Skaters are creative people. It’s what draws them to skating: a ‘sport’ without rules, courts, or a governing body—your own creativity is what makes skateboarding great.Because of this, it’s not a surprise that many skaters have an artistic side to them. John Lucero, Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Neil Blender, even Piet Parra—skateboarding goes hand-in-hand with their art.
Dutch skateboarder and artist, Leon Karssen, is cut from the same cloth. He learned to express himself through skateboarding and digital art, and used Tumblr and Instagram to share that art with the world. His now-famous cats can be found on a collection for Rip N Dip clothing, Habitat Skateboards decks, in Thrasher videos, on the shutters of FTC’s Barcelona store, and even a sex toy. We sat down with the young and humble Dutchman to talk about his art, skateboarding, and his new clothing collection.
MAARTEN: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
LEON KARSSEN: My name is Leon. I draw and skate. And that’s it.
How did you get into skateboarding?
When I was younger, I got a skateboard and I had a friend that skated… but then I never got into it. Years later, I switched to a new school in the city center of The Hague and met a bunch of new people who all skated. Through them, I really got into skateboarding and I’ve been hooked ever since.
“I’m not into partying or whatever… I just like to draw.”
Do you still have a solid skate crew like that?
Not really. I recently moved from The hague to Amsterdam
Why’d you decide to move to Amsterdam?
My girlfriend lives here, and I had the opportunity to live by myself.
Is drawing something you’ve always done?
Not really. I mean I doodled here and there, but I really got into it and got more creative when I started skating. I’m not into going out at night to party and shit, so drawing took up all my free time. And that led to all of this.
Did it take you long to realize that you had a talent for drawing?
To be honest, I just drew for myself. I mean, of course I was feeling it [laughs]. But when I started to post my work on the Internet, I learned that other people were super into it as well. Guess I just got lucky.
You started out posting your drawings on Tumblr, right?
I started out on Tumblr and quickly grew to 1,000 followers. After that, Instagram started popping off; I’ve got close to 80,000 followers on there.
Any explanation for how your art grew into this big a thing?
It’s just simple drawings. People like them or recognize something from themselves in them. That drives them to share it, and if they tag me in their posts I get discovered by their friends, and then the cycle starts again.
What’s your design process like?
Most of the time I’m just sitting behind my computer with my mouse. If I feel like drawing, or just moving my hand around, I start to draw something. I usually have some sort of idea of what to draw, but most of the time the final results turn out to be something completely different.
I heard MS Paint was your favorite software to draw in…
I still use paint daily, but I’ve been using Photoshop more often recently for the smoother looking stuff.
I first saw your work in 2014, when Jenkem posted your 8 bit animated gif portraits of pro skaters. What’s the story behind that project?
I saw a similar portrait somewhere online, and I thought it would be cool to use that style for portraits of pro skateboarders. I made it in Photoshop and it suddenly turned into this big thing. The first portrait I made was of Heath Kirchart, with a bunch of colors and glitters—totally not Heath. Jenkem saw it and asked me to do more, so I made portraits of guys like Jerry Hsu, Alex Olson, Antwuan Dixon, and Dylan Rieder.
Jenkem is probably the most respected publication/website in skateboarding right now. How do you respond when when something as big and important as Jenkem contacts you about your artwork?
“Oh sick, cool, thanks.”
You’re known for your drawings of cats—does your own cat inspire you?
Actually, I only recently got a cat. My mom used to have a cat when I was younger, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with it. When I started drawing, I was messing around and drew a cat. Could’ve been a dog, a giraffe, whatever, but it turned out to be a cat. I liked it and it stuck.
You’ve recently worked with Habitat on some deck graphics—are graphics something that’s important when you buy a deck yourself?
I never did, but now I get a discount at the shop and I have a little more money to spend, so all of the sudden I have options now. When picking a deck I, of course, always start with the size and shape, and if there are multiple good ones, I get the one with the sickest graphic. I’ve been mostly buying Palace boards as of late. I like that they have a pointier tail. Plus, they have amazing graphics.
Are there certain “skate artists” that you like or are an inspiration?
Not really. I just don’t pay a lot of attention to that. But I like the guy who does those jazz portraits for Western Edition [Ian Johnson], and that dude who does the Chocolate graphics [Even Hecox].
So when Michael Sieben contacted you for an interview you weren’t, “Oh shit, Sieben!”
I knew him from his artwork, and thought it was sick he messaged me on Facebook.
Did that Thrasher interview boost your following a lot?
For sure. I did a few graphic things for Thrasher before that interview, but with that interview they put a huge focus on me. I got like 1000 to 2000 new followers in the day after they posted it on the website.
Your fans seem to be pretty dedicated, even tattooing your work on their bodies. Do you remember the first time someone contacted you about getting inked up with your work?
I do, was pretty sick. He offered me 50 bucks to draw something for him to get tattooed. Normally I don’t draw on request but I was free to draw what I wanted and since it was the first person to get a tattoo of my drawings I was down with it.
He got it on his leg in full color, which to me is kinda weird. It turned out pretty good besides the mouth of the cat which gets fucked up a lot [laughs].
There’s a group of nine guys who all got “Skate or Cry” tattooed on them at the same time, and it really took off after that. But there’s a bunch of pretty bad ones out there [laughs].
It must be pretty bizarre to see people being “down for life” with your artwork.
I’ve accepted that it’s a thing. Worst case scenario, they can always put a different tattoo over it. The sickest tattoo I’ve seen was this guy who got my “Fuck the World Cup” inked on him. It was an MS Paint drawing I posted online, and a day later he sent me a photo of the piece. Ever since that moment—someone grabbing an MS Paint drawing and getting it tattooed on him within a day—there’s nothing that surprises me.
You’ve just released your first collection. How did that come about?
I’ve always wanted to make my own clothes, but I never found the time to really work on it. I’ve tried it before, print up 100 T-shirts and sell them online. But all of the sudden, Paypal changed their policies. I had to jump through all sort of hoops to get my money and I wasn’t feeling that. I talked to [The Hague skateshop owner] Manus about it and he offered to help me out. I supply the artwork and they take care of the rest. The first collection got some great response all over the world. I only sold it at shops I’ve worked with before.
Any plans to expand in the future?
I don’t want to turn this into a brand, but I do want to continue making clothes and selling them at stores I like. Currently, the collection is pretty basic, but I’d love to expand into more cut and sew items. Kinda like fashion, but aimed at skaters.
Did you ever randomly spot someone you don’t know wearing your clothes?
Not clothes, but it’s happened with tattoos. I was talking to some random guy in Barcelona and I gave him some stickers. He looked at them, screamed out, “Yo!” and immediately showed me his tattoo.
You’ve been working with a lot of different brands, shops, and publications. How do these collaborations come about?
People just contact me via e-mail or social networks, and if I dig the brand I tell them I’ll do it. After that we discuss what each of us is looking to get out of the project I get to work, draw whatever I feel like and they—most of the time—use it right away. It’s pretty organic and fun.
Are you looking to do more bigger, commercial projects in the future?
That really depends on the brand. I’d never work with a brand like Coca-Cola, for example, simply because I don’t drink that stuff. I have to be able to back the brand. For example, I’d love to work with adidas, but I wouldn’t work with adidas Skateboarding. I mean, it’s pretty sick, but it goes against my principles. But what I’d really like to work on is a project with a big fashion brand, like Lacoste of Versace or something.
Your style is very recognizable, and with how big you’ve become online, you must have seen a few people biting your style…
Yeah, more than a few. But I think that’s pretty cool, they’re trying to express themselves creatively. It’s not like they trace my work and try to make money off it or something. If that helps them create their own style, I’m all for it.
Anything else going on in your life besides skating and art?
Not really. I’m either skating or drawing these days. I quit school and fully committed to drawing. I’m very lucky that it’s going as well as it’s been going right now.
What’s in your future?
I’ll see that when it happens. I focus on the here and now and respond to whatever comes my way.
Buy his clothes at Manus Skateshop.