Meeting… Todd Francis!

Photos: Benjamin Deberdt
Interview: Scott Bourne

Todd Francis has come up with and/or drawn many of the graphics you may have been holding dearly over the years… And he hasn't slowed down with time. The release of Look Away, the book dedicated to his work gave us the chance to send his way an old colleague and friend.
Benjamin Deberdt

"No, I never got sex off a really good board graphic…"

I met Todd back in the early 90’s when he came to work as an artist at Deluxe. At the time I was living out of a van with my good friend Will Daniel, skating and working in the warehouse packing boxes. When Benjamin asked me to make up a few questions to ask him, I was excited to pick Todd’s brain and tease him a bit like we so often did back in those times. Here is what I found out.
Scott Bourne

What do you like most about skateboarders and working with them?
They once seems to have a pretty good sense of humor, no one seems to take things too seriously, so any brainstorming session comes from the right place…

Even nowadays, do you still get input from skaters actually?
It depends who I am working for. With Anti Hero, for instance, it usually starts with Julien [Stranger] and I. Frank Gerwer, also, will have some really good ideas, but it terms of getting a vote from a team, or the rider having tons of input on the graphics, it really depends on the guy, but I'm not on the phone on a daily basis about their graphics. They usually trust the process. They are usually happy with what Julien and I come up with.

Yep, he has done the Eagle…

What is your least favorite thing about them?
It's been a while, but, sometimes, some skaters will fancy themselves as incredible artists… And, that's usually a mess, if it's this 24 years old that thinks he's an incredible artist. Even younger than that. And usually, they're wrong: they don't have incredible ideas, and they're not incredible artists… And they should leave those ideas and their applications to the professional. Also, like everywhere else, you'll have those rare people that take themselves too seriously. That's never too much fun, that can be a bummer…

Have you ever done a board graphic for a pro that offended him or pissed him off?
It's been a long time since someone one came back to me to tell me they were unhappy with something I did for them.  But I did a board graphic for Gonz, before Krooked was created, so it was for Real, and it was a scene from a horse race, these horses racing toward the finish line. And it came out, and I thought it looked fine, and he got mad! I used to always mess with Gonz, joke with him, mess with him just because everybody else was treating him him like he was Baby Jesus or something, so I would fuck with him. So, the board came out, and one of the horse riders on the boards, the position he was on, and the way he was holding the reins, Gonz thought it looked like a dick! I looked and it and saw how it could look like that, but it was an accident, I didn't mean to do that… I think this is the last time some one was upest. There were times where people were not necessarily excited about their graphics cause it might offend their shoe sponsor, which has happened in the recent years, but it terms of outright anger, it's been a long time…

First sketch for an Anti Hero Julien Stranger board

Was there ever a board that you knew would not sell but did incredibly well.
Let's see, here… I'm not really privy to sales information. When I worked in house at Deluxe in the 90's, I was more aware, cause you would see the stack of boards diminish… And there were plenty of graphics I did then that did badly… Rushed jobs, you know, boards we had to get done in a day. But, board that did better than expected… There was that Texas Chain Saw Pig Fucker I did for Real that did do pretty well, but it wasn't like a game changer or anything…

Ever get laid because of a board graphic… You know, like “pro-ho” style.
[Laughter] No, I never got sex off a really good board graphic… Maybe my body of work as a whole got me lucky a few times, just a general overall display of ability already, but a single board graphic, no. It's not like I walk around with my boards, and show them to people, trying to get them in the sack…

And, yep, he was also part of the original Stereo years!

Do you have any good stories from working with Will Daniel in the Deluxe days?
I just remember you and Daniel sleeping in a car, outside of Deluxe. You start working at Deluxe at 8h00 in the morning, which is early! Most corporations don't run their business like that, and start at 8h00, which doesn't work very well with skaters, you know! [laughter] I remember we would pull in there right at 8h00, and you two would be climbing out of that car you were sleeping in, looking all disheveled, and just start working. That was pretty funny!

Do you feel that the industry has gotten more or less creative through the years?
Oh, less… Because, first of all, when I started, everybody was doing one-offs. Every single board was a one-off, or a team board. I was this constant cycle of graphics, and sometimes the riders would say exactly what they wanted, other times the company would determine it, things were just really loose and all other the place. And then, the series started, and we were a big part of it with Anti Hero. That became quickly the industry standard, and it's not like it can not be creative, but you need a really good idea. But it seems like people have been running out of the good ideas they used to have, at least the way I see it. It's a lot more logo driven. “let's color the logo orange, rotate it, and spray paint it!” They might say it's because it sells, but I think it's because they're lazy, and that's the path of least resistance. So, yeah, I think it got less creative…

Original sketch for a Real James Kelch inspired by the explosive character of the pro…

It seems that many of the artists that are now doing skateboard graphics get a lot more credit than they did at the dawn of screen printed boards. Are the artists now defining the companies more than the pros?
No, the pros are still defining the company. You have a few artist that are known, people whose style makes it you will recognize just from one look at the board, like Evan Hecox, Don Pendleton, Todd Bratrud, but nine times out of the ten the kids that buy the board do so because of the name on it, wether it is the skater's name or the company. It might be based on the art, in some cases, like “I don't know who did that, but that's an amazing looking hamburger!”, but it's not the artist. Even back then, nobody knew the artists, apart from Marc McKee,  Sean Cliver and Jim Phillips… But nobody goes to a shop and buys a graphic because I did it. If it looks good, and you think it's funny, maybe, but not on my name!

If you where invited to the Playboy mansion to spank your favorite playmate with one of your boards… What board would you bring?
Let's see… I would want it to be a huge board… What would be appropriate for that? It would really funny if it was a very peaceful nature scene driven Element board. That would be a good contrast! But, maybe the Eagle would make the most sense for that… Because maybe some of the Playmates have actually seen the Eagle before, which might give you a shot at it after you're done spanking them…

"End The Hunt" series for Element

Who is your favorite playmate, actually?
Burt Reynolds? [Laughter] No… Let's see, I should have a sincere answer. Wait, I don't know the name of any Playmates!

Benjamin: Why pigeons? Why skaters are obsessed with pigeons?
It is the easiest bird to film in the city, and to me I think it started with A Visual Sound where they had all those artsy shots of slow-mo'ed birds in it… The reason we started with the pigeon for Anti Hero was because the team guys wanted it. Sean Young and Julien wanted this really scuzzy pigeon to be the logo. It was something to identify with: some rundown city pigeon. As for skaters, I think even the kids that lives in the suburbs want to be down with the city, so maybe the pigeons are something to latch on to that whole city identity thing. Even if it got quickly replaced by the Eagle for Anti Hero, and times has gone by, I always stuck with them and I'm entertained by drawing them.

Benjamin: So you were not personally obsessed with them, yourself before? You were not drawing before?
No. The first time I must have drawn a pigeon was for Anti Hero, around 1995…

Well, it looks like Todd's pigeon fever has been raging since, don't you think?
You should check out Look Away, here, before finding a copy at your skateshop!
Also, if you want to continue that conversation between Todd and Scott, you should check out their collaboration for the One Dollar Stories series, over here.

Thanks to Element for supporting that book and this article.

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