Arts & Culture » Visual Art


Snowboard art splashes winter's white canvas with color


The images found on the snowboard decks of today are as diverse as the people who love to ride them—from eco-friendly boards featuring beautiful trees, pieced together with bamboo and koa wood, to those displaying a photo sequence of a half-naked lady in underwear, jumping up and down on a hotel bed. These images, as well as an army of others, are representative of the creativity and ferocity that is generally referred to as "the community."

The evolution of board technology has advanced at a rate that would make Gregory Mendel jealous. As a result, snowboarding has sprung from humble beginnings and a wooden sled-like device known as the "snurfer," to what it is today: an activity that boasts more than 5 million yearly participants. This consumer base supports a climate in which talented boarders compete for free rides—sponsorship from major companies—and receive payment to exhibit a specific lifestyle meant to sell everything from what they wear to what they drink and, most importantly, what they strap to their feet.

The experimental, avant garde origins of snowboarding attracted a new breed of powder hound to mountain slopes once reserved for ski bums. And, like its not-so-distant cousins surfing and skateboarding, snowboarding has inspired the creation of a language of its own, often undecipherable to the untrained ear. Do you know what "jibbers" are? Or what "tweakin' airs" means? How about "shred the gnar?"

Ray Schuler, an employee at The Board Room, has worked in the snowboarding industry for 20 years. He said the makers of snowboards and snowboarding gear have been very keen to play to the specific sensibilities of this community.

"One thing that makes snowboarding companies different from others is that they take a trend to the extremes," Schuler said.

And, although there is usually a set of design themes each year, most major companies include a graphic option appropriate for nearly every type of rider in the growing community.

Schuler said trends this year include repetitive graphics, '80s pop colors and shapes, heavy-metal influences, and tattoo-style pen and ink work.

Most major companies have a legion of artists who regularly contribute to each season's new line of boards. Many riders are also artists and produce images for their own boards.

Snowboarding's popularity has surged in the past two decades, partly due to the involvement of savvy fans and aficionados who share footage of weekend outings and clips of famous tricks on social networking sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

Twenty-six-year-old Boise artist Kelly Knopp is a member of the snowboarding community. He has been producing artwork for skate decks at The Board Room for a number of years. Recently, he signed a contract with Atomic Snowboards and his work will appear on two boards coming out in the 2009-2010 season.

One of his boards, "The Terminal," features the highly recognizable image of a Swiss Army knife. However, Knopp rendered it somewhat differently with random items such as umbrellas springing from spaces usually reserved for knives and nail files. This type of spontaneity and dark humor is representative of Knopp's work.

"I definitely prefer things on the darker side. I like to put things together that normally wouldn't be together, like horse jockeys riding pink rabbits," he said.

"I like making fun of serious things."

Another aspect of the market companies take into account is the task of featuring images on their products that appeal to an expansive consumer audience.

Knopp said that Atomic sent his graphics to their pros for feedback and approval. He explained that although a rider from the United States or Canada might like an image a great deal, a rider from Japan may not have the same reaction; in a sense, the point of the piece gets lost in translation.

The results of this cross-cultural "need to please" are boards that feature art by the likes of Knopp, people who have the requisite vision and talent to creatively adjust recognizable and iconic symbols so that they will produce an emotional reaction for an extremely diverse population of riders.

Will Emmons, a Board Room employee and avid snowboarder, explained that these images are important to riders because through their choice of gear, riders are telling a specific story, or, in many cases choosing not to tell a story—which becomes in essence the larger story. In other words, they are securing a foothold in a niche lifestyle that demands individuality.

"The sport is individualistic, in that, every one is different, but the same in their difference," Emmons said.

An example of a company playing to this individualized collectivism is Spacecraft.

Spacecraft courts a very specific type of consumer, selling mainly clothing items and endowing them with meaning through the use of far-fetched graphics and eco-friendly fair-labor production practices.

Spacecraft relies on its designers' uncanny ability to keep products so strange and on the edge, that they make the diverse collection of people who wear and celebrate them feel more normal. Because of this, Spacecraft garments are a part of many a snowboarder's kit.

Tony Perez, the Northwest representative of Arbor, a "green" board company, explained that from his experience, "75 percent of a sell is how a board looks." This look is accompanied by the kit, comprised of all the "necessary" accoutrements that go along with the sport: goggles, bindings, pants, jackets, hats, gloves, underwear—the whole lot. Perez said boarders show up en masse and that "it's almost like a fashion show on the hill."

He attributed the rising influence of fashion in the sport to the growing number of females participating. However, Perez was careful to clarify that it is not that girls necessarily have more discriminating taste than boys, but, because they are up there in growing numbers, it becomes more important for the boys to look good.

Brandon Myers, manager of Newt and Harold's, said the art on boards usually directly reflects what the board will be used for (park or mountain) and that a specific type of consumer is targeted by the company. Myers said, as a general rule, edgier graphics are found on park-specific boards.

This makes sense when one connects the shared characteristics of the snowboarding culture to skateboarding culture. In many ways, the two are by definition comprised of people who enjoy the creativity that comes from living on the fringe—using handrails in cityscapes, intended to steady a person as they walk down stairs, as essential components of a proper jib—and creating play out of objects of utility.

Myers expanded upon the idea of the fashion show, described by Perez. He said, as in all things, there are leaders, and there are followers. Those who lead are usually more concerned with the way a board rides than how it looks. They create their own style of riding, and that translates somehow into the complex world of consumerism—a place where fake plastic trees and Swiss Army knives speak across language and time in a way perhaps nothing but sport can.