chops and mel bend meet up under the light post.
Alright Andy, so we’re gonna start this out by checking in on an old friend of ours: Lettus Bee. Have to wonder what our hero thinks of the overall state of skateboarding in 2012? At the very least, he’s gotta be stoked on this slappy renaissance that seems to be going down right now…
I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about it today that he did 25 years ago. There’s a love for skateboarding that’s ever-present and when you love something that much, you can get pretty bummed when you feel it getting sullied in any way. He has a pretty keen sense of skateboarding’s needs and wants. He’s a little weird that way.
How did you come up with that character? And how much of yourself would you say is in Lettus? For instance, did you ever have a hat like that?
Lettus is pretty much me, only he always skated better than I did. He’s my fantasy self. He can do anything switch.
But no, I never had a hat like that. I don’t even like the hat… I think he’s the only one that likes it.
I know at the time when Wrench Pilot came about that Thrasher was also doing comics … how were you approached to do it for TWS? Were you already doing the comic beforehand?
Originally I was asked to do a 6-page comic for Thrasher Comics. My friend John Lytle, who did the Naughty Nomads zine back then, was working there and he got my foot in the door but for some unknown reason the deal fell through. They never even saw the original 6 pages I did for them.
I was pretty discouraged but another friend, Rodger Bridges, also a zine maker, was working in the art department at Transworld at the time and he asked me to bring it down. From there, it somehow became a regular spread in every issue of TWS after that. I have to thank Rodger for that.
How much of the Wrench Pilot saga was laid-out beforehand? Was there an overlying arc you had envisioned from the beginning or was it more-improvised as the strip went on? I just wonder because there’s such a fantastic scope there… from Calvin and Hobbes to Bootsy and back with just this glorious randomness. What was your process like with creating these things?
There was never an “arc” for the comic. It just came to me every month and I put it down on paper. It was always improvised and completely random. I tried a storyline there for a while but that eventually dissolved into the “glorious randomness” again.
Do you feel the story had come to its proper conclusion by the time it stopped appearing in Transworld? What happened there anyway? Were you just burned out on it or was Transworld wanting to move on?
It stopped for a couple reasons. I had become frustrated with the direction skateboarding was heading in: the wheels were getting smaller, the clothes bigger and the tricks techier… if that is even a word. Episode 23 for Wrench Pilot pretty much summed it up for me. Skateboarding had created a strange monster that I had no understanding of.
Plus, I was getting busted regularly at pretty much every spot I skated and being mocked by the cops for my age. I was over 30 and still skating, still trespassing, still vandalizing spots with my trucks. So when I started skating less-frequently, the storylines just didn’t come to me as much anymore.
I realize these were lean times in the industry but were you at all aware of the impact this comic was having with your audience (myself included, see logo at top). You have gone back to revisit Lettus over the years from time to time but did you have any idea the influence this comic would have?
It’s tough for me to get a grasp on it. Every once in a while someone will let me know how much they liked it and that makes me feel pretty good. And for some reason it keeps peaking back into my life… like that vinyl toy or the Lakai shoes. And more recently the Krooked guest artist board and a new clothing collection from Girl that’ll be out this fall.
Can’t wait for that.
I’m hoping to put all of it into book form some time soon to sort of put a lid on it, you know? And I would love to see it animated some day…
I couldn’t be more for it... and it makes perfect sense. So this has already come up in a few of your answers already: zines. How do you see today’s blog culture comparing to that zine culture of the 80s? Granted the tools and distribution are far greater but is that necessarily a good thing? Is there something to be said about the value having to search for things as well as having to wait for content versus today’s seemingly insatiable appetite for content, all at our fingertips?
When the interwebs hit, it seemed like such an obvious home for zine makers — a way to reach a whole lot more people. It was a sort of progression. The tools and distribution may be far greater but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get readers or viewers. It’s tough to get hits but it’s still a way to meet like-minded folks. I can’t imagine doing a regular zine these days… where would you even distribute them if not the web?
How did you first come in contact with the entire zine underground? And what made you ultimately start Bend ‘zine? What did you feel you had to put out there?
I started Bend as a sort of promotional thing for a band I was playing in, Factory, back in 1985. We would leave them at record stores and hand them out at gigs. We did pieces on similar bands… noise, industrial and punk stuff. We all skated, too, so skating just became a natural part of the zine as well.
A real turning point was when I ran across a Swank Zine at Lou’s Records in Encinitas. Totally random thing. I recognized Swank’s name from photo credits in Transworld mags so I sent him Bend and we began a friendship. From Swank Zine I learned about other rad zines and made more friends… it was pretty awesome to go on road trips and meet these folks all over the US. Great times.
I’ve always wondered with you being in the thick of things with such an amazing network of people, was there a unifying feeling among those involved with zines back in the day? Did you guys consciously feel part of a movement or were you all just creative people who just happened to be friends sharing a common bond? So many brilliant people all seemed to come out of that pool … and I guess you knew enough to keep the letters.
I really don’t think any of us thought we were a part of any sort of movement. We just did what we did and our little community just kept growing from zine to zine. Just a bunch of like-minded folks having fun. And I’m pretty much a pack rat, so yeah, I saved all the zines and letters. Later, I even saved emails.
What was your favorite ‘zine back in the day?
There were a few; Swank was really influential, of course. But there was Powerhouse, Seven, Tiki, and Con-tort. And G.S.D.’s Skate Fate. I liked them all for different reasons. I’m Your Momma was probably the funniest.
This is a common one but how was Mel Bend born? And where is he these days?
I started using a pseudonym because I was worried my work wouldn’t be too stoked on me using the copy machine after hours to make 50 zines at a time. Swank started calling me Mel Bend and it stuck. I just started to use the name regularly, like for Wrench Pilot. These days I pretty much use my real name for everything.
I know you cut your teeth in Freestylin’ at Wizard before moving on to a slew of other magazines… BMX Plus, Poweredge, Club Homeboy. How did Dirt come about? And why Sassy?
Ahem... it’s BMX ACTION, not Plus. Big difference.
(laughs) Sorry about that.
(laughs) Sorry about that.
Dirt happened because my friends Lew and Spike and myself were really into the idea of doing a sort of lifestyle magazine for young men. We had tried Homeboy mag and it had failed but we were sure that we could make the idea work; a mag about all the shit we were into… at least we tried to make it that. The eventual-publisher, the same folks who published the highly-successful Sassy, insisted we put in fashion and style crap to sell ads, which it never did. In fact, the lack of ad sales is why it eventually died.
I was just about to ask you how much creative freedom you given with Sassy? So many brilliant ideas in there... dating advice from Thurston Moore definitely gave me hope at age 15. Too brilliant to last though it would’ve been an amazing website in modern times.
We were given a lot of creative leeway but we also had to include shit that would appease would-be advertisers and I think that stuff only annoyed our core audience. And the mag distribution was shit. It was in different places for every issue. But I do think those mags, Dirt and Sassy, were a little ahead of their time.
You’re right, they would’ve made really interesting websites had they survived.
Was the Master Cluster a relationship born out of the mailbox? Did you meet Spike and Lew via ‘zines?
It was born out of the mailbox. I got my job at Freestylin’ magazine from a letter I wrote to them. Oz, the publisher, read it and thought I had potential… looking back, I’m pretty thankful for his intuition. Amazing dude.
Lewman continued the tradition and I hired him on after getting a bunch of crazy letters from him. And with Spike, it was pretty much the same, though we also knew about him through stories of being on the road with the Haro team and working at Rockville BMX as a pre-teen. You could see the potential in him very early on. He was a spaz but had a knack for channeling it in a positive manner.
When did it become clear to you that this spaz was well on his way to achieving quite notable mainstream success? I mean he’s always seemed like a clever dude with a obviously a very strong visual sense but things like his Oscar nom still had to trip you out for a minute, right?
When he started shooting the majority of the photos for the magazines, it started to become evident that he had a special way about him. He’s always been an amazing people person — you can’t not like him, even after he pranks you out. He’s a naturally-endearing human being. When he started filming video and then directing music videos, it became pretty evident he was skyrocketing. The talent we knew he had was eventually being seen and acknowledged by the mainstream. The kid made shit happen. Still does.
What’s the best prank Spike ever pulled? That April's Fool's Day prank a few years back with you two fake-fighting definitely got me.
Yeah, that fake fight was a really good one.
He was just a master at phone-pranking people. The funny thing is that he'd do it to people he'd just met which made the pranks way more likely to work.
So how did you bridge the gap from magazine work to skate graphics? Didn’t you start out doing some stuff with Blockhead and Fishlips?
I’ve always done freelance work alongside my regular jobs. When Homeboy went under in 1989, I was pretty much jobless. I was friends with the dudes over at World Industries, which lead to doing board graphics for Jason Lee, Jeremy Klein and Natas. Then I did some freelance work for Transworld and with spending a lot of time in the San Diego-area, home of Blockhead and Tracker, I did work for them as well.
I've always heard you were more of an outside contractor with World… You were never really in the mix with McKee and Cliver, correct? Did you jive with the whole rip-off graphics trend very well? I know you did Seuss and Mario but your versions were always your versions… redrawn with your own spin.
I’d show up to World on occasion to get jobs, get paid for jobs or to watch Spike edit the Blind video. Rocco was always cool to me and paid really well for board graphics but I was never really “in the mix” there. In hindsight I probably should have been.
As far as the rip-off graphics go, I didn’t really mind doing them... as long as I could put a bit of a spin on them. I only did a couple really.
What do you mean that you should've been more in the mix with World?
Sometimes I have this problem with hanging back too much. I feel like there may have been some opportunities there that I didn't grasp. I can't even say what they might’ve been, I just feel like that was an open window that I didn't jump through.
Maybe if I'd been a little closer to the action there I might’ve had the opportunity to jump in on the very fist spark of Girl starting... who knows what might have been, but I sure wish I'd been around when the talk of starting Girl first went down.
Were you ever asked to take on any of the gnarlier themes that Rocco was known for? Do you feel you would’ve been comfortable approaching a board like Jovontae’s Napping Negro or Guy’s Accidental Gun Death?
I was never asked to do anything that crazy. The only one I did that was fairly controversial was the Natas 101 crackpipe graphic.
Marc has gone on record a few times as stating how rather uncomfortable with a lot of that stuff he is nowadays. As a husband and father, do you feel you dodged a bullet there? Do you think, if asked, you would’ve been able to really go after those gnarlier concepts in that ferocious manner Rocco desired?
I'm glad I was never asked to go there. I'm not sure if I would have done it or not... I'm definitely not as strong an illustrator as Marc is, that may have something to do with it. His ability to render in any style made him the go-to illustrator.
Kind of an abstract question but what’s your creative process like? Where do your ideas tend to come from? Are you mostly chiseling ideas out through constant reworking or will an idea just hit you randomly and that’s it?
Ideas hit in every manner imaginable. I mean, some come in my dreams and others come from focusing on them. And others even come from random doodles or thoughts. Can’t really pinpoint one method of channeling the creative process. One thing I do think is important is having the job in your head for a while before you even sit down and get physical with it. I think 75% of the process happens mentally before you put pen to paper.
This one is a generic question, for sure, but what have been some of your favorite skate graphics and/or skate artists over the years? I know you have a sweet spot for the early Swank stuff as do I…
Yeah, I always loved Swank’s graphics. The one’s he drew himself, the Justin Lovely and early circle F stuff. I always liked the Jim Phillips Santa Cruz stuff for his awesome penmanship. Neil Blender’s graphics ruled. But one of my favorite graphics ever was by Ron Cameron, the Sam Cunningham “Good Sam.” I still have one of those.
Who is one skate artist that you feel hasn’t gotten their proper due over the years? One that has had more than palpable influence but isn’t as celebrated as others for whatever reason. You just mentioned Ron Cameron who I feel definitely falls in this category…
Ron Cameron, for sure. But also that guy Andy Takakjian who did the iconic Gonz graphic for Vision. That’s one of the most recognized skate graphics ever.
Good answer. What’s your opinion on the current status of skate graphics? Are you surprised that with all this easily-accessible technology that more pros aren’t doing their own graphics? While Girl has always championed BA’s and MJ’s works, their high standards usually put them in the minority. Are pros just not as interested in this sort of thing as they used to be or are companies playing it too safe?
Mostly skate graphics these days are pretty staid. Really clean, logo driven stuff. There are exceptions, of course, like Anti-hero and Consolidated. Aesthetically, I like Alien and Stereo. Zoo York.
I do like it when the pros are more involved with their graphics but it is more rare these days which I think has to do with how often graphics are turned over… way too quickly.
Everyone’s heard the story of Cliver getting his
head palmed by Sheffey over a graphic… have you ever had any experiences
remotely close to being like that with a particularly-difficult skater? Besides
|One of Andy's personal faves.|
No, I’ve never had a problem with a skater. It’s been smooth-going, really.
The Gator thing was just fucking weird. To think that he had already killed that girl when he was telling me what he wanted for his first Fishlips graphic… Creepy, man.
So you met with Gator about his graphics in between his killing that girl and turning himself in? And he was still able to talk about wanting a 7-11 cup as a graphic? Granted, there’s no way you could’ve known the full extent of everything that went down but was he at least acting a bit peculiar? That graphic was his idea?
Yeah, it was his idea. I have no clue where he was coming from with it. He just wanted a big 7-11 cup. Strange.
He didn't seem to be acting peculiar at all… which is even creepier in hindsight. I still remember very vividly getting a phone called from Perry Gladstone, the owner of Fishlips, explaining to me what had gone down with Gator. We pulled his debut ad from TWS at the very last second.
Crazy. So you’ve had more than your share of classic graphics over the years… are there particularly popular graphics of yours that you’re honestly not that fond of or wish you had done differently?
Sure. Of course. But I’m not going to tell you which ones, though! (laughs)
What’s a common mistake you see young designers making? And what’s the best advice you could give them?
Thinking you can just jump into it is a mistake. It takes a lot of hard work and networking to get work in skateboarding these days. If you’re consistent with the quality of your work and the networking — letting folks see your stuff — you’ll get there eventually, if the work is good.
Very true. Alright Andy, just some real quick ones here at the end to pull at the heartstrings. These comparisons actually don’t make a lot of sense but so be it, you can only choose one:
Bob Haro or Mike Watt?
Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Wenders’ Wings of Desire? ….Gabriel’s Dangerous Toy Grenade or Milk’s “Knife Song”?
(laughs) Holy shit! I can’t pick between those things! Too much good stuff.
Thanks, Andy. So as we wrap this thing up, is there anything you’d like to add? Perhaps some words of wisdom or a favorite quote?
Just thanks. I appreciate it. But I do like this quote:
“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around and don't let anybody tell you different.”—Kurt Vonnegut
special thanks to aaron meza and andy for taking the time.
special thanks to aaron meza and andy for taking the time.