Jim Phillips Interview

If you were lucky enough to be skateboarding during the heyday of the 1980’s then there’s every chance you would have skated, admired or talked about the wonderful graphics of Jim Phillips. His ability to draw explosive characters and bring them to life is a gift only few are handed in life.

To this day his work still carries respect worldwide. His skateboard art inspired generations and set a benchmark for other brands who watched the phenomenon of Santa Cruz Skateboards take off to become one of the most successful skate companies of all time. It’s a long time coming but Phil Procter finally caught up with Jim in his studio as he goes back to the drawing board to team up with Santa Cruz once again!

How’s it going Jim?

Everything’s been great, thanks for having me on board.

Still living in sun soaked Santa Cruz?

Sun’s shining as usual! I’ll never leave this town for sure, whether the sun’s out or the fog’s in.

Are you still drawing as much as you used to?

If you mean in my “treadmill” years, when I would only interrupt drawing to grab a bite, six hours of sleep and then get back on it and power on, the answer is no. But I’m enjoying drawing more now, because I’m more relaxed and just do it when I feel inspired. I’m a little more secure in my older age and have floated past the need to grind out dozens of graphics each week just to keep even. And I don’t assume the hectic deadlines anymore, it’s just finished when it’s finished.

What about surfing? Getting many waves in?

We’re having our usual summer flat spell, so any kind of wave that pops up somewhere gets gang-banged. The serious surfers resort to traveling around and that’s often the same story except more expensive. In fact it’s getting so that it’s hard to find the peace that used to result from being in the water. But the quiver is hanging in my studio, and like art, I’ll go when I go. I’m just waiting for surfing to become uncool so I can have it like it used to be.

If you didn’t have the surf influence, do you think your style would have been the same?

My earliest paying art was hot rod pin-striping and monster-on-the-dashboard painting. Hot rods were big in those days, and I was somewhat influenced by Pete Millar, the cartoonist for Hot Rod Magazine. A few years later, my first published work was a 1961 woody drawing, a winner in a surf-car cartoon contest held by Surfer Magazine. In that drawing you can see Millar’s style incorporated into my work with those little shaky lines running around his outlines. At that time, Rick Griffin was doing Murphy in Surfer and you can see the same type of wiggly lines around his drawings, I think he must have been influenced by Millar too. If that’s true then surfing art’s roots extend deeply from hot rodding.

How important was music when you were growing up and your style evolving?

Music was so important that I don’t think anything would have happened without it. I was fortunate enough to witness the very beginning of rock & roll. I was only ten years old in 1954 but it was like a new day then. It was a new day, and as rock has evolved it has changed everything else along the way. The most personal influence in my art was in the listening, of course. Art means long and usually lonely hours at the drawing board, and music helps immensely to keep at it, and it inspires greatly when you hear hot stuff. I can’t play or sing but I’m a good listener.

Any major influences? Artists, musicians etc

There are so many influences in art and music that I couldn’t even cover all of them in my three books. I would probably need a thick book just to give a general outline. I believe that the formative years are monumental in an artist’s development, like when you are just a dorky kid in your bedroom screwing around. I grew up mostly before television, but I was inspired by comic books. Some were very influential, such as Disney’s Donald Duck, written and drawn by Carl Barks. You can still see that kind of cleanly drawn lines in my own work. I wrote him a few fan letters but he was kind and humble enough to deflect any credit for my style.

Later I was inspired by the amazing Disney animated features like Pinocchio, and soon enough graduated on to more subversive material like EC’s MAD Comics. I say subversive because EC was one target of the 1950s McCarthy hearings in Congress, an inquisition which resulted in the Comics Code Authority under which mainstream comics abide. As far as music, I’ve swam with much of the flow of popular music over the years, and whatever comes to me from one of our local non-commercial radio stations, which tend to be eclectic and diverse. I like classical music for drawing because it’s soothing and meditative. Loud rock or reggae is best for late at night, it works better than coffee.

How supportive were your art teachers at the time, were they into your stuff?

I’ve had some amazing teachers starting at age eleven when my mom enrolled me in Ralph Gray‘s free children’s art classes. Gray was a local institution, and you could see his logos and hand-lettered advertising all over town. He was then doing work for the Santa’s Village amusement park, so there were large wooden-cut-out fairies and elves around the paint spattered studio. He was a major influence, especially in later years because his was the kind of art you could make a living on, and I patterned myself after him in many ways doing advertising logos and hand lettering.

Art at school was mostly detached from the real world, and I was already drawing my way through all of my classes. They give you a pencil and paper and want you to be quiet, so it was a great time to draw hot rods, surfers and skateboarders. Of course that meant I flunked every class, but it was because I repeated my senior year twice that finally one of my art teachers, Don Thompson at Cabrillo College, helped me win a scholarship to art school by talking me into submitting a portfolio to California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Ca. I did well in art school but after the first year they found out I didn’t have a high school diploma and canceled my scholarship.

Your son adopted your legendary skills, I guess you are dead proud like any parent would be, do you work together on a lot of projects at all?

Jimbo knocks my sock off with his over-the-top approach to surf, skate and rock art, so you know I’m a proud dad. We keep talking about doing some collaborations, but he’s so busy with commissions to have the space. I could say with a fair amount of certainty that you can expect a father and son Santa Cruz skateboard deck sometime in the future, Jimbo’s been working for them quite a while, and I have just come back aboard.

What does your son work on that is different to your era?

Jimbo rips in the punk rock sector, whereas I’m mostly a child of the 60’s. You can see the difference in our rock posters. He’s been a member of several punk rock bands over the years so he’s had an inside view of that genre. I really dig the dark humor that Jimbo incorporates as sight gags into his punk posters and art, like the grim reaper showing up for a date or the peeing Calvin getting peed on himself, just barfing vicious midget type stuff. And Jimbo’s pretty much taken over the local surf art demand, partly because no one else can draw gnarly grinding waves like he can.

I never really saw too many of the skulls and things in your artwork, I mean the actual “Skull” deck was a classic, but given what Powell Peralta were doing in that era, was it a conscious decision to leave them to it and do your own thing?

It’s obvious that Powell was all over the skull and bones imagery as soon as the doors opened for full deck graphics, and VC Johnson rendered them as well as anyone could expect. So I definitely made a conscious decision to focus on fleshy monsters. After bones and flesh are cornered, what else is left, trees? Eventually, after what I thought was a respectable amount of time for their exclusivity, probably years, I came up with the Skull graphic for a generic no rider model.

I’ve got the Jason Jesse “Neptune” deck proudly on my wall, any favourite decks from that late 80s era that stand out for you? If not which one?

It’s an honor to be part of your space, and that is such a great residual of the toil, and all the particular circumstances that have to line up for that to happen. I greatly enjoy most of the decks that we produced during that time, although there were more than a few that were beyond my complete control because of the huge volume of graphics at hand. I tend be partial to the ones where I was free to do my own thing, such as the RR 5, the RR Eye, Slasher, and the Skull to name a few.

The art on the Cruz decks suited the pro skaters pretty well, did they share your vision on their graphics? or did you have to battle with them?

I always tried to do my best for them, and I’ve read plenty of crabbing despite making some of them rich. But most of them were great to work with, and I enjoyed that part of my job, because it presented a fairly dynamic challenge. Plenty of great art has come out of constraint, because out of constraint comes the opportunity for exposure. It then becomes a matter of compromise, which is inescapable on one level or another if not just because art has to deal with physics and thus must operate somewhere in conjunction with the laws of nature. Relatively, subject-matter compromise becomes insignificant.

Santa Cruz still use your art, it’s like they never passed the benchmark you set for them – do you ever work on any more projects over at NHS since you all fell out publicly?

Thanks for your assessment of my past efforts, I worked hard enough. And yes, I’m proud to announce, that I’m working on a deck for Santa Cruz! I’m actually doing a new Slasher model with Keith Meek. Amazing! I’ve been emailing sketch ideas to him all week. It’ll be my first board with Santa Cruz in 18 years…and it’s great to be back home. There’s more decks planned for me, and a whole lot of new products.

Would you agree that the Screaming Hand is probably one of the most classic graphics of all time in our scene?

The worldwide popularity of the Screaming Hand is amazing. I think it expresses the inexpressible, much like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ conveys existential angst. It symbolizes, or registers, declaration of a myriad of dysfunctions in a fragmented society, much of it attributable to man’s inhumanity to man. The vehicle of it’s form, the sticker, provides the perfect medium of it’s expression. I’m sure Edwardian era buggies in Norway would carry Munch stickers if they were invented back then. And notice how the iconic power of a static image like Screaming Hand, done with “old world” graphic art techniques, simple pen & ink line art with flat color, can not only compete, but excel in a world of animated full-color mega-virtuality.

We were surprised to see a deck being promoted this month with the Screaming Hand on. There’s even a shoe with a screaming hand graphic on it now….

Yeah, obviously the Screaming Hand certainly has caught a raw nerve in skateboarding, but it doesn’t stop there. I’ve seen it painted it on custom motorcycles, hot rod trucks and dry-lakes racers. I’ve seen about a hundred million tattoos of it, and Jimbo’s wife Jenni took a photo of a cantina in Mexico with two giant Screaming hands guzzling cerveza painted on each side of the entrance. And you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, because, after more than twenty years “that thing” has finally made it onto those skateboard decks! And the line now includes vinyl toys, there’s even a Screaming Hand two-gigabyte USB drive, and sculptor Kim Ito is working on a S-Hand Christmas tree ornament for Santa Cruz. I think the Screaming Hand space shuttle is coming up next.

Have you had any new graphics out in skateboarding lately?

Until just recently, over the last few years I’ve done quite a few decks for Pocket Pistols Skates, working with Matt French PPS art director. We spent hours on the phone and emailed sketches back and forth, collaborated on a few projects, and had a lot of art fun. I was able to do a new design for Claus Grabke, and several up-and-coming skaters. I also worked with a few overseas companies on vinyl toys, doing some of my iconic skate characters like Screaming Hand and Screaming Foot in blue, glow-in-the-dark and fuzzy orange.

What artists are you enjoying at the moment?

Besides Matt, and Ito, I’ve been hanging with ‘big-car’ designer Mike Leeds a lot lately, we just rode up together to the Minna Gallery in San Francisco as featured artists at an exhibition reception for Garage Magazine. Mike is so amazing, his creations include Big Bertha, a hot-rod roadster made from a Seagraves hook-and-ladder tractor, a chopped and channeled bio-deisel Peterbuilt semi-truck, and several custom built trikes with full-blown V8 Hemi motors. As one of the Blastolene Brothers with Randy Grubb, Mike co-created the Blastolene Special, a large-scale car for Jay Leno’s collection, with a 1800 cubic inch V-12, 900 horsepower tank engine from a 1950’s Patten M47 tank. Google: B-702, and see the latest.

Anyone to look out for?

Yeah, watch out for Colby James Phillips, my grandson. Sure he’s only six, but he already has a t-shirt in Japan with his own rendition of Screaming Hand, and he was just interviewed for SK8FACE, Matt Bass’s skateboard art history documentary. Colby’s already a good little skater, has a deck collection on his wall including a signed Tony Hawk, and wants to be a skateboard artist when he grows up, just like his dad! …and grand-dad I might add!

You have books out there and most obviously the latest one that covers your skate graphic career only. How long does it take to layout such a big task and what factors decide on what goes in?

It was just a deep tunnel. Imagine five months of psycho-therapy, where you lie on the virtual couch and decide on which parts of your life have greater priority for exposure. Except instead of a couch – it’s a chair – and that’s like taking a five-month plane ride in coach. The autobiography alone was a monumental task for me, and then add in tracking down and soliciting art and decent quotes from others, the archiving of images, the scanning and adjusting of each image in high quality resolution, and you get a sampling of this complicated and lengthy ordeal. Oh, and since I like to be able to control the display of my art, I have done the complete book layouts and typesetting myself.

Are they sold in lots of countries?

I was very fortunate to fall into the hands of Schiffer Books, they do a great job of distributing around the world. Rich Novak was actually the one who mailed them the manuscript for my first book. Peter and Nancy Schiffer often come out from Pennsylvania to visit our home. In fact, a few weeks ago the whole Schiffer family including son Pete, came out and took Dolly and me, along with Mike Leeds, out to dinner on the wharf. The Schiffer’s will soon be publishing a book on Mike’s fantastic leaded glass art.

Do you get people coming through your site asking about your work all over the world?

Quite often, as today, I get offers to “fix-up” my website. It is twelve years old, and in kind of disrepair, but back when it was working smoother I was inundated with email. I’m afraid if I spruced it up I would get flooded with more attention. As it is, I do an hour or two every day keeping current with my inbox. I try to answer everyone, and do a lot of interviews. Sometimes connections grow in depth from mutual interests or some kind of project or offer. Many are requests for images for tattoos. The internet is amazing as a connection to others, and so much has happened to me with friends around the world, stuff that could never be imagined twelve years ago.

Have your techniques moved with the times, or are you resisting graphic software?

I was among the first to get digital art programs back when it hardly worked. It was super expensive, and there was only a very limited ability to store or remove data. It was like the computer cave-man days, our first Mac had 128 KB of memory! Ugh, Grogg get floppy! Along the way of the “Bleeding Edge”, plenty of money got thrown out the window, endlessly upgrading on a treadmill of equipment going rapidly obsolete, but overall the computer is a completely astounding tool, which could only have come from space aliens.

Any thoughts on the commercial success skating is having right now with the likes of the X-Games, Nike etc?

Think Olympics, and just wait. Already skateboarding is routinely used in broad-based advertising to show coolness, and modernity. And it ain’t goin’ away folks, it’s been around in a consistent way too long to ever die. It’s the ultimate “every-kid” device, a cure for boredom, cheap, do-it-anywhere, loads of fun and good exercise.

Is it the same with surfing?

Almost every restaurant in this town has surfboards hanging. Surfers used to be considered bad boys in this town, surf bums! But all that changed when these small businesses smelled tourist money. Now the bad boys are skateboarders.

What’s in the pipeline for Phillips Studios in the future?

There’s a lot going on with my art, but I’ve been able to control it so that I’m not just on a big treadmill. It was hard to get there but that’s what I have managed. I can start the day and decide what ever it is that I want to work on, instead of some big list with a schedule, and that awful word, “dead”-line. I would like to expand the toy line, and I’m working closely with Ito on that, and paying attention to licensing new products, but I like so be open and see what comes next.

Famous last words….

“Civilizations crumble, granite towers collapse, generations pass, only the art remains.”

Want to thank anyone etc?

My thanks to you, Zac and all at Crossfire to feature my story and work. View the Jim Phillips website at My 3 books are available from my publisher at