You may not know Todd Francis by name, but you’ve probably seen his artwork. For the last quarter-century, the L.A.-bred artist has been spreading his darkly funny, often political work across the country and around the world on the backs of the skateboards he's designed for major companies like Antihero, Vans and Element, and in the pages of prominent publications such as Penthouse, Complex and Thrasher. Now he's getting more personal with “Worst of the Worst,” a retrospective of some of his favorite work, on display at Shepard Fairey's Subliminal Projects beginning Saturday, Aug. 5.
“Hopefully people will be entertained and get some laughs out of the deal,” Francis says. “Maybe people who are fans of my work with Antihero and with Penthouse will get a reminder of how long I’ve been doing this stuff for. … Mostly I just hope people come on out and have some laughs.”
Entertainment value aside, the new retrospective has given Francis a chance to look back at everything he’s created over the past few decades. Some of his designs have become ubiquitous to the point of being iconic, but as he's continued to create art for personal projects and long-standing contracts, he's never really taken the time to survey his career.
“Other than being proud of how well some of the stuff has lasted and how far it's spread, I’m not really good at looking back on my work,” Francis says. “I don’t have a whole lot of perspective on my work because I’m always just trying to focus on what I’m doing right now. I operated deadline to deadline, so I haven’t given it too much thought other than being proud of the staying power.”
But even as someone who made a name for himself designing skateboard art, it’s not exactly an industry he’d recommend to a young artist looking to make it big. Skateboarding — and the art that goes with it — is obviously a significantly bigger and more prominent business than it was back in the early 1990s when Francis was cutting his teeth, but the expanded popularity doesn’t mean it’s any easier for an artist to catch a break. After all of the ups and downs skateboarding has seen over the past couple of decades, there are still as many aspiring artists as there are decks to create, and that’s before taking into consideration how many great designs and ideas have already been used.
“It’s a really tough road to hoe, and it’s definitely a passion project — not something you do for riches or fame,” Francis says. “For anyone who wants to do skateboard graphics, devote the energy to seeing what’s already been done and creating a unique perspective that doesn’t already exist out there. The bar is set pretty high these days — and you don’t want to look like you’re ripping someone else off — but you want something that people are going to look at and hopefully remember or be entertained in some way.
“When I got started in the early to mid ’90s, skateboarding was definitely in something of a lull, where the only people who cared about it were the people who really cared about it,” Francis continues. “I was lucky because I had that time to develop my voice when the stakes weren’t very high. Then, 10 years later when it exploded, the stakes and standards both elevated a lot but I was already really comfortable doing it. I didn’t have to deal with the nervousness of it being big and acceptable because I was used to it being small and disgusting.”
One thing that has almost always set Francis’ work apart from many other artists' (both in and out of the skateboarding world) is his commitment to themes. Whether that's meant releasing a handful of stylistically similar decks with slight differences to cater to the specific skateboarder who will be riding it or utilizing his iconic pigeons that have crossed over into nearly every medium he’s worked in, keeping some constants going throughout his designs has helped Francis stay on message. Rather than just creating a design that looks cool on paper or on a skateboard deck, the themes, Francis believes, are what give meaning and lasting relevance to his work.
“There are a lot of artists both in skateboarding and outside of it who deal and work in a more abstract or purely aesthetic way,” Francis says. “They can just do paintings of women with flowing hair and dreamy looks on their faces, and you see a lot of that over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where it’s been done to death. I’m not really much of an abstract artist. I like to do stuff that makes people think about something, so I’ll pick a subject and just kind of riff on it. It’s like how Pink Floyd does Dark Side of the Moon and it’s about something; this is no different.”
“Worst of the Worst,” Subliminal Projects, 1331 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; opens Sat., Aug. 5, 8-11 p.m. (through Aug. 12); free. subliminalprojects.com.