Todd Francis, Artist & Designer for Antihero, Real, Stereo, Element and More
Todd Francis has been creating art for some of the most well-known brands in skateboarding for over 20 years. Todd is responsible for the iconic Antihero eagle logo, along with countless other well-known graphics, which are being compiled into a 96-page book celebrating the career of one of the most legendary and prolific artists in the business.
"Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis", which is available starting June 26, features over 200 reproductions of classic and never-before-seen decks, illustrations, paintings and sketches. The book is released by WINS, a project-based creative outlet for graphic designer Winston Tseng and selected artists. Winston has previously produced books through WINS with artists Marc McKee and Todd Bratrud, but "Look Away" is technically the first book to be published by WINS.
We interviewed Todd Francis and Winston Tseng in anticipation of the release of "Look Away: The Art of Todd Francis" to get the scoop on what it takes to successfully publish a book. We asked the creative pair how they both got involved in skateboarding, what led to their decision to produce "Look Away", why they aren't satisfied yet in their career and much more - check it out!
How did you initially get started working in the skateboarding industry?
Todd Francis (TF): After graduating from college with a studio art degree, I was scuffling to find a home for my art. I had hoped a career in editorial illustration was ahead of me, but it was so cutthroat and hard to elbow my way into it, I got pretty frustrated. I was living in San Francisco, and a friend of mine worked at Slap Magazine there, and he’d heard about an entry level art production job opening up at Deluxe Distribution, which was and still is SF’s largest skate company. I was lucky enough to get hired for that, and worked my butt off every day there, having the time of my life while finally getting to make art for a living.
Winston Tseng (WT): After college I was working as a graphic designer for this really boring big corporate company that specialized in internet faxing, and it sucked. I started hanging out during lunch and after work at this shop down the street from the office called 118 Boardshop and eventually got to know everyone there. At the same time I was going home every night and secretly making deck graphics for them. My plan was to just show up one day with a binder full of graphics and tell them “Here’s a bunch of graphics you can use for your shop boards, you don’t have to pay me, I just want them to get made”. And it worked.
Then after a while I started looking for jobs at the bigger skate companies and with my new “shop portfolio” I ended up getting a job at Giant Distribution working on Popwar. I actually applied through Malakye too!
What were the early days like? Did you ever see yourself failing or doing anything else?
TF: Those first few years out of college were rough, and I was doing temp jobs in random office buildings during the day while working on freelance illustration jobs at night, mostly for the local free weeklies in San Francisco. Most of it was either for free or for a hundred bucks, but it kept me working and thinking and reaching a certain, albeit small audience with whatever ideas I’d wanted to get out there.
As for failing, back then it felt like I was failing...I’d felt so good about my work in college, I’d graduated with honors and had received all these college journalism awards for my editorial artwork for the daily college newspaper, so I felt like I was on a roll as I graduated, and then boom, I hit the wall of the real world. It’s pretty funny now, thinking it’d be easy to keep that kind of momentum going in the real world, what was I thinking? I got knocked down really hard, really fast!
Were there any significant events or particular projects you worked on that served as milestones and made you feel like you were making it is an artist?
TF: One big milestone was just getting that job at Deluxe - getting a job where I got to make art for a living, that was a huge moment. Beyond that, being at Deluxe during the start of Antihero Skateboards was a very important time for me, because it shaped my future in this industry that continues today.
And then starting my own tee shirt company, Special Crud, last year was another big moment for me - actually creating something that I can direct and control. That’s a big deal to me right now.
WT: I don’t really ever think of myself or my work in that way, so it’s hard to say. Over the years it’s been nice to get some credit in magazines and interviews, and also to have my work included in exhibitions at galleries and museums. But there’s so much more I want to do and feel like I need to do before I’d feel like I was “making it”.
Who are your artistic influences?
TF: I’m not going to list studio artists as my greatest influences, that is boring. I’m much more inspired by the people brave enough to be original, who have done things nobody else has done...people like Howard Stern, The Three Stooges, Steve Martin, Jimi Hendrix, Devo, John Lennon, John Belushi...people with a message and an idea and a recklessness to execute on their vision, no matter what.
When did you two first meet:
TF: Winston and I have inhabited the same circles for a number of years, and we’d met a few times in passing over the years. We never really had a true conversation until he decided he wanted the latest version of his ongoing skate art books series to be about me. Since then, we’ve talked pretty much every day.
When did the idea for a Todd Francis book come about?
TF: The decision was entirely Winston’s. Seeing what he’d done with the previous editions on skate art legends Mark McKee and Todd Bratrud, the bar had been set high….but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the challenge of doing it differently.
Now the word is out, and fans of Antihero and the other various iterations of my art over the years seem to be fairly interested in the book. Which feels pretty good.
WT: Basically from the time the idea for the book series started, I knew Todd was someone I wanted to work with and feature in a book of his own. There have been a lot of books on skate graphics before, but to me they didn’t do a great job highlighting the artists and how unique they each are (aside from Sean Cliver’s Disposable books, which are amazing). Most of the books lump all the artists together and only show board graphics, presenting everything in a kitschy way. I wanted to showcase each artist individually and give credit to their different styles and variety of art beyond just decks. With Todd’s career and body of work, it was a no brainer.
"Look Away" will be the third book produced by WINS, what did you learn from the process of creating the first 2 with Todd Bratrud and Marc McKee?
WT: The one lesson that stands out for me is that these things take time to put together, it’s just the nature of the beast. Books are so different than any other product I’ve worked on; they take 100 times longer but hopefully the end result is 100 times more worthwhile.
Who else has been involved in the production of the book that has helped to make this happen?
WT: Seb Carayol was a huge part of making it happen. Since I was officially publishing the book this time around, my role changed to handle more of the backend “business” stuff. Seb took on the responsibility of working closely with Todd to go through all of his work and edit it down to the content for the book, which believe me is no small task. But if you know Seb, you know he’s perfect for the job since he’s practically a skateboard historian.
How did you go about selecting the images included in the book?
TF: That’s where the book’s editor, Seb Carayol enters the picture. He had an incredible understanding of my past work, especially that with Antihero, so he had some strong opinions of how the book should be presented, and what it should contain. I added all of my personal favorites to it, and then compared notes with my art representative and business partner Yong-Ki Chang of Equal Distribution on what original artwork, new and old, should be added. Winston also had a ton of great layout ideas, which really improved the finished product.
As for my favorite work in the book, I’d say my series of paintings entitled “When Animals Rape” are always a big hit. And the Holocaust Santa Xmas card illustration on the inside front and back cover are equally eye-catching.
What challenges did you face while working to publish the book?
WT: Aside from the overall time and effort from everyone involved to put the book together, the main challenge we continue to face is just getting the book out there more and more. The response from the industry and fans of Todd has been amazing, and we’d like to build on that and get people beyond skateboarding excited as well - in the book world, the art world, and the rest of the world!
What has been the most rewarding aspect of producing the book?
WT: Probably just knowing that there are a lot of people out there that like the book and support it. That we’ve made something worth having and keeping.
Can you share any advice with anyone in our audience looking to break into the skateboarding industry?
WT: Figure out exactly what you’d like to be doing in the industry and go for it. Be proactive and offer to do some work for free. And if you can’t get a company to give you a shot, then just DIY.
TF: I guess I’d encourage anyone who enters pretty much any creative career to be original, to be informed and have a perspective, and to let it be clear in their work. Nothing is more obvious than a rip off, and the only thing worse than that is the artist who gets lazy and never pushes themselves to improve upon their work. Does that count as advice?
What does creating and releasing this book mean to you in terms of your career achievements?
TF: Having a publisher ask you to be the sole focus of a book spanning your career is a huge honor, and I’m not taking that, or any part of this fun, goofy career of mine for granted. I’m proud to see it all together in a nice tidy package, but seeing people’s enthusiasm for the book when they see it is even more gratifying. Making people laugh or react strongly or whatever is why I do this.
Where do you go from here?
TF: Well, I hope to keep doing board graphics with Antihero, because that’s still just so much fun, and I also hope Special Crud will flap its pigeon wings and fly higher and higher. Also working hard on my studio work, so I can have some good art shows in the years to come. Basically, all I can hope is to keep improving as an artist while I have fun doing that crazy stuff I do.
Care to add any last words?
TF: If you’re interested in checking out Special Crud, go to http://www.equaldist.com/collections/special-crud, and my artwork is available via http://www.equaldist.com/collections/todd-francis. Keep watching Antihero for more new good stuff, and I sincerely thank everyone for all the support I’ve received over the years.
WT: Thanks to everyone who’s purchased LOOK AWAY or any of our previous books. With your continued support we’ll be able to keep making the next one...