Ian Johnson - Pens & Paper - Extended Interview

For Volume 1 Issue 4 of The Kayo Magazine we did a feature article on Ian Johnson for the FTC X DGK Heads collaboration. Given Ian's level of talent and his strong connection with the San Francisco skate scene, we decide to post Ian's full interview here to get the full story on this talented article.


How long have you been drawing and painting, and what first got you interested in creating art?

I started drawing when I was about 5 or 6.  I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone as a kid at my grandma's house without much but some paper and pens so i didn't really have much of a choice.

You grew up skating in San Francisco during a really progressive time in the City for skateboarding. How did that influence you artistically?

I couldn't really say how being around skating in the city's "heyday" influence my art but I'm sure it did.  It was more just the style of skateboard graphics of the early to mid ninties that influenced me, World, Mad Circle, Cream, Metropolitan, ADi, when Girl and Chocolate Started... but my main influence from skating came from early Stereo for sure.  A Visual Sound was the first video premier I went to, right when the DLX shop opened up.  That was the first night I had a 40 to, ha.  Just seeing all those guys there and watching the way they skated to jazz and used film and the overall vibe was really appealing to me.  I got into jazz after that and have mainly been on that kick art wise since then.

You've been with FTC for about 20 years now. How did you hook up with them and how did you go from working in the shop to eventually becoming the Art Director?

I was working in the shop on and off since 94. They found out I could kind of draw and I did a couple shirts but nothing too crazy.  When I turned 18 I went away to art school for a year then dropped out came back to work at the shop.  I didn't really like working in the shop that much and I was shitty as a retail employee so I asked the owner if he was interested in doing a board company and I had some drawings for it., he wanted to start one using the name so Western Edition.  After that I shared an office with this guy Marlo Flores who was the Art Director at the time and learned a lot from him about illustrator and photoshop stuff.  He ended up leaving and I took over for a few years, then quit and just started working there again recently.  God sorry that was boring but hopefully answered the question.

Talk a little bit about Western Edition and how that started. What was the original concept for the company and how has that developed over the years?

Western Edition is a play on the neighborhood "Western Addition".  It was originally a snowboard company in 94.  Twist and Mr. Element did some graphics for it but they were only around for a year or so.  Kent always liked the name and wanted to do something with it so when I approached him about starting a company with the drawings I had he said let's use Western Edition.  It worked out as the graphics I had were drawings of jazz musicians and since the neighborhood was known as "The Harlem Of The West"  it fit perfectly.  Over the years I have tried to integrate the riders ideas and personalities when it made sense.  I got better at designing and drawing so it changed in that way as well.  It has definitely been on the job training, still is!

A lot of your art is portrait based and a lot of it focusses on jazz musicians – have you always been into portrait work and what about jazz culture inspires you?

I think most people that draw were into drawing faces at some point.  I just kind of got hung up on it for some reason and got known for it a bit and kept it going.  It can be a bit of a cop out, an easy way to convey emotion, and it is for me sometimes.  One time I was in school figure drawing and the teacher saw I was spending a lot of time drawing the face and kinda talked shit that I was missing the point of figure drawing.  He said something like you can't do anything but draw faces, you're afraid to tackle the human form, whatever it was it pissed me off and it made me want draw portraits almost exclusively as a fuck you to him.  I carried that chip on my shoulder for a long time.  The funny thing was he was right though, ha.

How does your fine art relate to your graphic design work? Do you have a separate process for each of these, or do you approach them both in similar ways?

Fine art and graphic design kind of feed off each other for me.  I may be stuck on a painting and then see something in design that sparks an idea to help it along and vice versa.  For paintings and drawings since I mostly do portrait work it starts with finding a person and a reference photo that I want to work with.  From there I come up with a composition and come up with the motifs and elements I want incorporate into the piece.  For Graphic design it usually starts with a job, like "make a skateboard graphic for Jabari" and from there maybe he has an idea of something he wants to do  and I try to just make something as close to that as possible.  Sometimes you just come up with something or see something and think, oh, that would be good for a Western series, or whatever.  I have less of a refined process with graphic design.

You've been a part of the skate scene in SF for several generations of people and spots. How has the scene in the City changed / progressed over the years?

Like everything it's always changing, spots become busts and new ones pop up.  Spots get played or out of fashion but are still around.  People come and go.  To me it's never gonna be as good as it was when I moved here.  It seemed like all the best skaters in the world were always at FTC or skating downtown.  I moved here in 93 and although I didn't spend a lot of time at Embarcadero cause it was too crazy,  it was pretty incredible.  There would be like 50 skaters in lines to hit the c block, the high ledge all that stuff.  Then all kinds of random dudes just kicking it hard in the middle of the afternoon around crazy financial buildings.  It was pretty nuts.  Then you would be at FTC on Bush and the Girl dudes are setting up a new boards while filming for Goldfish.  You could skate Black Rock, then down California to Brown Marble and onto Embarcadero and hit little spots in between.  Maybe it seemed better than it was cause it was when I was young and people have a tendency to romanticise the nostalgia of their youth but it was a pretty rad time.  I also skated more then, ha.  But everytime they shut down a spot something new pops up.  It's cool that around the beginning of Market Street there is always a skate / meet up spot.  From Embarcadero to the Pier to the Island.  The city will always have spots and lure skaters because of the hills, beauty and it's uniqueness over all.

Name three skaters and three artists that personally influence you and tell us briefly what about their style speaks to you?

It is always impossible to do top 3 definitive lists because there are so many great people out there.  I don't know about influence for the skaters but people that whose style I really like would be...  Mark Gonzales, Carroll, Gino.  The reasons are all pretty obvious I guess.  Gonz is basically perfect skateboarder to me.  Creativity, joy, rawness, individuality.  Carroll was one of my favorites period but definitely in the city to me when I moved here.  I think he has dropped more full parts at a top level than anybody ever.  I saw him skate Wallenburg one time, not filming or anything, he just rolled in did a 7 or 8 trick line around the whole lot and to this day that was the illest skating I ever saw in person.  Gino is just makes everything look good.  For artists 3 would... Barry McGee, Jules De Balincourt, Chris Johanson.  I got a lot from all of them.

Tell us a little bit about this new DGK collaboration and how it came about. How did you come up with the concept and how long did it take to produce the art?

I started working at FTC again and Nick asked Kent about doing another Collab and mentioned me I guess.  We tossed around a couple ideas and the one we ended up doing is based on this old FTC shirt that was a bunch of heads in the FTC logo which I guess was kind of based on the Tribe album cover for Midnight Marauders.  It had a bunch of heavyhitters like Tae, Rick I, Carroll, Chico, Lavar... Nick Lockman was on there to!  Simon Evans and Ed Loftus those guys are were both real good skaters and turned out to be amazing artists.  Somehow Ando and I ended up on that shirt.  I have no idea how that happened, we were only working there part time but that was pretty dope.  Anyway, for the DGK version we used all the guys on DGK inside the FTC logo in the same way except I drew them all to give it a little more continuity.  I think I spent about 20 hours total drawing all the guys, they got a big team!

What other projects are you working on currently and what do you have planned for the rest of 2014?

I'm gonna be part of a Blue Note exhibit in Lyon, France in April which I'm pretty excited to be a part of.  Thanks to Seb Carayol and Vincent for getting me involved in that.  Then I have a show in October at Park Life in SF.  Other than that, continuing doing Western Edition and FTC and raising my daughter.