The Master: Jim Phillips with the Face, from a series of decks he created for Rob Roskopp, and the Screaming Hand.
Back To The Grind
The king of Santa Cruz skateboard art returns with a new retro line and a place of honor in a new art exhibit.
By Traci Hukill
IN A GARAGE in a middle-class neighborhood at the edge of Santa Cruz, the improbable is happening. Decades after he created some of the most enduring images in the genre, the artist whose name is virtually synonymous with Santa Cruz Skateboards is once again drawing pop-eyed monsters, warhorses and nubile mermaids for skateboard decks so the youth of today can thrash in style. Jim Phillips is back.
Even next to his old work, the new designs are intense and appropriately over the top. They're also recognizable even to nonskaters, as in the case of the bloodshot-eyed, razor-fanged cartoon monster Slasher. It's like months have elapsed since Phillips' last skateboard design, not years. Santa Cruz Skateboard's upcoming fall catalog shows four of his models; they want him to do two sets of designs a year, presumably for as long as the wave of vintage cool keeps on peeling.
"It's just crazy," says Phillips, shaking his head. He's tall, with iron-gray hair combed back from his forehead and a gentle demeanor. "I'm really excited to be able to relate as an old guy to these kids in their teens."
It's hard to square the man with his artistic output. Standing in his garage studio with dozens of decks on the walls, each festooned with a comically gory character or other hardcore design, he looks more Jedi knight than Pied Piper to a generation of skate rats obsessed with grinding any and all unattended curbs. But though Phillips, who's literally a grandpa, jokes about being old, those long years have served him well. By the time he left the industry in 1990, he was a legend, and he remains so today. This Friday, when a new exhibit of skateboard art and design opens at the Museum of Art and History, Phillips' work will be honored alongside the contributions of engineers at NHS and skaters like Keith Meek, Judi Oyama and Don Bostick, not to mention other artists including his son Jimbo.
Phillips' work goes back to skateboarding's early days. In 1975, he drew his first Santa Cruz Skateboards logo for a new wheel called the Road Rider. It was an innocent-looking image: a wheel with wings on either side. Skaters would fly, that image said, but there was more to it. It was iconic and it was humorous--two things that marked Phillips' work. Soon after came the distinctive slanted "Santa Cruz" logo that eventually wound up inside the red dot (Phillips gives credit for the dot to Jay Shuirman, the "S" in NHS, now the parent company of Santa Cruz Skateboards. "My most famous logo," Phillips says in mock despair, "and I can't even take credit for it!"). In 1979, asked to come up with an image for the company's new groundbreaking Independent trucks, Phillips suggested the iron cross. It was rejected as too Nazi, but when Phillips went back through his scrap pile and found an issue of Time magazine with Pope John Paul II wearing the iron cross on his vestments, the bosses gave it the thumbs up.
And then, in 1985, Phillips drew the Screaming Hand. An intense turquoise, except for dark ruby where severed cartoon arteries dangle and a tongue protrudes from a gaping mouth in the palm, the hand became his signature image.
"The screaming hand is debatably one of the most famous skateboard images, I would say," says Matt Bass, a Venice Beach-based filmmaker working on a documentary about skateboard art called Sk8face (the trailer will run at as part of this month's MAH exhibit)."I would say that thing is eternal. They'll be selling that thing forever."
Today a small empire has sprung up of plastic Screaming Hand figurines, stickers, posters and, most recently, oven mitts and barbecue aprons. "To be able to market this stuff makes a big difference," says Phillips.
Asked how he came up with the image, Phillips flips to a page in one of his three published books and points to a drawing done when he was just a kid. It's a sketch of a busy surf town scene. There, in the back, a lone hand rises from behind a wall, threatening or begging for help, it's hard to know. "It's somebody back there yelling or drowning, you know, 'AAAH!'" Phillips says. "Your hands are the things you see the most in your life. Michaelangelo used them--God and Adam. It's just the angst of everything. It expresses the unexpressible."
The hand is also kind of funny. A lot of Phillips' work has a streak of dark or insane humor, which makes for a form of irreverence that's more mischievous than malevolent. It's part of the reason he was drawn to fleshy monsters while his Southern California counterparts, like VC Johnson of Powell Peralta, were drawing skulls and bones. "They have more personality," Phillips says of his bug-eyed, big-toothed gory creations. He adds, "I like to have fun with it. I think humor is uplifting."
In the '80s, when the rivalry between Southern California and Northern California skateboard companies was at its height, Johnson and Phillips collaborated on a design called MC Who. Modeled after an Escher painting, it featured a skeletal hand and a blue screamy hand drawing each other. "They were our biggest competition," says Phillips, "so for us to come together as artists was really something. And we really got along. I went down there and painted it with him."
Hand it over: Phillips' Screaming Hand collection will be on display at MAH starting Friday.
That was a time when images stayed around, says filmmaker Bass. "When Santa Cruz and Jim Phillips were really on top of their game, their graphics would be on the shelves for a year or two," he says. "They were really iconic. Whereas board graphics made today don't stay on the shelf or your psyche long enough to sink in."
Phillips is still making his designs the old-fashioned way, at least partly: drawing on paper, then making his way through a system of tracing and enlargements until finally it's time to lay down the colors. For that he goes to the computer. But the result is still careful, rich and original--rare quality in a clip-art world. Phillips is carrying the torch for quality, lasting design.
"Santa Cruz is one of the oldest living, breathing skateboard companies," says Bass. "They have true authentic roots. You can still look at it as a hardcore skater and say, 'That's mom and pop skateboard art.' That's a lineage. I look at Santa Cruz more as a lineage and a heritage than a skateboard company."
PRAISE THE BOARD: 35 YEARS OF SKATEBOARD DESIGN & INNOVATION opens Friday, Sept. 4, with a free 6:30-8:30pm reception at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. 831.429.1964. Exhibit ends Sept. 27.
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