Todd Francis: A Q&A with the Skate Artist at his Los Angeles Retrospective

by Brad Wete

 Todd Francis | All images shot by  Morgan Rindengan

Todd Francis | All images shot by Morgan Rindengan

Graphic designer and artist Todd Francis has been a leader in crafting both thoughtful and tongue-in-cheek imagery for decades now. His constant work with skateboard titan Antihero and collaborations with the likes of Vans, Stance, HUF, and Oakley have earned him great acclaim.

Such a long tenure deserves to be celebrated. To that end, contemporary street artist Shepard Fairey recently hosted a gallery of Francis' work, called Antihero and Beyond: A Todd Francis Art Retrospective, at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park, where the Los Angeles-bred Francis showcased his favorite pieces--ones that mocked the U.S. government, forest animals, and fast food chains all the same. It's available to be viewed by the public until August 12.

Todd and I sat down in a Projects backroom minutes before the venue filled up with fans and peers to talk about his career, being proud that he hasn't jumped the shark and how tunnel vision is serving him well.

What are your earliest memories of drawing?

My earliest memories of drawing would probably be like what your earliest memories of drawing are, which is I always would have pencils and crayons, pens at my disposal. I remember being little and doing a lot of art. I would go out and visit my grandfather out in Palm Springs. He was always drawing desert animals—rattle snakes, road runners and stuff like that so I remember that really clearly. 

When is the turning point where it goes from something you're doing around the house to something that can become financially worth while?

I think it became something that I was serious about when I was in high school, sort of towards the end of high school. I had some teachers who saw that in me. I didn't really see it in myself. I enjoyed it, but I never looked at it as like, “Hey, I’m going to build up these skills because someday I’ll be able to do it for a living." It was just something I was just kind of passionate about and I didn’t have a lot of passions.

As far as when I decided to make it a career, I was in college and working for my college newspaper at UC Santa Barbara every day doing political illustrations and stuff like that for them. That was a lot of fun and I developed a lot of practice and developed a lot of skill with that. I think when I got out of college I was thinking that that would be the most sensible root to pursue.

So how long has it been since college?

Well since 1991, that’s the irony. I got out of college thinking that this is what I can do, but the real world didn’t agree. I had to do other types of work for a while just to pay the bills and to get by. It wasn’t about ’93 or ’94 that I got a job in skateboarding, and with the company that I still work for today [Antihero]. A lot of that was a very lucky day for me obviously. It wasn’t until later that day that I was convinced that I could.

How long did it take to put this retrospective together?

It wasn’t hard to do. I tend to keep all my work together in one place. When you’re putting a retrospective together you don’t want to include the stinkers. We cherry picked the best stuff and more often than not what you think is the best stuff is going be more on the recent side than the old side. When it comes to the skate decks, it’s a real balance between the early Antihero stuff and then the stuff that’s very recent. But as far as the studio art, that’s all mostly stuff from the last 10 years.

How far do you think you’ve progressed when you compare your recent work to your earlier days?

I’ve never thought about that before. Maybe there is some media, there’s some art technique you can use now that you couldn’t use then and that has to do as much with the improvements or the changes in printing technique when it comes to printing skateboards. If that’s what we’re talking about, skate decks. If you were looking at the studio work, I’m not sure that you would see such a huge progression because I’ve always enjoyed doing charcoals, working large and water coloring is something I’ve always enjoyed.

It’s almost like the possibilities have increased in terms of what you’re able to print on a skateboard versus when I started. But I would leave that to someone else to look at and see, “Oh, Todd’s gotten better at drawing hands.” 

How do you feel about how skate culture has been embraced by people outside of it?

I mean it's all money-driven. It became a turning point, sort of, around the turn of the century where suddenly there was a market that was driven by TV shows and things like that. There was a mentality that was suddenly embraced and a few really well-known people drove it to a recognition to where people that didn’t skate and never wanted to skate loved it. So with that comes an acceptance.

You can complain about it but that doesn’t change anything. At the end of the day you know we’re all doing stuff ‘cause it’s fun. Are they getting into it because they have fun with it or are they getting into it to make a buck? You tend to be able to see through the people that are in it to make a buck because their sincerity is only a certain level. You can sniff out some of the fraudulence. But the people that are in it for the fun and that are passionate about it, you can also see it; They surround themselves with the right people and I’ve got nothing against that because that’s what we’re all hoping to have in this life.

During the process of putting the retrospective together, were there any pieces that you rediscovered or brought back any fun memories?

There haven’t been too many surprises. When you take your new work and you line it up next to your old work when it comes to skateboard graphics, it’s a little bit gratifying to see that your oldest stuff still holds up, because I think all creative people always want to be progressing and be getting better and better. But you also don’t want to think that everything that you did a lifetime ago sucks. At the same time, there are a lot of people that are in their 30s or 40s now and they harken back to those early days and get sentimental about some of the stuff that has gone on display here. Hopefully I can entertain both sides of the coin. You’ve got the young people who are seeing some of the stuff that I’m doing now and remember it and it a effects them--hopefully in the way that I hope. And then you have the people who are more sentimental about it and have that personal historical reaction.

As far as digging out hidden gems, there’s pulling out a few new decks and some of the older decks and making the cut, ‘cause you know I’ve done thousands of skateboards. So when it comes to boiling it down, it’s nice to see that the old ones belong and also it’s also nice to see it’s not just the old ones that belong. The stuff you’re doing now fits in as well.

The thing is with that I do is it’s so idea driven. It’s not so much about color and composition and feel. It’s not Jackson Pollock. It’s not abstract. It’s about ideas. They’re really only as good as the ideas are. If I’m running out of ideas, you’re gonna be able to tell. That’s everybody’s greatest fear: They're going have to start borrowing other people’s ideas. That’s embarrassing. I think that’s something that hopefully I can continue to lean on. It’s just originality.

As you look at all your work, where do you see yourself going?

It’s funny ‘cause I don’t really have a lot of perspective. I don’t really step back and look at my stuff much. This traveling art show has forced me to. But I don’t really think about the work I’ve already done a lot because I’m so deadline-to-deadline. I just delivered another set of graphics to Antihero last week and I’m going to have to do another set of graphics for them in three more weeks. I tend to only feel as good as what I just finished.

I'm so deadline-to-deadline and so project-based. I don’t have a very good business sense for where this is going. It just feels great and it’s a lot of fun and I’m able to pay the bills with it and feed my daughters. It feels right and that lack of perspective maybe serves my client base well. They know that I’m focusing on the projects instead of the grand plan. If I had a financial planner, they’d be a little disappointed.