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Craig Metzger: Sketches to Skateboards

The staggeringly bold silhouettes and graphical shape shifters Craig Metzger creates should merit arrogance. So perhaps it’s the skateboarder in him that keeps him so grounded…or maybe it’s just the crippling insecurities. Uncomfortable with his drawing abilities, Metzger attributes any success to mere will. And upon completion of this interview, Metzger squirmed. “Hopefully I didn’t sound like an idiot,” he worried, rather charmingly.

Metzger lived the bulk of his life in the crowded NYC art market, so it’s no wonder he’s anxious. The cruel gallery world offered little help at times, so Metzger supplemented his art designing for clients like Etnies, Jack Spade, and Burton. Niche art magazines like Arkitip and B+W also began to take notice.

After a series of small victories with corporate clients Matador Records, Nike, and MTV, Metzger returned whole hog to his skateboarding roots in the summer of 2004. Disgusted by board companies’ increasingly corporate interests, he launched Instant Winner, a brand that brought skateboarding back to its close-knit roots.

Helmed by former Zoo York skateboards’ Billy Rohan, Instant Winner is becoming a small wonder in an industry whose intense competition and snooty politics mirror only those of the art world. Dog eat vert dog, if you will. Adding to the momentum, the company just unveiled its maiden skate video, Nickels and Dimes (which Metzger art directed), and an innovative new line of 3-D board graphics (glasses included). Not unlike Instant Winner’s irony-laden mantra, Metzger’s wildly creative output does indeed “bring the radical oh so hard.”

XLR8R: Skateboarders are notorious for talking smack, so don’t disappoint us here, Craig. Name the most terrible graphic design trends in skateboarding right now.

Craig Metzger: Oh man, I didn’t expect questions like this. Well, it seems like a lot of companies aren’t putting much thought into their graphics anymore. There are standouts like Alien Workshop and Anti-Hero, but of course they’ve always stood out since day one. I miss the late ‘80s in terms of graphic direction and execution.

Skart [skate art] has blown up big time over the past couple years. In fact, I just saw Ed Templeton’s work in Details. Would it be a mistake to label some of this stuff fine art?

I hate the word “skart”; it almost pigeonholes you as an artist. I think all this new attention to “low-brow” art is amazing and it’s about time. It seems, traditionally, to make it in the art world you had to have some sort of education focusing on a discipline. This whole new attention that these artists are getting is just and deserved. They work just as hard as someone with an MFA. But it is sort of trippy seeing people like Ed in Details, I must say. Once the masses get ahold of it, it becomes a completely new beast.

You are quite open about your lack of formal training, naming rogue street artists like Henry Darger as influences. Does this type of self-awareness contribute to your art-making process, or is it merely a bird flip to schooled artists?

Darger wasn’t necessarily a street artist but more of a strange guy who wrote the biggest novel in history and made pictures to illustrate his book. The great thing about Darger is that he never set out to be an artist–his novels were the main focus of work. Darger used all sorts of stuff to illustrate: collage, pencil drawings, watercolor, tracings, ink. If he didn’t have the skill to pull off what he wanted, he figured out a way to show that. I really admire that determination.

As far as self-awareness, it’s merely a way for me to say that all this art that I’ve been creating comes from real trial and error and most of all it’s genuine. Sometimes I wish I had the balls to go to art school when I was younger but I thought I didn’t have the skill to be successful.

You’ve described each piece of your art as “an illustration for a story based on fantasy.” Must art always tell a story?

It doesn’t always have to, and a lot of artists battle with this. There is all this pressure for your art to have meaning and relate to something. Most of my pieces are my interpretations on experiences or some sort of twisted fantasy–like the type of fantasies you would read while growing up, especially fables. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was young so I’m sure that has some effect on my work.

From Basquiat to billboard saboteurs, it’s safe to say that street art has been very well explored. And with large corporations like Scion and Nike co-opting the art form, it seems as though a lid has been fastened down on its evolution. How do you see street-based art growing–or wilting–in the near future?

I don’t participate in street art [like] wheatpasting or going out on midnight bombing missions. I somehow got lumped in this category and it’s cool with me but I don’t do any street activities. I do support it to the fullest.

I think corporate involvement allows a typically unnoticed art form to get some long overdue recognition and hopefully some money. As far as nurturing the scene goes, I think some of the corporations are making an effort to shine some light on a scene that normally is left in the dark.

But it’s one thing to be a patron of the arts and quite another to be a pilferer of the arts. Absolut, for example, could’ve easily sponsored Phil Frost or Maya Hayuk, but instead they turned their art into a liquor advertisement. I guess the question is, whatever happened to art lovers buying art?

A part of me used to think it was lame when a big corporation would profit from an artist’s work and credibility. Then I started to think about how this country’s government is constantly cutting back on the arts, and selling paintings on the regular doesn’t happen for every artist. In an ideal world I wouldn’t back the whole paint-on-a-bottle or a sneaker but when you have to pay rent and put food on the table you really have to put your priorities in perspective.

What do you think of those cartoons in the New Yorker?

I never read the New Yorker and a part of me thinks this is a trick question.

We wouldn’t do that to you. Based on that answer, is there one area of your art that you’re most insecure about?

Everything [laughs]. I think my drawings are my weakest point. I can’t just go with one stroke, for example, when I draw a face. There are like 40 lines to make up one cheek. I think if I was more confident in my line work, the drawings would look like normal drawings instead of sketches. This insecurity started me using cut paper. I’d draw something and then take an X-Acto blade to it. The knife brought that straight line I was looking for.

Instant Winner just released its maiden video, Nickels And Dimes. What kind of approach did you bring to the table, from an art direction standpoint?

I had this idea of basing a video on Coney Island. Coney Island has always been this creepy place to me but also has so much history. I ran the idea by filmer Shea Gonyo and he took it to a level that is super awesome. The video is short (20 minutes) but after you watch it you want to run out and skate.

Would you ever take the same career path as Spike Jonze?

I think I’d rather follow the career path of [Thrasher and Independent Trucks owner] Fausto and own all of skateboarding and its magazines [laughs].

Karen O or Sofia Coppola?

Coppola wine while listening to Karen Black.

Okay Craig, what’s the smartest advice you’ve ever received as an artist?

Always throw the first punch.

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