100Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects gallery is celebrating their 20th anniversary with an exhibition of iconic skateboard art curated by Erica Overskei and Sebastien Carayol, author of Agents Provocateurs: 100 Subversive Skateboard Graphics. The Agents Provocateurs exhibition brings together a selection of decks and original artwork culled from and inspired by the book, including Alyasha Owerka-Moore, Andy Jenkins, Ben Horton, Cleon Peterson, Donny Miller, Ed Templeton, Marc McKee, Mark Foster, Michael Sieben, Nil Ultra, Sean Cliver, Todd Francis, and Winston Tseng.

A freelance journalist and curator who now splits his time between Marseille and Los Angeles, Carayol grew up in a rural town in the South of France, “about 800 people last time I checked” he says “It was very… how you might say, redneck? When me and my buddies started skating, instantly we lost all of our friends from the village.” Carayol left the village as a teen, immersing himself in the 90s San Francisco skate scene by picking up a camera. “I wanted to be a skate photographer” he says “but I had never seen a camera in my life. I took the worst photos you could ever imagine, but of the right guys.”

Sebastian sat down with Smashbox at a friend’s studio near Subliminal Projects in Echo Park to talk about his development from wannabe photographer to curator, author, and chronicler of skateboard art.

from Ben Horton for $LAVE Skateboards’ “Helping Hand” series

The book covers a pretty swath—from the late 1980s up to 2012, but there’s a real concentration of shocking stuff from the early to mid 90s. What made it go underground in that way?

I think skateboarding follows the evolution of society. So the 1980s were all flash and heavy metal and hard rock, and the skateboard graphics were all skulls and neon and checkers. Then the 90s came: big recession, everybody’s depressed, everybody’s into Nirvana. There was a general disenchantment, and that began to show up in skateboard graphics. If you look at it through the history of art, it’s very close to what the Dadaists were doing. After World War I, all these guys realized there was no going back; to being children again, to being innocent in general. The world simply wasn’t able to impeach the war and they responded wildly. To me, that’s similar to what a lot of skateboard artists did in the early 90s. It’s a lot of cartoon graphics, but they are very hardcore, gnarly, whatever… it was a way to become a child again because the outside world was so crazy, there’s no reason to want to be a part of it. That’s my analyzation anyway.

You refer to skateboard artists as neo-Dadaists in the introduction.

Yes. That’s how I think of them.

What was your criteria for whittling down the whole myriad of controversial skate graphics down to 100—content, boycotting, media response?

Well, if you manage to get all three of those things, you really win. If you have a board that is shocking or political or touches on something subversive, that will provoke a reaction, then you’re really achieving what subversion is supposed to do, which is piss people off and make them think. The final edit was really about trying to balance all of these elements. It’s divided by themes: sex, violence, drugs, politics, religion…

and race.

Yes! Race is a really interesting theme, because there are two ways of treating it. There is attacking racism directly, and then there’s appropriating racist tropes. It’s tricky, though…

It is, but the boards that riff on racist stereotypes were always by skaters of that race.

And then there’s a frontal approach, like putting a Black Panther leader on a skateboard, or Alyasha Owerka-Moore’s “colored only” board… I love that you can play with that topic on two levels, and denounce the same thing. Both ways are valid and efficient, in my opinion, but that’s why I wanted to have a text for every board: for that Jovantae Turner board, if you don’t know that it was made a black skater wanting to parody racism…

Mark McKeeMarc McKee, Napping Negro (Top Graphic), 1992, for World Industries Skateboards / Jovantae Turner, Ink and white correction fluid on paper.

By referencing a very real style and imagery. It’s uncomfortable because it comes from our own cultural history.

Alyasha’s “colored only” board does the same thing for me, because it’s a 1950s skateboard, and we are supposed to remember the 1950s as Happy Days and Archie or whatever… that’s the only board in the book that’s a singular art piece. But I wanted to have it in the book because something would be missing without it.

The work for the Agents Provocateurs exhibition isn’t just lifted directly from the book, though.

I like to do projects that start at themes, and then manifest in different ways. The book actually came out of an exhibition in I did in 2011 in Paris. I was part of a show called Public Domaine—like the skate video Public Domain [Powell Peralta, 1988], but we added an “e” to make it more French I guess. That’s when I first had the idea to show boards. I was tired of seeing the same skate exhibitions about decks, which had a chronological approach: oh in the 50s they were tiny, and in the 70s they were long, and here’s some clay wheels. Coming from journalism, I was trying to find a different angle, and controversy was interesting to me. So I showed 52 boards in Paris, and then took that idea to the publisher Ginko press, and said I have 300 boards, I want to do a book of 100. Then that got whittled down to 100, and now we’re taking the book the to next level with an expanded show. Ultimately I want these artists to be exposed, because they are great artists and great thinkers. They never really got proper recognition for what they’ve done, or if they have it’s only very recent. We’re on that 20 year nostalgia cycle.

Nil Ultra, Green Card, 2014, vintage and found paper collage.

It’s a history informed by it’s own potential for obsolescence. Part of the freedom of the form is knowing that a board is meant to be destroyed. You couldn’t anticipate that these were things people would want to put on their wall, let alone a gallery wall.

Right. You print like 200 boards you sell them within a month and you’re done. I wanted to pay homage to not just the 90s guys, but people today who take the risk to put out the graphics that are just a bit harder, or that have something to say, and are not just making the thing that they think will sell.

Who are your favorite artists today that take that risk?

Winston Tseng, Jason Moore, Fos… Todd Francis is still working and still has the greatest ideas; he has a background as an actual newspaper cartoonist, so that’s why he can think of a singular image that just says everything he wants it to say. And then there are guys who didn’t have boards in the book, like Aye Jay and Brian Romero… there’s a few guys who deliberately carry that torch, so I wanted to do a mix of old and new and not have the book or the show be too nostalgic.

Sure, because the countercultural element will always be there. But there’s also Street League and X-Games and skaters doing fashion shows and Rob Dyrdek on Lunchables boxes.

We’re all from different generations and we like different things. I’m never going to say “Street League sucks!” because well, I do think it sucks, but that’s just because I’m old and I’m coming from a different place, when skateboarding felt like a private club. You can’t hold anything against it. It’s an evolution, and the old guys are always wrong, because they live in the past.

Todd Francis, Cure All With Ass, 2015, ink and watercolor on paper

It’s a swing of the pendulum.

But we’re in a moment where skateboarding really can just be permanently part of the mainstream. It was a way to exclude yourself, and now it’s a way to include yourself. It’s like a new It Bag. You see kids carrying brand new boards with the trucks mounted backwards.

It’s fun to observe, but I can’t care too much. It’s going to grow into whatever it wants. As I get older, I’m getting more into architecture and thinking about skateboarding from that angle. Half the fun of street skating is being in the street, hanging out with bums and seeing fights and accidents. It’s a way to discover a city. Skaters know cities like no one else, and they know architecture in a way that’s very personal. I know that there’s a crack before the seventh step on some stairs in San Francisco that the architect probably forgot he even designed. When I go to Venice I know the fire hydrant where Natas did that spin in 1989. It’s that one, you know. I have to do that one.

Agents Provocateurs opens Saturday, January 24th, with an opening reception from 8-11pm, and will be on view through February 21st, 2015. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 12 to 6 pm.