a nostalgic, 80s take on psychedelics and recycled hippie stuff.
Did any of that play into the naming of PSLY or did it come from more of a “why not?” approach?My partner Paul Urich and I did indeed have a long list of possible names coming out of the winter in 2015, some of which were corny, others too on the nose, and a few that were way out in left field and still going. The one I’d kept getting stuck on was Polyester—an ode to John Waters, one of the prominent figures in our pantheon of counterculture inspirations—but then Paisley was suggested by a mutual friend of ours, Nick Halkias, and it was the first to be unanimously agreed upon. I guess it made even more sense because the paisley pattern and style has had an underlying presence throughout number of our collective influences over the years, allowing us to tap several creative avenues for graphics.
You were working as an artist for skateboard companies through the 90s when new pro graphics were getting released every few weeks and sometimes just once. Was the high turnout/turnover of material ever maddening? Is today’s pace more attractive to you? Does the output of a smaller company like Paisley Skates feel like it gives you the opportunity to err on the side of quality over quantity.Was it maddening? Yes, in a lot of respects. Personally, I caught the tailwind of the ‘80s when graphics were still kept in production for six months, so while working at Powell-Peralta in 1989 I often had a month to work on a single graphic, most of which, time was dedicated to the conceptual aspect, and the remainder being for final art execution. But by the time I started at World Industries in 1992, the churn was beginning to take off, and by 1993 it was one production run to a graphic—and we’re talking units of 200-300 boards, probably even less in 1994—before it was onto the next quick-hitter. In 2000, when I took on a full-time stint at Birdhouse and Hook-Ups, I did 52 graphics that year—one a week—and was thoroughly burnt out. Fortunately, Jeremy Klein was calling most all the art direction shots then, so conceptually I was off the hook, but it did take a toll on my drawing hand because I don’t do art the computer way. Still don’t, actually. Every graphic is drawn in pen ‘n’ ink. I did finally have to throw in the towel on cutting rubylith separations in 2010, though, so that part of the process has forced my hand to the mouse.
Anyway, you can see how and where the personality and conceptual strength of graphics started to wane in the industry, which unfortunately contributed to an overall watering down and commodification of the skateboard. Like if you looked at a CCS catalog from that time period, it mostly consisted of company-logo-based decks, and when you walked into a skateshop, the wall of boards looked more akin to something you’d expect from the ski industry.
Graphics have since bounced off that bottom, but I don’t know if the pace has really gotten better—it often seems like everyone is still scrambling in some respect for catalog- and sales-quota sake; however, there’s definitely more diversification now in shapes and offerings with a greater emphasis on “collaborative” artist boards. With regard to Paisley, though, yes, it does offer us a bit more flexibility to focus on the concepts and art, which, in the end, is perhaps my primary hope: to have graphics with legs to run more than just one time through production.
Everything’s a collaboration; everything’s a remix; everything’s appropriation. Do you feel like you need to run away from those specific everythings to produce the graphics for Paisley or are those elements that you’d rather lean into and see what comes from owing those cultural engines?Ultimately, I think it all comes down to visibility in a world gone information mad. There’s this documentary on Alan Moore, the British comic book writer, and he theorizes that at the rate we’re all going—the exponential rate at which the sheer quantity of information is being churned out, consumed, digested, and discarded on a daily basis—we as a species will turn into steam … or something like that. I don’t know, he’s pretty out there and my mental capacity can be equated to an eight-year-old pooping in the shallow end of a municipal pool at times, but even I can see the frightening pace at which the internet is chaotically transforming our world. I’m already in danger of tangentially losing the point of your question, but a certain episode of The Twilight Zone comes to mind, “The Obsolete Man,” and I can’t help but feel the fanciful science fiction of the story is fast becoming dystopian science fact.
But yeah, visibility - it’s all about what can grab and hold the diminished attention spans in the fastest way possible, trump up the ordinary, everyday product release, or at the very least slow the vertical thumb-scroll long enough to attain a "like." Cultural appropriation is the first easy foot in the door: Simpsons-this, pizza-that, zombie-fy, in ad nauseam. For example, I was in the skateshop yesterday and no less than three different board companies had something David Bowie going on graphic-wise with the Aladdin Sane motif - insane indeed. Imagine that! But I’ll be the first to enter the guilty plea on that front, as well. We’re no different with Paisley and the graphic stories we pursue. It’s fun to riff off these pop-culture tunes and turn them into something new, absurd, or just plain wrong. The danger in doing this, of course, is colliding head-on with another company and coming out the weaker of the two... or three.
Speaking of the race to pop-culture middle-ground turned absurd, I’ve never thought of robed, cloven hoofed, real-estate scammer getting a pedicure while snacking on baby-American eyeballs. Before you sat down to draw The Devil’s Pedicure board, had you really thought of that, either?Okay, well, here’s a haphazard evolution for you. There’s a song by the Arctic Monkeys called “The Hellcat Spangled Shalala” that includes the lyric snippet: “Her steady hands may well have done / the Devil’s pedicure.” I liked the arty visual of that—the Devil himself getting a pedicure - but then Donald Trump came along and the idea of a traditional red devil was supplanted by a more current-events-oriented white devil. Bear in mind, this graphic was done in the early summer of 2016, well before the election outcome in November, and his entire campaign reeked of a joke being played upon the American people... a joke that was only getting more and more ridiculous in a very Looney Tunes manner, hence the “Fuck You Folks!” Trump feasting upon an American flag-swaddled baby was inspired by the line, “America will eat their own,” but then there’s also this quote from Benjamin Franklin that goes, "Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you."
Anyway, the one major critique I received about this graphic—aside from the “keep politics out of skateboarding” crowd and a startling amount of Trump supporters in the skate community - is that Trump would never use chopsticks. Granted, I don’t always have the best rationale for what I do, if ever, but I sincerely feel the chopsticks were warranted because this would be his twisted way of trying to culturally identify with the Asian woman tending to his hooves. Similar to when he posted, "Happy Cinco De Mayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!"
What a maroon.
Ultra maroon.Haha, so you’re guided by voices, too. Or at least Robert Pollard’s voice.
Total brainwash victim. Yeah. I know it’s a cynical outlook, but it seems like everything in skateboarding starts small, and as they try to scale up (or blow up, depending on who’s steering the ship) shoe companies, clothing companies, and hardgoods companies have a hard time holding water once they get to a certain "bigness." Do you have any theories about why that happens over and over in skateboarding? And have you considered keeping Paisley a certain "smallness" to avoid the self-destruction associated with growing a skateboard brand too large or is that just kind of built into the way you guys do things?Money is as evil does... or something like that. But if ever there was a razor’s edge, it’s being successful in the skate industry. No matter how good the intention may be, the bigger the machine gets, the more it takes to operate with a lot more scrutiny going into the bottom line. “Just doing what needs to be done to keep the lights on,” as some would say, I suppose.
I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum over the years. First coming into Powell-Peralta at the pinnacle of their success in 1989, only to watch it crumble spectacularly within a few short years as the lumbering giant could no longer move fast enough to adapt to a swiftly changing industry. Then over at World Industries, where they embraced the eventual rise in popularity of skateboarding and purposely blew up the brand with the intent to cash out big time. For myself, I’ve always been my own worst business manager, so I’ve pursued freedom and fun über alles, which is its own special brand of self-destruction.
Did you know there are skate companies with legal teams that review graphics for "risk assessment" purposes? It’s true! I much prefer flying under the mainstream radar and happily cutting off my nose to spite my face. For instance, there’s not a single company out there that would tolerate a fourteen-color screenprint job on a deck - especially a deck that’s meant to be skated (not touted as some contrived, limited-edition, collectible bullshit) - because it blatantly makes no economic sense whatsoever. For now, however, we have that freedom to do as we please with Paisley, which makes it all the more fun to push beyond the bean-counting boundaries.
Honestly, though, I have a lot of respect for Jim Thiebaud and the Deluxe camp. They’re one of the very few to sustain a consistent core credibility over the years and that is not at all an easy feat in skateboarding.
We all want to be a part of and contribute to skateboarding—this thing that gives skaters so much. And even before it was DIY, skaters did just that … (y)ourselves. But can you give us one or two tips on what to do (or not to do) if the good people want to start their own brand, draw their own graphics, shape their own boards, and try to stand up to the ethos of the PSLY?As always, you’d first have to ask, "What would Jesus do?" Then do the exact opposite. No, that’s not helpful, especially since he was a world-renowned carpenter and everyone knows you can’t get anymore DIY than that. But I really have no earth-shattering wisdom to impart... I’ve always tried to live, thrive, and survive by the adage: Do what you love. Other than that useless and trite tip, please just do whatever it takes to keep skateboarding a wonderfully weird and creatively fucked up place to be.