Artist Kevin Bates admits he was never much of a skate trickster. He may have ridden a board around during his high school days and hung out with grinders, but didn't pull off much in the way of epic kickflips or pole jams. Truth be told, he was more into skater art and culture than anything else.
"I never went all crazy with my board or nothing," Bates says. "I basically sucked, but I liked the whole scene and I loved all the artwork that was on the decks." This fervent lifelong affinity for skater culture is one of the reasons why the 24-year-old painter decided to organize "Hit the Deck," an exhibition that opens Friday, July 5, at the Phoenix Art Spaces.
The month-long showcase, which is on display through the end of July at the smallish gallery inside vegan eatery Aside of Heart, will feature 30-plus skateboard decks (sans wheels and trucks) that were used as canvases by more than two-dozen local artists.
Customized and decorated decks have always been a big thing in the skater world, as artists and graphic designers like Neckface, Jimbo Phillips, and Michael Sieben are famous for creating board art for manufacturers and publications like Thrasher.
Bates says that he's been a fan of skateboard artists and their creations for companies like Zero Skateboards or Hook-Ups.
"In high school, I'd always get copies of the CCS magazine and check out at all the boards," he says.
Many of the artists involved in Hit the Deck, Bates explains, either share this fandom for board art or are skaters themselves. Others were down with turning one of the rectangular wooden boards into a piece of unique artwork.
And then there's the fact that skateboarding has always had a presence at First Friday over the years. There always seems to be more than a few skaters out at the monthly event, particularly during the summertime. Plus, Red Bull even brought a few skating events to Roosevelt Row in the past, including its Triple Set competition in October 2011.
Skateboard art has occasionally been featured in the galleries of downtown Phoenix as well, like the series of Deck exhibitions that were put on from 2006 to 2008 by Kenneth Richardson and Mike Goodwin, also known as the Molten Brothers, at venues like the Icehouse, Bragg's Pie Factory, and monOrchid.
And Bates, who's friends with Richardson, was one of thousands of people who checked out the Deck showcases. He says they not only made a definite impact on him, but also provided partial inspiration for "Hit the Deck," which he's organizing with fellow painter Joe Dragt.
"I was way younger at the time, still this little punk kid," Bates says. "And I'd never seen anything like that before and haven't, so far, seen anything since."
Until this Friday, however.
"It's been in my head to do a show like this for quite some time," Bates says. "I've been telling people about it and getting people interested in it for a whole year and it finally escalated to getting a venue and finally doing it."
Like the Molten Brothers, Bates and Dragt recruited artists to use ordinary skateboards as media for paintings and design work. And the results, they says, were quite fantastic.
"There's some grafitti and some cartoon characters that were used," Bates says. "There's just a whole array of different styles are going to be there. Most of them are skaters themselves that still go out and ride."
There's also a definite emphasis on underground and street art in the show, he adds, including the work of such painters and urban artists as Aztec Smurf, 2DES, Daniel Navarrette, and David Morgan.
Ryan Michaels, for instance, adorned a deck with graf-art-like aliens and UFOs, while Travis Troy's board features a cartoonishly withered old man smoking a cigarette and holding a sign declaring that "The End is Near."
Other artists featured in "Hit the Deck" include Patricia Jensen, Jared Aubel, Peter Eightsix, Aimee Shattuck, FIN, Noelle Martinez, Dwrecker, Damian Amorous, Steve Caballero, Sam Nelson, Kirk O'Hara, and Sonia Andrade.
Bates' contribution has a bit of a more serious tone, however, as it utilizes "dark and surreal" imagery, which is his particular artistic bent. Hence his nickname, Sinfuledge.
"It's nightmarish stuff or 'dark organic,' which is what I call my style. Skulls and eyeballs and monsters and whatnot," he says.
Big eyeballs are also a big part of Dragt's deck, which features a rendition of the iconic scene from A Clockwork Orange where the milk-drinking and ultraviolence-loving Alex DeLarge undergoes the Ludovico treatment.
Dragt says it was somewhat challenging to paint on the deck he used, which was donated by a local old school semi-pro skater, given that it was smaller than a typical canvas.
"It's vertical and skinny as opposed to the nice rectangular and square shapes we're used to as artists," he says. "The narrowness does play a factor. You're not as free, you've got to think outside the box a little bit more, and be a little more conservative."
Conservative in his brush strokes, Dragt adds, but not in content of his painting. Because the image of a person with his eyes forced open while watching violent scenes isn't what you'd call conservative.
Dragt's painting for "Hit the Deck" is so stunning that it may even lead to some future customizing work as the skater who donated that particular board is eager for him to decorate others.
"When he saw the progress of the board, he got a hold of me and wants to donate another vintage board to me and help me market it," Dragt says.
Just as long as no one tries to slap some trucks and wheels on it and start performing tricks at a nearby mall.
"It's more intended for wall art than for use," Dragt says. "It's not sealed, so one grind and it will be completely thrashed."
The opening for "Hit the Deck" takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. on Friday at Phoenix Art Spaces. The show will be on display through July 31.