Element presents: Elementrio
A retrospective of three skateboard artists: Matt Irving, Don Pendleton and Todd Francis
By Ralph Lloyd Davis

The power of the skateboard graphic is often under-estimated by an arm and a leg by the people who ride the pressed resin planks. But, initially those detailed pictures that decorate the bottom of each deck is a calling card to every child’s imagination.

I remember vividly seeing a Vision Psycho Stick at school one day and being blown away. The electric use of colours was like no cartoon of comic I could have seen or read at the age of 9. It was raw, it was wild, it was unique and it was one of the key elements to making me pursue a life of ollies and wallies. (It was also one of the most popular graphics of all time for Vision!)

So, whilst most of the kids on the block scratch and slide the underside of their boards away and worry more about what next weeks flavour of the month will be, Element Skateboards decided to put on a show that would tour Europe and celebrate the work of three in-house artists that have created some of the most memorable disposable images. Say hello to Don Pendleton, Todd Francis and Mike Irving.

For a brief introduction to each of these artists work let me say that you’ll recognize Todd’s graphics as having a comic style to them and his most notable work has been for Anti Hero, in fact he’s the guy that drew the OG Eagle graphic for the skate bandits!

Don is best known for his freehand drawings that graced Alien Workshop boards in the past, and now Element. His personal favourite was the debut Jason Dill Elephant model. Remember, Don’s work looks like tools have been used, but trust me a lot of it is done free-hand.

Finally, there’s Matt and Matt is the newest graphic designer to join the Element art board. Matt’s work is mostly recognizable through his various takes on simplicity and use of colour, notably in the new Delphi series about to be released by Element. In a personal declaration, Matt explained one of his series’ resembling wallpaper, but damn fine wall paper at that! Enough of the introductions, let’s see what the Elementrio had to say for themselves when Crossfire caught up with them at the Brussels leg of their trip.

So guys, tell me when did you realise you wanted to pursue career in drawing skate graphics?

Todd: On the flight over here! (Laughs) No, seriously. I’ve always been into graphics and the visual imagery is so strong in skating that it just pulled me in and felt like natural progression. I don’t remember exactly when or where it happened, but I knew it was something I wanted to do.

Was there ever any one graphic that sparked this passion?

Don: I really liked the old Neil Blender graphics back when he was on G&S in the early 80s. He did a lot of ink brush sketches and did his own graphics for G&S, then he went to Alien Workshop and upstarted that. You’d try and mirror your favourite pro and that would mean copying their graphics.

Matt: For me it has to be the early Mark Gonzales graphics, or Natas stuff.

Todd: For me it was Courtland Johnson(Renowned Powell-Peralta artist who instigated the Skull and Dagger graphics) whose graphics used to blow me away each time I saw them. But when you get older you start to realise that there are only so many ways you can make a living off your art, and (skate graphics) are probably one of the most free ways and enjoyable mediums to do that in life, so it became a pretty easy decision to make.

What were your first professional graphics that actually ended up being screened and sold in a skateshop?

Matt: My first professional piece of work was for a Colt Cannon rookie board. I worked with Todd on it but we’re not very proud of it and like to pretend it doesn’t exist! (Laughs) I worked on an idea of Todds to illustrate with pencil and charcoal which was an animal series.

Don: My first graphic was the Jason Dill debut model on Alien Workshop because he had just got on the team.

The one with the elephant? I had that board!

Don: Yeah! The guys at Alien Workshop saw that I could draw so they pretty much just left me to my own devices. From then on I did pretty much all of their graphics. This was in early 1998.

Todd: The first board I did was for Julien Stranger when he was on Real. Julien was in court at the time for skating or drunken misconduct..? I think it was drunken misconduct. Anyway, he was stuck in court and no-one could reach him, so I figured I’d do a graphic that portrayed his situation with a judge and bailiff overlooking the viewer.

Is it hard to draw graphics for certain pros? Do they just tell you to draw something ‘cool’..?

Don: Working with the Alien Workshop guys is pretty easy for me because they are good friends of mine and we hang out a lot. I can pretty much draw whatever comes into my mind because I know what they’re into and I know their personalities. Over at Element, I don’t know the riders so well, so we all get together and kick ideas around. It’s more of a collaboration rather than me doing my own thing.

Todd: At Element we have a lot of fun doing what we do. We work with the riders and they trust us, so in actual fact we’re pretty free to try what we want. Everyone puts in their 2 cents and the art department guy gets a look. We have a lot of say in what goes down, so it’s mostly up to us.

What was your favourite period for skate graphics?

Don: The mid-80’s for me, like 85-86-87. I loved the Neil Blender Coffee Break graphic, and Mark Gonzales Underwater graphics. It just didn’t seem like it was considered an art at the time. During that period, some people were really starting to take their graphics seriously, but as a kid I was so far removed from all that.

Todd: I think I’d have to say the mid-80’s too, like 84-85-86… Well, actually maybe it was before that. Like the Courtland Johnson stuff when you’re young and impressionable it blows you away because it’s so technically better than what you think you could do. Looking over the last 15 years or so, it gets a lot harder because everything getting thrown out there. Of course you have a few favourite series’, but essentially when you get into adulthood you tend to look back at when you were a kid and what influenced you then. At least that’s how I look at it.

Matt: I’m younger than these two, so whenever they were inspired to draw graphics is probably when I got inspired. I think my favourite period was the early 90’s with basic colour graphics between the bolts and solid colour boards. Clean and simple aesthetic was when I was completely infatuated with skateboarding and doing it for hours and hours. I think childhood memories reign supreme, and I like a lot of the old Girl stuff, the old Real and Stereo stuff that Todd did. We figured that out later on when I talked to him. If I had to have any one board, I might have to say the Jason Lee Blind board with the gun, beer, TV and cigarettes on it. Something about that graphic I just love, it’s so funny!

What graphic are you most proud of? And, which graphic of yours do you with never went to print?

Don: I’ve done over 350 boards, but there’s only one that I really like and that’s a Jason Dill board, probably right after I met him. He told me what he wanted, like these colours and shapes and I got it for him. That’s the one I’m most happy with, I can’t think of one I’m not happy with though because at the end of the day, if you’re not really happy with it, you don’t submit it.

Todd: You see, I’m envious of Don because he doesn’t have a single board he didn’t like, whereas I have done hundreds! (Laughs) I tend to focus on the ones I don’t like and wish to never see again, but that’s because of the nature of deadlines. I’ve had to draw up graphics in a day, and that can result in a lot of bad shit. My favourite graphic has to be the Julien Stranger graphic of a cop dog biting the face of the cop.

Were you inspired by an old Consolidated advert for that?

Todd: No, I wouldn’t say it was a direct inspiration, We were doing a Nature’s Revenge series where all the animals got back at humans, and Julien always wanted the most fucked up graphic possible, so there it was!

Matt: I don’t have a single graphic that I’m more proud of than others. There are a few series I did for Stereo that I’m proud of, like the Construct series with the wonky graphics. I also like the Cut Out series I did for Jason Lee and the Stereo team. Now, it’ll be some of my new Element work that’s under my direction notably the new Delphi series which is about to be released. As far as a particular board I don’t like, I can’t say… As a graphic designer, part of my job is to help facilitate people’s ideas and make them happy, but this doesn’t always make me happy. I’m definitely envious of Don who gets to blaze his trail and focus on more personal pieces of work. I have to try and convey the ideas that the team riders want, so when I did a series for Element – the Non Series- where we allowed every rider to pick the subject matter and general aesthetic of their boards from start to finish. Todd and I worked on that series and I guarantee you it is probably one of the worst that ever got produced! (Laughs) It never happened again, and I don’t think the team riders were too stoked either…

Yeah, leave the artists to do the art and the pros to skate! Do you ever think skateboard graphics are taken for granted?

Don: There may have been a time like that, but not anymore. People collect them, sell them on E-bay and stuff like it’s legitimate art.

Have you ever been approached by non-skaters for commissioned work or anything?

Don: over the last couple of years, you’ve got some big corporations and companies like Mountain Dew or something that will want you to do something for their ad campaign. Like they’re trying to get ‘that feeling’, you know? You get offers from people like that, but I’ve never taken any of them.

What advice would you give to a young kid that wants to start a career in drawing skate graphics?

Matt: Just keep drawing and expanding on your ideas. Take as many art classes as you can at school and dedicate as much time as you can to being creative and drawing the things that are in your own brain.

Don: I think kids will draw whatever they like because it’s just a skateboard and that’s freedom right there. You mustn’t get caught up and try and do ‘Skate or Die!’ graphics. Just keep it as personal as possible. Just try and figure out what you want to say and say it.

Todd: I would just say don’t fall in love with your work because it will make you lazy. Try as hard as you possibly can to get better and better. Push yourself and challenge yourself so your stuff keeps growing. You don’t ever want to look back and wish you’d tried harder or put in more effort. Life’s too short and people die all of the time.

Associated links:

Element Tour Blog
Don Pendleton’s Elephont website
Todd Francis’ personal website
Matt Irving’s Delphi Collective website

If you are into skate graphics you have to buy the Disposable book by Sean Cliver…click here to read a review – it’s just amazing.