For W. Todd Vaught, hawking the dozens of old-school skate decks he'd accumulated during a work project on Craiglist or eBay wasn't an option. He called the Museum of Design Atlanta and pitched a skateboard design exhibit instead. MODA jumped at the idea and suddenly Vaught, an industrial designer, found himself the curator/creative force behind Skate it or Hang it!?, opening June 16.
Vaught grew up skating and obsessing over his boards' graphics: "Everybody would kind of mess with me about it, like, 'Dude you don't need to be riding these things because you don't want them to be scratched,'" he says. Skate it or Hang it!? indulges Vaught's teenage obsession and offers some context for the art and cultural scenes that sprung up around skateboarding with more than 175 decks from the '70s to the present, work by a dozen design heavy-hitters, including Sean Cliver, Wes Humpston, and Michael Sieben, as well as installations by local artists HENSE and Charlie Owens. To open the exhibition, Vaught and MODA are shutting down Peachtree Street from the Fox Theatre to 16th Street to host a Skate Parade and skate demos by New York's 5boro crew.
How did this project come about?
I was working on project for AOL, which had just bought this little blog office down in Orlando. I just wanted to get like 100 skateboards, old classic skateboard graphics, and hang them on the wall and then get a graffiti artist to come in and tag all the walls. So I bought all these boards and [AOL said], "What if we actually just painted the boards and hung them up and they were sort of this composition of graffiti on these boards?" I was like, shit man, I don't want to screw up all the graphics on the boards. I went online and bought a bunch of blanks. I kept all the boards and sent the blanks down there. Now I suddenly have 40 skateboard decks that I don't know what to do with. I started talking to MODA and they were looking for ideas for future shows and I thought, "They'll never go for this but I'll throw it out there ..."
How many boards are in the show?
There are more than 175 boards in one gallery. The goal is to see the chronological change of how these skateboard graphics have evolved.
Did you have to purchase all the boards?
We borrowed a lot from a lot of collectors. Very early on it was impossible to even get collectors to talk to me. There is this whole underground world of skateboard collecting. Certain boards go for $6,000 or $7,000 [on eBay]. It's crazy.
So why didn't they want to exhibit them?
Because they were like, if anything happens to them, my $7,000 deck has just been scratched. But once this whole thing got put together and I got people involved, like their heroes from when they were little they started emailing me out of the blue: "Hey! I've got this giant collection!" So I've taken a couple of them up on it and borrowed some boards that are really hard to find because some of these things are just gone. There's one particular board I had, and I think one sold on eBay for $9,000 or $10,000 and you cannot find them. They don't exist anymore, the originals, so we don't have all originals.
Now that you've curated this exhibit, what has it revealed about skateboard art?
There are a couple of things that shifted the paradigm of skateboard art of the '80s to today. One is simply technology. Back then everything was screen-printed, which meant [designs] had to lay down flat. But because of the [concave] shape of the boards, where the tail is, you couldn't do anything. All the graphics had to be right in the middle. Now screen-printing isn't the only way. A lot of the boards [are designed using] a heat transfer process. Because it's pliable it allows [the designers] to put graphics from edge to edge. So it's this huge technological advancement that changed the way that graphics can go over the entire surface rather than just in the middle of the board.
As you could produce more boards and more graphics more easily, the graphics started to shift away from individual skaters into more of a corporate-based look. So it was no longer about you've got a skull and sword that signifies you as a person or personifies you as a skateboarder. Now you work for or you skate for my company and my company has this general look — whatever aesthetic you want to apply to that company — you skate for us and your graphics are going to look like us, not like you.
What do you want to accomplish with the show?
I think that skateboard art has never been seen as something that has deserved to be in a museum. It's always made its way into galleries, but not museums. And I think that this is a viable museum venue. I want people to know that skateboarders aren't just punks. They grow up to do real things and I thought there were some interesting stories to tell as to how art evolved through the lens of skateboarding.