For the fall 2010 season, Vans launched an all new range of footwear titled OTW. A derivative of the original slogan “Off The Wall”, the collection was created in hopes of pushing a distinct lifestyle agenda. While the design of the footwear embodied a certain design language which has been a notable part of Vans’ footwear heritage over the years, it was essentially the dawning of a new collection with its own philosophy. Known predominately for its high performing footwear design over the last few decades, the OTW range and its lifestyle position was able to shed some of the performance elements of footwear execution in exchange for pure lifestyle design. This effectively combined itself with the creativity that many Vans wearers over the years have come to associate and recognize. The inaugural range brought on four creative entities to compliment the notion of fusing footwear with a strong creative foundation. The four Advocates include graffiti and tattoo artist Mister Cartoon, graphic designer and all-around creative Eric Elms, the beer thumbing photographer/art director duo of Atiba & Ako Jefferson who form the DJ group The Blackouts and photographer and gearhead Dimitri Coste.
To kick things off, Vans OTW debuted the collection including the forthcoming 2010 holiday season at Shanghai’s multi-faceted space, Kin. The event was marked by a strong local showing of local personalities who represent a burgeoning local Shanghainese street culture community.
Interview: Eugene Kan
Photography: Tobias Kiegler
Vans OTW made its Asian mark as Kin represented the perfect location that epitomized the OTW ethos. Comprised of three parts, Kin features a retail store, cafe and DJ school. As the vision of Gary Wong and Scott Lau, Kin was created based on the importance of building a solid foundation to help grow and develop the local culture. I had the chance to speak with Gary Wong as he offered his insight into both Kin and the progression of China’s creative culture.
From his first experiences with bootleg Hip-Hop tapes, Gary Wong was immediately drawn to the energy only a Run DMC could offer. Following a stint overseas in Japan studying, he garnered enough experience and interest to move forward and hopefully blaze a trail for China’s street culture future. Which takes us today. With a slight air of pessimism, Gary’s general opinion of the local landscape is a difficult one for growth and education. Brushing off those who feel that the culture he cherishes so much can be simply bought into with limited edition sneakers and clothing is an oversight he constantly battles. The lure of products and hype don’t replace the intangible aspect of the arts and creative thinking which inevitably are the cornerstone of any culture. Having said that, in an era where many companies are knocking at China’s doorstep with special “China-market” adaptations, I asked Gary what be important to the success of a Vans OTW in China. It was simple, look to maintain your brand identity rather than trying to compete with locals labels. When the likes of Vans step in, they have an enormous ability to influence and change the Chinese market to a better place which ensures a more sustainable cycle.
To cap off the regional and 2010 holiday launch, the Vans OTW Asia party included a select few locals to take in the various visual pieces created by the four Advocates. This included Mister Cartoon and a live mural session, photography from The Blackouts, a large-scale 21 print sets by Eric Elms, and motorcycle-based photography from Dimitri Coste based on his father’s racing pedigree.
The 2010 holiday Vans OTW collection will be hitting stores starting this month. With subtle tonal iterations, the OTW range makes for a versatile footwear choice with models including: the Alomar, the Larkin, the Bedford, the Frazier and the Tustin.
The Blackouts, Eric Elms, Mister Cartoon and Dimitri Coste
What was your first experience with Vans?
Atiba: Mine was probably back in Colorado, custom ordering Chukka boots through mail order. Putting a $5 deposit down and waiting 6 weeks for them to be handmade in California and shipped out.
Ako: My first experience was through the skater Matt Hensley.
Mister Cartoon: 1978, Crenshaw and Torrance Boulevard. I was trying to impress the girls. I begged my mom to buy me a pair.
Dimitri Coste: When I was younger, I would watch pro BMX racers on magazine covers. They were all wearing Vans and I couldn’t find them anywhere. I managed to get my first pair in ’82 or ’83 and it was a big deal for me then and it still is.
Eric Elms: Vans were the first shoes I remember buying and wearing. They’re like a story line to my life. There’s no other brand shoe wise that has had the same impact for me.
As a collective, you all come from different backgrounds. Prior to coming together under Vans OTW, how familiar were you with each others work?
Atiba Jefferson: I knew Elms work and I had tattoos from Cartoon. But I didn’t really know Dimitri’s photography. But having gotten together with everybody, I’ve had the pleasure of getting more accustomed to their work.
Eric Elms: Yeh I think we’ve all crossed paths at some point in our own little way. While we each have different styles of work, it made it really easy to connect.
Mister Cartoon: I believe it was a good friend over at Supreme that helped me connect. When I first Dimitri I said ‘good to meet you.’ But I actually tattooed Dimitri awhile back. He has this huge tattoo on his chest and after seeing it, I remembered it all. I can remember the day, what we ate, tattoos sort of have that effect on you. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m just a spoke in the wheel with this other guys. My friend at Supreme was really the spoke in the hub in bringing us all together.
Dimitri Coste: I met Cartoon in January of 2001, he gave me a tattoo and I didn’t see him again until February of last year. Since I’m a photographer, I knew of Atiba’s photography work but I didn’t really know Ako.
Everywhere you look, many people are talking about China as an up and coming super power but the cultural foundation in China has yet to be laid. What are your thoughts on being among the first to influence the local scene?
Atiba: It’s definitely interesting. I’m honored to be involved and help develop a new culture. I’ve been here before on skateboarding trips and you look around and it’s not the same. It’s not like the US or Japan, where it’s well established. Everything here is fresh.
Mister Cartoon: China had a big influence on me growing up. In the late 70s and early 80s with Kung Fu Theater, I would be big into the whole look with kung-fu shoes. My dad used to joke I was Chinese, always going to Chinatown. But even people knowing about my art style, my collaborations, it’s amazing that other people pay attention given the way there is filtered Internet here [in China].
Dimitri Coste: I can only feel honored. But I came with a blank slate and I’m trying to learn more and more about the culture. I’m here to discover and what China is like beyond its most iconic images. Everything is changing so quickly, so I’m out to make a my own impressions.
Eric Elms: There’s not that many opportunities for me to check out new places. I’m most used to New York City and Japan where the scene is already so developed. But there’s so much energy going into the culture here and you want to put something back in. Unlike places that I mentioned where everything is so familiar, those places are perhaps trying to do things based on what happened 20 years ago. But here, they do things on the basis of being cool, there’s no reference to the past.
SA Studios has been a lot more focused lately with greater visibility. We’ve been seeing collaborations with video game releases and more video content. Is this something we’re going to see developed more and more?
SA Studios has grown a lot and we’re able to do different collaborations now. Everybody’s ruining the word collaboration. But we’re a commercial company, and we need business to work. Throughout my whole life, I worked on keeping it real and keeping it hardcore. But with SA we will be doing big projects for big companies as an agency. If the work looks good and you’re true to yourself, you’re not selling out. We’re very careful in that aspect and we’ve turned down many projects.
I look at it as no different than what you do on the streets. You’re making a highly visible piece of art. People go out and paint on the streets to have their work shown, commercial work could be considered along the same lines?
It’s hard to maintain a hardcore image and yet work commercially. But if I make shoes I want to wear and the whole package is well done, I don’t see a problem. I think it opens the doors to so many other artists when they see somebody like myself who was able to design without going through design or fashion school.
Do you find it important to help bring up a new generation or at least help them out?
I try to start off by being an example. I’m a husband and a father now with four children. I’m a teacher with a protege that works under me. You can almost see the progression in my work. From when I was a single guy, smoking weed and drinking, I had a certain style. Then I stopped drinking and smoking, then came another style. I’m now 41 and married, so there comes a new style on its own too. I’m thinking a different way than when I once was a 20 year old kid.
Do you approach graffiti, tattooing and your other visual work the same way?
No, when I do graffiti, I’m usually thinking in the mindset of a vandal. Doing it fast, thinking the cops are coming. The goal is only to make it somewhat readable. When I’m tattooing, I’m more relaxed and I take my time. But when it comes to my other styles, I need to wear a different hat. A mural on a car under clear coat is different than being a designer with Illustrator. Each dimension of art requires a different approach and style.
You’ve become well-known for your graffiti and tattooing, but are there other platforms you’d like to make your mark on?
In the future, I want to get more into films and animations. I love designing electronics.
You did a few mobile phones?
Yeh I did a Side-Kick and two Metro PCS phones. Now I’m working on touch screen stuff, drawings, icons and different stuff like that. You get the sample back and you’re like ‘YOOOOOOO’. Just like when you get shoe samples back, your heart pumps. In the future I want to get more into cars. I want to bring car culture up to a new level.
Looking back, you’ve become an integral member of the Chicano community in bringing awareness to the culture. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it’s fair to say that Chicano culture and the HYPEBEAST crowd never really intersected before. They were far from each other but I like them both.
You’re sort of the point between both of them…
I need to be careful to make the right decisions such as protect the brand and everything we’ve worked for. It’s difficult to get respect from both sides. I’ve been drawing and designing for the “HYPEBEAST”/skate/shoe culture world, long before I was where I am now. I put up a mural inside of the UNION store in the 90s. Now people are like ‘come on in’. In this day and age, everybody is a critic and lots of are posting their comments. I don’t even read the comments cause it’s impossible to please everybody. The most important is your peer group and doing things for people you’re proud of. These days anybody can Google anything and they aren’t properly influenced. But there are those that look at HYPEBEAST and they can get so much information that would ever know.
Where do you think your success over the years has come from?
I don’t consider myself talented, special or really unique. Everything’s been done before. But can you take it, twist it and re-do it. I’ve been drawing my whole life and now people are saying ‘oh you’re talented’. I look at it more as a skill in an area I’ve been practicing for over 20 years. Some kids feel ‘oh I can’t do that’. I tell them I’ve developed the motions and the skills in my brain and reinforced it with my muscles.
Any last words?
For all the artists coming up, it’s important to visualize positive images. Don’t spend time talking shit about other people. Picture yourself doing straight lines, dig deep to create something old school and re-introduce it all while being as original as possible. Practice every day. If you work hard enough you can take care of people around you. I bought my mom a house and I don’t expect applause from it. I figure it’s what I’m supposed to do. I have an old school mind to take care of my family and children, and art has helped me do that. Additionally, through art I’ve been able to help and beautify my community. They say that the only thing that you can show at the end of your life is what you gave away, not what you collect.
When it comes to your art, it spans more than one medium whether it be two dimensional prints or 3D sculptures. How do you decide what concept gets applied to what medium?
I come from a design background. So rather than a painting or illustration background, I go about by solving a problem. What medium best portrays or solves that particular problem is the one I choose. If it’s a painting, it’s a painting, if it’s a sculpture, it’s a sculpture. For some artists, regardless of idea, they may just stick to what they know best to present it. I approach it more as a job in trying to solve a problem.
Do you ever re-visit concepts to take them to another medium?
Sometimes I’ve done a t-shirt graphic and I’ll think about doing something else out of it conceptually. That was how the first of my world sculptures started, they were mostly 2D before.
You originally grew up on the West Coast before going out to New York City. Did it affect you on a creative level
I moved out when I was really young and I had just started doing personal work in San Diego. From that standpoint, a lot of my work came out of New York just cause that’s where I was. Growing up in San Diego and then moving to New York, that contrast was a big part of my work. Mixing the two has been a big part of my work, the contrast and clash.
New York has long been one of the well-known destinations in pushing the artistic envelope. Has New York City inspired your work?
I can’t say I have specific examples, but there’s just so much going on. From the typography to the art shows, you can really put yourself around a lot of creative people. Living in New York is something people take for granted until they leave.
Being in Shanghai, do you feel that your art may be lost on different cultures? I know that the pieces you presented for this Vans OTW Asia launch had a real retro, Americana feel to it.
There probably are aspects of my art they won’t get cause of the 60s American counterculture angle to it. I don’t really think too much about it, I just do things that make me laugh and that are fun. Hopefully it’s at least visually appealing and from there they can maybe go deeper into the second layer.
You previously had done your own shoe with Vans. How does it feel coming back as an Advocate for the OTW collection?
It’s nice to come in with all the guys. We’re helping it evolve. OTW is in its beginning stages and seeing the changes before your eyes is exciting. And meeting up with everybody in different cities is like a different family reunion each time.
I know you have an iconic character, Kilroy that is at the center of each piece you did, what’s the history behind him?
Nobody really knows where the ‘Kilroy was here’ movement started. They say it began during World War II and soldiers would write them in random cities and it would spread virally. They said maybe it was a ship builder who kicked it off by putting it inside the hull of a ship. I was always fascinated by it so earlier this year I made a book about it, “Wish You Were Here”. I re-contextualized all these logos with Kilroy in a funny way.
I know you have an extensive button collection, how did you get into them?
I like funny buttons with weird little sayings and slogans and play on words. From that older eras there were some good ones that were really funny and a play on political situations. I like how the fonts and the sayings combine.
In the last little while, you’ve gotten more and more into books. What has been your general interest involving printing and making books?
I started making books because I personally like them a lot. So many books are being put out, some are good but a lot are pretty bad. People are making book for the sake of doing it and they don’t really care how it looks. I made books with people I admire and I’m constantly trying to get all the details right. It’s fun for me, it doesn’t really make money but I want to make it bigger so I can print more stuff. A lot of people probably don’t care about aspects like paper but some really do and it’s good to hear the feedback about it.
With print’s lifeline a constant topic of discussion, how do books play in this debate?
I think it applies more to magazines because you don’t really keep it. But books are something you want to keep. A ‘zine is not something you want to put on an iPad. The construction and paper in a ‘zine is just as big of a part as the content.
Any last words?
I’m glad to be in Shanghai!
Did you guys both get into skateboarding at the same time?
Ako: He actually skated a couple months before me, but pretty much within two months.
Same for other stuff including DJing?
Ako: DJing was around the same time.
Atiba: Pretty much everything we do, we can start at around a similar time. Except one (Atiba) smokes cigarettes, the other doesn’t. Video games, basketball, golfing, skating, music… the only thing I never picked up even though I’m damn good at it is graphic design.
Ako: But I’m a better photographer.
Atiba: He’s always biting my shit. Everything I’m getting into you always…
Ako: Yeh like today when we’re shooting pictures and you’re like let me get this angle. The wackestphotographer.com right beside me. My shit’s so good I only put it out once every five years.
You’ve both been involved in skating for awhile, more so than ever before people are making some substantial money from skating and its business. What are your thoughts on this?
Atiba: It’s like anything.
Ako: Anybody that’s older came from such a small perspective. It’s a weird to see it but people are getting money and able to live off of it. It’s positive.
Atiba: Some people will hate on it but it is what it is. When I went to high school, you were the only skater. Now that’s not the case except if you’re in China, there are very few skaters in China.
Ako: If people can retire off skating, it’s not a bad thing. Of course the integrity is different, skating is what you want to make of it. Just cause Sheckler is fucking making a million dollars, it doesn’t change how I feel about doing a kick flip.
Atiba: As popular as it gets, not everybody is going to want to go out there and break their arm. That’s only for a certain type of person.
Ako: If you look at what Rob Dyrdek has done, there are plazas everywhere. People are hating on Dyrdek, but he’s actually putting money in people’s pockets.
Back in the early 2000s, you guys did the skate movie Chomp On This which had the roles changed. You guys were starring in a skate video while people like Eric Koston were filming. What was that like?
Atiba: 10 year anniversary, 2012 dude. Put that on HYPEBEAST! It was cool though, a lot of skaters filmed our stuff. It was awesome to have Eric Koston film us.
Ako: You really get a perspective of what it’s like to be hungry and want to be better.
Atiba: To me skating should never be about your job on the line. We saw what it was like to genuinely want to make a video and not when you had a shoe contract on the line.
Throughout skating, there’s been a strong creative element to it. Why is it that skating promotes this sort of creativity?
Atiba: I think you look at the type of people that are skateboarders and they’re usually creatives. It’s not like a traditional sport where you’re handed a field with rules, you’re out to figure things out for yourself.
Ako: To me skating is pure freedom. There are no rules to what you can and cannot do. It’s like art, there are no rules. The coolest thing about skating is your constantly going places to skate and you’re seeing things along your journey and they inspire you. You need output to that and that’s where art comes into play.
Atiba: You look back at the OGs and their graphics on their decks. That was inspiring. Nobody puts graphics on a football or a basketball. My appreciation for art and photography came through skateboard graphics and skateboarding respectively.
How did the Blackouts start?
Atiba: It was just smoking weed on the regs, drinking beer on the regs.
Ako: We had a friend who was like, ‘Oh come DJ for us’. That was it.
Atiba: We have a bar back home in Los Angeles that we DJ at once a month. It was never planned like most things we do.
How do you adjust to DJing in a different country?
Atiba: It doesn’t even have to be a different country… You could be in a different state and it would be a different scene.
Ako: We’re not your traditionalist DJs, and sometimes different music creates different situations. We were in Philly and the whole dance floor was packed with people dancing when usually they wouldn’t be.
What’s your song selection like?
Ako: I don’t have any rules. If the bartenders want to get the people out, I’ll play techno cause everybody’s fuckin’ hating on techno. But if I had to pick, probably reggae… mellow some motherfuckers out, some dance hall for the girls. Just throw out some good vibes.
Atiba: I always like to play Animal Collective or some Dub Step.
I understand you have a pretty deep collection of Vans, how did you get involved so extensively with Vans?
It all comes back to my youth in France. In the early 80s, all the focus was on California and the American Dream. Emerging sports like motorbikes, BMX, skateboarding, they were all taking shape in France. Luckily I had an older brother that showed me the way. My father was working for a dirt bike magazine, so very early on we got into the culture. Eventually one thing led to another and we got extensively into BMX. The first Vans I saw were worn by the pro racers. When you’re 5 or 6 years old, you want to be a pro and I wanted their shoes but I couldn’t find them anymore.
When did you get your first pair and when did you start collecting?
I got my first pair around first grade and from there I’ve been trying to grow my collection. Back in the day, it was impossible to collect them all because there are so many one-offs . When I became a photographer, I started traveling more in the US. In 1998, picking up old Vans were cheap and I was able to catch up. So I started digging everywhere and then eBay arrived. Soon it become an obsession, waking up in the middle of the night to make an ending bid or driving 5 hours to the south of France to check out shoes, it was all pretty standard.. It was pretty exciting but I have two rules for collecting: made in the USA and under $100.
Do you wear all the Vans you collect?
There are some pairs that I never wear, but if they are my size I try to wear them. For last year’s Vans book launch party, I wore a pair I had kept around for 11 years. Something for a special occasion I guess.
So having been such an avid collector to becoming one of the faces of the brand, can you explain your feelings?
It feels very good. It’s almost like an achievement and I’ve been pretty proud of it all. I’ve been so dedicated to the brand so I’m happy to share ideas and new concepts with the brand. This is something I feel very blessed and the experience has been awesome. The roles are a bit reversed while I’m here, usually I’m the one working and taking pictures but now I’m partying and the focus.
How did you begin as a photographer? Was it through your previous experiences in biking experiences?
I started photography just as a pastime in the streets. I was inspired by the likes of Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was pretty young when I started and that was what got me started. It wasn’t exactly my thing, but it was my opportunity to get out into the streets. From there I started shooting friends but action sports was initially my calling. Now most of my work is in the studio with portraits.
For Vans, they’ve been known for so long as a skate-centric brand. But now they’re taking a greater lifestyle approach. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it’s the right move. Vans didn’t find skateboarding, skateboarding found Vans. It’s a natural evolution to move into a lifestyle domain so I think that Vans has a lot to offer from this angle.
You recently worked with American car builder Carroll Shelby, can you give us a little background into your project?
I work on the visuals for a watch brand called MARCH LA.B. The designer behind the brand and I get along quite well and we’ve worked together in the past. His background includes a lot of work with Burton but he decided one day to take the plunge and do a line of upscale watches. We started talking about Shelbys cause he owns one as well as a 1970 Mach 1 Mustang. Through all this talk, he eventually contacted Carroll Shelby. Carroll was a fan of the watches and interested in working together. We spent some time with him and what was supposed to be one afternoon turned into a whole day. His level of passion is incredible. Our first collaboration is based on the Shelby Green Hornet. He’s a hero and the last living legend among car founders. People like Enzo Ferrari have passed away but he’s still around.
You talk a lot about vintage motorcycles. What is it about them that you appreciate but you don’t get from modern design?
When I see a supercar, I don’t have the feeling of ‘I want this’. Maybe cause it’s too much and I don’t like the plastic. But old vintage engineering is something that I have been brought up with. I’ve spent so much time watching my dad race bikes which has educated me on the sounds of the engines, the smell of grease, something new engineering doesn’tt offer. A bike is a working, living piece of art to me. I’m not crazy about having something brand new, I ride all my bikes and prefer to not keep them clean.
I know you also work with video. How do you compare shooting photography versus shooting film?
I haven’t been into videography for too long, maybe around four years. But I see videography as something that when the film is rolling, it’s a balance. It’s like a motorcycle, if it’s not moving properly, it falls over. You have noise, visuals and more factors that contribute to how it works. Photography represents a certain point in time. I like to mix both of them. Working with videos help me be more organized in my work and be more professional. Before, I was a really spur of the moment guy with my photography, but this has changed a bit.
Any last words?
Ride it like you stole it.