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From Antihero to HUF :: Provocateur-in-Chief Todd Francis Speaks Out

From Antihero to HUF :: Provocateur-in-Chief Todd Francis Speaks Out

By Seb Carayol

You can always count on artist Todd Francis – currently exhibiting pieces at Shepard Fairey’s gallery Subliminal Projects. Todd will never, ever, disappoint. After all, he drew the Antihero eagle, has shaped the company’s image ever since, and he has nailed it with every deck company he’s done graphics for – from Stereo, to Element, to New Deal, to his own Special Crud brand to (this just in) an amazing HUF collab. Solid.

But graphics and fine art are only a portion of what the Swiss Army knife known as Todd Francis can do for you.

Do you need the next Howard Stern to save the day on Fos’s KCHUNG radio show? Todd will come and deliver. You like Christmas cards? Chances are, you will get one in the mail every year – It might involve Santa as a concentration camp leader, but hey. And the cornocopia of enchantment never runs dry: after having helped Todd on his fantastic book Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis (order here), I for instance needed a recommendation for some job. Guess who I called? Of course. And again, Todd crafted the most heart-felt, moving piece of literature that 280 characters will ever get you. Before we get into his interview below, close your eyes, put on one of these rare jazz LPs that Todd feverishly collects, and enjoy the poignant intro of said recommendation letter: “Even though he looks like a pedophile, Seb’s brain is filled with a vast wealth of useless information about skateboarding, music, art, politics, current events, and modern dance.” I’ve been since awaiting impatiently by my phone to take on all the jobs I’ll get from Todd’s encouraging words. It hasn’t rung since. But hey.

© Sam Graham for Subliminal Projects

SEB CARAYOL: What was the first drawing you remember doing and being happy of?
TODD FRANCIS: Well, I used to spend a lot of time out in Palm Desert at my grandparent’s place, and they had some really cool colored pencils I’d get into. Did this one drawing of a roadrunner shooting lightning from its mouth at a cactus that I was pretty fired up on.

Was there a built-in love of the arts in the family household, or?
My parents divorced when I was about six, which was pretty heavy stuff at the time.  Both of them heavily encouraged me to draw and make art and all that, they never once questioned me or my interests – then again, it wasn’t like they were asking me every ten minutes what I was gonna do when I grew up. My dad was always in advertising, and my mom was always playing music and very creative in her own ways. But I was a weird kid, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t think I was gonna grow up to be good at anything useful.

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN MORE ENTERTAINED BY PEOPLE WHO SURPRISE ME.” 

How long were you a political cartoonist and how long did you do that for?
I had paid my way through college by working at the school’s daily newspaper, doing editorial illustrations and cartoons for them. It was a really great piece of training, it forced you to think fast, come up with (hopefully) smart ideas that could be conveyed visually, and do it on a public stage where your failures were seen by thousands.

I graduated and continued to do work for weekly newspapers like the SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian, both solid publications.  But it was clear I wasn’t good or polished enough to crack into the big leagues of magazines and daily newspapers, as much as I tried.  Plus, most of the work I was doing wasn’t exactly mild – a mix of angry politics and violence and some shock value, it didn’t make me all that appealing to the mainstream print world. I always enjoyed doing stuff about abortion and the horrible Reagan and Bush years, really over the top shit, I really dug people like Sue Coe and Ralph Steadman, people who mixed really strong opinions with bold and severe visual style.

“ONCE GONZ ACCUSED ME OF DRAWING A DICK INTO ONE OF HIS GRAPHICS FOR REAL.”

At the end of the day, the political cartoon/illustrator thing was a career that I considered strongly, but it didn’t want me!  It chewed me up and spit me out pretty much, it was pretty disheartening actually.

Was the job at Real your first gig in the skate world?
A year or two after moving to San Francisco after college, a friend of mine who worked at Slap magazine heard about an entry level art production job at Deluxe. They needed someone to cut rubies and do separations and deliver the finished artwork over to the printer a couple blocks away.

Preliminary sketches / Executioners series (Real Skateboards, 1999)

I jammed over there as fast as I could with my portfolio, which was a mix of my studio art, my editorial illustration from college and the few pieces I’d done for the local free press. I guess they liked what they saw, plus I happened to mention I’d known Natas Kaupas for a long time, since we’d been friends in high school.  I think that caught their attention, and I think he told them I wasn’t a total douchebag. Hired!

What was the first graphic you did that you thought “Oh, that’s gonna piss people off”?
I guess that would be with Antihero... actually, the pigeon board, it’s minimal and kinda yucky. We knew it was going to piss off the shops a little bit, because every company at the time had these clean, perfect team board graphics, such as Real with the Oval logo. Also the Diseases series, people thought it was inappropriate but it was so funny, and it was so perfect for the team. This one was actually Andy Roy’s idea.

Todd’s studio: pigeons, pencils, and an extremely lazy, usually asleep snake (not pictured).

What pushed you to do provocative graphics?
I guess it’s almost the same way in choosing your favorite comedians. Some people are going to think that Carrot Top is hilarious, or that Yakov Smirnoff is great, or that Jay Leno is the funniest comic of all time, and then you get people who are the flip side who like Redd Fox or Richard Pryor or Steve Martin, completely out of left field.

I’ve always been more entertained by people who surprise me, as opposed to those who do jokes about airline food or something. Being a part of something like Antihero, where the mentality was – and remains – different from any other companies, gave me license to make people laugh with weird, cruel shit. You get to surprise people and make them wonder what’s the next thing you’ll do with it.  Which is what a good comedian does I guess.

Decks and line art of the “Diseases” series – as seen in Todd’s book “Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis.”

Were you ever confronted about a graphic?
There were a couple ideas that we almost did that got shut down. There’s also stuff that some of the riders would have objected to too much. But people who followed Antihero at the time expected it to be pretty negative. Oh, once Gonz accused me of drawing a dick into one of his graphics for Real, it was one of his last board graphics before Krooked started up, it was a drawing of a horse race. He said the jockey’s riding crop looked like a dick, and it wasn’t until he mentioned it – after the board had come out, by the way – that I noticed what he was complaining about. But I swear it was just an honest mistake.

“I HAD IT PLANNED OUT: ‘O.K., I’M GONNA JUMP OUT OF THIS SECOND STORY WINDOW, LAND ON TOP OF THIS CAR, AND JUST RUN.”

Were there any ideas for a graphic that were canned before they happened?
A couple. There was also an awful time where we did a graphic that was based on art by the Hell’s Angels and they came after Deluxe. That was bad news. We had to pull the boards and send them all to them. And then I guess what happened was that the managers at Deluxe at the time hadn’t reacted apologetically enough, and so the Hell’s Angels were still mad about something, thinking we didn’t give them all the boards back. According to what I heard, there was a video release party one night and the Angels were gonna ride up and beat everybody up out there.  But it rained really bad that night, a storm so hard that they couldn’t ride. The rain saved the day! We were so freaked out. I sat kind of in the back of the art room so if somebody was going to run through the door with a knife to go after any of us, I had it planned out: “O.K., I’m gonna jump out of this second story window, land on top of this car, and just run.” Literally like a rat. I had that mentality for like a month.

Going from that to working in-house at Element, a more “tame” company, were you missing the Antihero stuff?
A little bit. Sometimes if I came up with an idea that was too good to pass up, that felt like an Antihero-only idea, then I’d hand it to them... But going freelance again allowed me to work again for Antihero, and companies like HUF, etc.

Deck’s Top graphic of the brand new HUF x Todd Francis collab.

With Element actually, I got to tell these environmental stories that I think were just kind of as bleak and intense and negative as the Antihero stuff, it was just more political and environmental and less social, I guess?

Do you think you changed, maybe? Like, grew up?
No. It’s not like I was 13 doing those graphics, I was mature enough at the time. I think I’m about perpetually about 17 in my head. So I guess I can come up with what is gonna make someone that age entertained. What’s gonna make them laugh, or think, or react.

::

The “Agents Provocateurs” group exhibition featuring Todd Francis’ artwork is up until February 21st @ Subliminal Projects, 1331 W. Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026. Open Wed – Sat 12 – 6 PM. Full catalog of artwork for sale on this link.

This is one of the three paintings of Todd’s currently up for sale at the “Agents Provocateurs” show.

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