We recently caught up with Bay Area artist and Element advocate Mike Kershnar to talk about his two greatest passions: art and skateboarding. He also told us a bit about, and gave us a quick glimpse of his soon to be released sneaker collab with Element, which features his distinct tribal art.
How did you get into art/graffiti and skateboarding? What is your background, your inspiration and influences?
My earliest art memories are painting desert rocks red, yellow, and blue in my Grandparents backyard in Phoenix. I must have been 4 years old. The first time I saw a kid on a skateboard in my neighborhood I remember thinking he looked like he was flying/gliding down the sidewalk and the click clack of his wheels going over the cracks made him seem like some kind of mythic charioteer like Ben Hur or Zeus, definitely separate from all other modes of movement I had seen. I wanted to fly too and after winning my first skateboard in an Indian Guides raffle I was one of the little groms at Pipeline in Upland and after that at McGill’s skatepark.
Right away I started reading Thrasher and watching Psycho Skate. I noticed all the ramps and ditches were painted up, so I grabbed some spray paint out of the garage and started painting the typical little skate kid things on every ramp or ditch spot I could find and making my own stickers. Things like “Santa Cruz” “Skate or Die” “Wolverines” (Inspired by Red Dawn).
Then it became the 90’s and I began to learn about street skating and graffiti as a culture. I remember on my first day of middle school some older skater asked me if I wrote (meaning graff) and I said no. Then after school he found me at some cutty skate spot painting by myself and said, “I thought you said you didn’t write.” I thought he was talking about homework or something. I thought I was doing skate punk stuff. It took a long time to get the proper acculturation.
By this time I really emulated Gonz and Hosoi and had discovered Ed Templeton in his TV/New Deal era and knew I wanted to be like them. Passionate skateboarders and artists, whose entire life practice, seemed honed into one creative harmonic. I couldn’t shred nearly as hard as them but spent many hours observing Ed at the Huntington Beach Park and would go home and make my own fake Toy Machine ads, complete with Ed inspired quotes such as “Taste buttocks, hairy barbarians!”
Your art is deeply entangled with tribal culture and nature. Skateboarding however has a strong urban background. What do you actually prefer, the pulsating metropolis or the quietness of the woods?
I prefer the width and breadth of the human experience. I like the purity of nature drinking out of streams, sleeping under stars, and admiring God the architect of mountains. I also love the camaraderie of linking up with homies in cities all over the world and exploring the nooks and crannies with a posse of skaters. I love variety and feel very cyclical. Some nights I like to draw alone in my studio and listen to records, some nights I like to skate all over with the bros, sometimes I like to dance and party all night with the girls, some nights I like to be immersed in the desert sky. I guess it depends on what side of myself I want to nourish. I feel like everything I do is either inspiration input, or creative output.
Do you consider yourself more of an artist or skateboarder?
I consider myself a skateboarder first in my heart and my mentality towards everything. My attitude is very skate and punk rock influenced. But I am a much better artist than a skater. I could never film a solo skate video like David Gonzalez in a million years, but I could put on a very entertaining and highly interactive solo art show. I like to dwell in the zone where they connect, like painted ditches and tagged up plastic barriers. Dagger influenced lifestyle. Shout out to Pat Ngoho.
There are a lot of creative types among the skateboarding community, Jerry Hsu, Chad Muska, Ed Templeton, to name a few. Is this merely a coincidence or do you think skaters are in general more accessible to art? Do you consider skateboarding an art form?
Skateboarders are exposed to the best art from the get go. A huge part of the mystery and excitement to young skaters is the aesthetic of the culture. As a kid the work of VCJ, and Jim Phillips for Powell Peralta and Santa Cruz was as formative to my skate mythos as were Cab and Tommy and Lance. As skaters we learn to be creative, expressive, and stylish with our movements and I think that is the energy skaters take to the fine arts. I do think of skateboarding as a high risk performance art, kind of a spiritual child of the primitive skill of surfing and high risk ballet or symphony. When I watch a Marc Johnson video part he reminds me of a composer like Mozart or Beethoven.
Your art has a very traditional hand‐made feel. What’s your attitude towards modern art forms, such as video, performance or web based art?
My favorite art discipline is actually cinema. I think of great films as moving paintings, with the director holding the brush. It would be hard for any of us to be immersed in a painting for two hours but artists such as Hitchcock and Tarantino can bring us into their aesthetic for hours and keep us in rapture. I love old westerns, horror films, and pirate flicks like The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad The Ugly, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Against All Flags. However as for the physicality of art practice, I think it would be hard for me to get as excited about a fancy web design as some master beadwork on buckskin.
Tell us more about your role as an Element advocate. What does that mean, especially to you?
I love the Element advocate program. It lets kids know there are ways to be “sponsored” in skating other than just being as gnarly and talented on a skateboard as Evan Smith and Boo Johnson. A kid can be a fully passionate and committed skater and become an advocate for art, photography, or music. The advocate program elevates sponsored skateboarding to a culture beyond just the physical act of getting hammers. I think it gives lots of talented creative kids out there something additional to plug into. I mean who doesn’t vibe with Ray Barbee music or Brian Gaberman photography? I’m honored to be associated.
Signature shoes are considered the pinnacle of professional skateboarding, as they tend to generate high revenues for the companies and the sponsored skater as well. Element does not offer any pro model shoes, however, they are about to release a shoe that features your artwork. Can you tell us more about it and the preceding design process?
Designing the shoe with Charlie was really fun. They let me do just what I wanted. Bison leather with copper rivets, to honor our North American heritage, black and orange color pops for outdoorsmanship and the SF Giants. One shoe is feline for night time and creative feminine energy, the other is canine for day time masculine activity. Duality and unity. Hummingbirds for joy. Plus the whole shoe box I got to design and a camo bandana insert to make a bandana bag. Even a short film project with my homie Sean Desmond. It was a fun project. I look it more of an artist designed shoe than a pro model.
How do you think about the whole pro model issue in general?
I think pro model shoes are great for deserving pro skaters. In my opinion Emerica does it right from their films to their pro models. Brian Herman, Ed Templeton, Jerry Hsu, Spanky, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I want to skate in all those shoes and I’m glad they benefit when I do, because I get endless inspiration from those dudes and I’m happy to give back in some small way.