Artists of Theory: Mike Stein
Until I walked up his driveway I had never met this human. Mike Stein was just a name in an e-mail Josh sent me and the person behind the graphics that have been the inspiration for so many others. A company founded by one of the truest skate G's if there ever was one, Mr. Ricky Oyola. That was all I knew or needed to know, that this cat was backed by someone I had never met but admired, as have you. How many times have we watched his Eastern Exposure 3 part? Not to mention the Sub-Zero part, holy shit man! And those are just the beginning of his legacy. But how many have asked who has been helped one of his best creations, Traffic? Not me, that's for sure. So as I introduced myself and entered his home all I could think is that this dude knows Ricky Oyola. I came to find out there is much much more to this man than just that. His love of pennants is one and a connection to the Toynbee tiles is another.
Interview and portrait by Isaac McKay-Randozzi
As he showed me around his place we came to a small door in a pennant lined hallway. It was a humble and uninteresting door, yet it hid treasure. When we walked in I was awestruck in the depth of what hung. From the Brigade days of Lance, Tommy and Cab to early Blind Gonz, up through to the 2000's of early Habitat, enjoi, Unbelievers and of course Traffic. There were boards I had not seen since their first release, it brought me back to those early days of walking into Beacon Hill skate shop in Boston and smelling the stoke of new fresh wood and silk screened paint. Ask any older cat, we all huffed new boards. That shit was fodder for our brains and emptied our wallets faster than any stripper ever could. After talking with Mike for a couple hours I drove off to have a post interview beer and digest the topics we covered, thank you Cat's Paw Saloon. Mike's board room wasn't about some old cat collecting boards from his youth and showing off the work he has created as some sort of trophy room of years gone-by. It was his own personal skate shop. He could walk in and get back to that feeling of being blown away by the art that was destined to be destroyed. I am only guessing, mind you, but maybe for him this is a way to stay grounded artistically and skate-spiritually. After decades of making graphics for peanuts your soul does get depleted of inspiration and drive. By walking into that room filled with heros and friends Mike is able to reconnect with that kid who got high off boards and salivated at every new magazine and video that came out. Maybe that's why Traffic's graphics have, under his wing, always been as solid and classic as they are. An element not in the wood or paint but something intangible that has drawn a following across multiple oceans. Whatever it is, I hope Mike is able to keep it locked away in that room, only letting out enough inspiration for the next round of Traffic goodness.
What came first for you, skating or art?
Definitely art. I was doing that as a little kid. Coloring with crayons, drawing on paper bags and obsessing over Mad Magazine. One of my first memories of skating was totally going into a skate shop, it wasn't even a skate shop it was a soccer store in the mall but they had a wall of boards. Just seeing all the graphics and it sort of has that like that heavy metal record aesthetic where like, as a little kid you know, I don't even know what's on this record but I'm so fucking mystified by it. Seeing a Tony Hawk and a Roskopp, Billy Ruff and I don't know who any of those people are or if they are even people I just know that this thing is strangely attractive. It's basically a toy that is becoming popular at that Back to the Future mid-80's time and for a bunch of us becomes a central thread of our lives.
Are you self taught or did you go to school? A mixture of both?
I guess both, I mean I went to public school and when I was pretty young my mom put me in after-school art class when I was probably 9 or 10. In that class that was taught by a professional artist, there were maybe five other kids and one of the kids was a kid like a year older than me that skated. He showed me TransWorld and Thrasher for the first time and would let me borrow his magazines that were a couple months older, ones he was bored with already. That was actually my first time seeing what skating was. Years later I wound up moving to Philly to go to art school but a big part of the reason to go to Philly was because of skateboarding. That was like '95 so Sub Zero/Eastern Exposure era for sure.
Did you ever have the skate dream of sponsorship, going on trips with a company etc?
Not really, I mean of course like in 1989 you want to be Matt Hensley. So I totally wanted that but within my little crew of skaters a couple of my buddies were really good and they were getting sponsored and I knew I was not as good as them so it was never a focus for me.
What was your first work (design, drawing, painting etc.) that you were paid for?
After I got out of the Art Institute…I was still working at Sub-Zero and I know I did a flier for Mike V.'s poetry night, which is pretty amazing. I'm not sure I got paid for that but not too long after that I started working at a print shop where some random guy would come in and want a logo for his whatever. I was working there so probably just something through that job.
Do you think getting paid for your work is an incentive or added pressure?
Sometimes it can be stressful if you feel that you are lost in the project and you don't really know what you want to do. If I'm making a logo for somebody, depending on the project and client, you can do ten things and they don't like any of them or they can like the first thing in ten minutes and it's the right thing. Personally I like the challenge of creating something for purpose and then I can somehow turn that into money so I can eat. That's the whole reason that I didn't go into fine art, was because I was too worried about commodifying my painting or my personal vision. Also from that point I had already been skating for a long time so I had kind of seen that people were making super cool things and somehow making a living off that.
From working at Sub-Zero to being the art director for Traffic in 2003. You are pretty steeped in the Philadelphia skate scene. How did you get a job at the shop?
I think because I lived pretty close by and the scene was relatively tight-knit. Like many skaters that lived in South Philly you skate to the shop and meet up with people there and then venture into the city further. So just from hanging out there and then maybe Skip Millard worked there and maybe he was leaving and he let me know that they were going to need somebody, that may have been it. But I think it was probably from knowing Shane and knowing a couple of the other principle guys in that time.
What year was that?
I think it was 1997.
How long did you work there?
Maybe a year? Honestly I don't remember. It was my first job after graduating from art school and I remember thinking that I could have just worked at the skate shop and not have gone into debt. So it was a little stressful, where I was the only employee that wasn't also in school so I was there all the time. I still think of the stacks of Matt Reason Silverstar boards that Matt had traded in there and the FAXs we would get about closeout boards for 25 to 35 bucks that are now worth thousands! I wish I would have started collecting boards then. Anyone with a Matt Reason deck for sale holler at me!
How did you get involved with Traffic?
Through Sub-Zero. Straight up. I had obviously seen Rick at Love Park here and there but it was always like that's the Mayor and I'm just some random guy on the outskirts. It wasn't until I wound up working at Sub-Zero that I would actually have met him and bullshit about whatever. I met Rick and probably everybody in the Philly skate scene by being behind the counter gripping boards there. This is now Silverstar/1st Division era and that shit was doing awesome at the time. Then the whole ECU (East Coast Urethane) debacle happened, everything blew up and Rick wound up on New Deal which was pretty random and then post New Deal video (7 Year Glitch) one time he says "yeah, New Deal is done and I'm going to do my own company." I was like sick dude, if you ever need any help with graphics I'd love to help out. I lived a few blocks from Rick so luckily for me he had very little other options. (laughter)
When Traffic started there was a lot of stoke surrounding the team, did that add pressure for you? You're doing graphics for Oyola, Puleo and later Sabback three kings of style.
Well by the time it was those three guys Traffic was already like five years old. When I started there was no team. Rick was the only pro for maybe 4 or 5 years. Slowly, Shawn Williams got on, Adler got on but there were no pros. We couldn't do like 10 Rick boards so I literally had to make things that weren't logo/team boards but little series that didn't have a connection to a rider. So I was at least comfortable doing boards for Rick and then Bobby getting on was super exciting and a perfect fit. That dude really knows what he wants things to look like. Of those three dudes, Rick values whatever I give him. He didn't have many ideas visually but would know what he liked. He's probably a lot easier to work with than people would perceive him to be. He was super thankful that I was doing the work. Flip side to Bob, who I didn't know at all until I have to do graphics for him and I would get these long e-mails about how myself and everyone on the team was blowing it.
I can remember a meeting we had at my house trying to go over new graphics and it turned into Rick and Bob arguing with each other and Jack sitting on the floor just over it. We just left the room for fifteen minutes just to be like, dude these guys are fucking crazy! They are both two of the most opinionated human beings and Rick probably hates 95% of skateboarding and Bobby hates like 99.5% so the window of what is acceptable is like super fucking minute. Which is kind of good, you really have to aim for a very direct and distinct aesthetic but it's also hard to work with people that are hating almost everything you do. At that time I'm barely making any money and Bobby single-handedly turned this thing that I love doing into this chore that was totally annoying so I quit. I didn't do anything for the brand for four or five years.
There are no written rules for skateboarding except for the ones we make up. Like with Rick and Bobby, they have their vision of what is acceptable to them. I have always heard from a few sources that there are three or four things that are not supposed be in board graphics. Taboos, if you will.
One‚ no skater's doing tricks in a graphic.
With a few exceptions I totally agree. That said I love the OG Chocolate portraits.
Three‚ boards on boards.
Dude, you're nailing it. I agree with all of them.
I totally agree about all of those things but the Ricky board is literally a picture of Rick holding his skateboard but to me it works. Ten years later it's still the best selling board that Traffic makes. It tells a story. So this poster behind you I had that up in my studio in Philly and in Philadelphia Rocky is such an icon and many years before Traffic was a thing I kind of had this concept of Rick being a very Rocky like character. In his own words he's not a "trickster"....he's a "ham-and-egger", definitely not the most technical dude but has a very unique and powerful approach and brings value to skateboarding. Like Josh [Stewart] had said very empowering to East Coast guys in particular. He is that dude, completely and even in a weirder way I kind of thought of Stevie [Williams] as kind of being a Mr T, the new generation that is like a killer on a skateboard and is younger with that "I'm the champ" swag. Eventually Rick was like I'm not even going to try and get clips at LOVE because Kalis and Wenning and Stevie and all these dudes are so fucking good and just destroying that place. It kind of made him more interesting because he had to go out on crazy missions to find these crusty spots and do something that people had not seen.
I've definitely thought about those rules and how probably the one graphic I've done that people have seen the most breaks all of those rules. It doesn't have his face but it's still a photo of the dude holding a skateboard.
If you look around it's rare to see a company not employ that type of content. Krooked is the only one of the larger companies that comes to mind that doesn't break those rules. Sure, there might be a Gonz drawing of a skateboard in the graphic but that's it.
But see the thing is at least that is trying to express something about this person. The skateboards that I grew up with were always trying to express this guy's personality in some way even if it was something kind of random. A lot of the boards that you see now are purposefully nothing, you know what I mean. They are just a random photo in a square and now that's your board. And it has nothing about who that guy is, just completely interchangeable and disposable commodity. I think that may have to do with the barrage of imagery in general these days. It's less about content and more about volume.
When going into making a series for Traffic how much direction are you given, or did you just make graphics and they picked which ones they dug the most?
Obviously starting out when it was just Rick it was kind of the funnest meetings ever because he would skate over to my house with a six-pack and a blunt and we'd sit in the studio and chop it up for a couple hours and I'd be like here are the handful of ideas that I have and maybe he thinks three are worth pursuing and we'll build it from there. When I came back with Josh and Pat [Steiner] it was still kind of that thing of like here is the ideas that I have. I can't think of those guys ever being like we want it all to be like this. There's been a few things that I've shown them and they are like this isn't working. But for the most part it's been pretty easy to get stuff by. Definitely not as easy as when you are in the same room with someone exchanging ideas but I trust Pat and Josh's opinion totally.
You did some branding work for Adidas and as of October 2017 you are in house at Nike. How did that happen? There seems to be some crossover in the creative side when it comes to those two companies.
Well both companies are in the same town. Aiming towards those two brands was part of why I choose Portland to move to. These are two brands that make lots of cool shit and hire lots of creatives. I wound up doing a short term contract at Adidas skateboarding where I did the Color Design for an entire season of footwear including the Busenitz ten year collection. It was super fun and kind of high level stuff for a dude off the street for a couple months. Substitute teacher style but an amazing opportunity.
Traffic went to an interesting place for a while but for the past couple years it's been at Theories and you are doing more of the graphics again. How does it feel with new folks at the helm who care about it?
Those are the dudes that should be running it. It feels like it's in better hands than it ever has been. But at the same time just over the course of time, for me that first crew of Andy Bautista, Henry Panza, Rich Adler, Mark the Shark, Jack and Bobby those were the guys that I would actually see and talk to. It's been over ten years now so most of them are doing other things. I think that time when it was at Syndrome Jack left, Plunkett left, Bobby left and I left all within a couple months. I can probably imagine for Syndrome to be like, we thought we were buying into this thing and then there wasn't that same value. It did go to a weird place. But also because maybe the people who were supposed to be selling it didn't care about it. In contrast to Pat and Josh where it's obvious they really care about that brand. It would have been awesome if Theories was a thing when Traffic started and Josh was handling sales/production/video from the beginning. I still consider Static 2 to be be the first (and maybe best) Traffic video.
When you have a distribution that doesn't really care about the brand how much do you think that hurts the company's image? The average skater going into the shop and because someone isn't doing their job and getting the boards on the wall is not seeing Traffic.
That's the biggest issue was if you don't have product on the wall for six months because X,Y and Z that's bad. An average shop owner can't put up with that type of shit. Most will be like we'll order from these guys because they constantly have boards that consistently sell. For a small brand that is trying to penetrate the space, if you can't consistently deliver and have cool looking shit when people want to buy it you're not going to make any money. Also ten plus years ago it was a big deal if you couldn't run an ad in SLAP or Thrasher. Now its all online followers and likes which is way cheaper.
It seems like a lot of the work you've done in skating has not been about the money. If you could pay for a year's gas with what you've made from skating you'd be stoked.
That's why I never even have a car never mind gas. It kept me living somewhat, but my motivation was 100% because of that arch of being a little kid looking at skateboards and having my mind blown by that and then working in a skate shop and seeing kids have that same thing. I wanted to do that, I wanted to make that and because it's Rick it felt comfortable because it was A: it's not like I had to go to California and jump into working at Foundation or someone else that has everything already mapped out. It was just me and one of my favorite skaters. He already had over a decade of history where I can kind of look at the shit he had done with Zoo, the stuff he had done with Illuminati, Silverstar and maybe mix in a couple things that I liked you know. You could never make a Ricky board that was like an Enjoi board, it could never be funny you know what I mean. His entire aesthetic come out of that early Zoo thing. The early Zoo stuff Eli Gesner did was kind of the bar for me and definitely for Rick. So it was really not to copy that but like to embrace that and that sort of Philadelphia aesthetic of historic old, crusty blue collar town. That was pretty easy to try and just make a skate company that seemed interesting to me with somebody that at least their name gave it some credibility. That was pretty awesome.
Did you ever submit graphics to other companies to get a permanent in house job?
Yeah, totally I sent some stuff to Toy Machine when I was still in school because I knew Elissa but what I sent was not very good and Toy has such a distinct look. At one point I almost moved to Cali to work on Hollywood with Markovich! I remember meeting with Matt Barker and Markovich and talking with them about it but that fell through. Probably for the best considering that company didn't last too long.
Your Terror of Planet X graphics that came out last year are just one illustration of your extended roots to Philadelphia while living in the Pacific Northwest - Portland. If you could trade one aspect of each city for another, what would each be? Could be anything, from weather, to skate spot or even food.
For sure Philadelphia I just think of my friends. I moved there as a teenager and I left in my early 30's so it was where I grew up, I knew way more people and also the approach to skateboarding is completely different. There it's you go out and push around and maybe meet up somewhere then just keep moving through the city. Here it's I'm going to drive to a skate park where my buddies are and we're going to hang out for 2 hours and then we're going to drive home. But culturally Portland is more in line with my lifestyle ‚Äì super liberal, super into the arts, way more supportive of skateboarding there are probably eight skate parks within in a half hour of here. Tons of amazing nature from the mountains to the coast. The fact that weed is legal is rad but it's a symbol of the overall permissiveness, you know what I mean? Philadelphia is pretty uptight and angry and Portland feels friendlier but its ok. I like that they are completely different vibes.
Why Portland? Why not LA, SF, Seattle, Vancouver?
Really it was just like I already knew a handful of people here already and I knew a couple people in those towns also but it seemed like they're going to be way more expensive. I would probably say Portland is a little more aligned to Philly in that way of you're not in the hot bed of LA, or even Seattle, it's a little more mellow, little cheaper, it's little slower but really it was I had few friends here and there was a couple of those brands that I thought, maybe I could work there.
Is there a board graphic or design you are most proud of?
Right now probably I'd say that Rocky graphic because they just keep making it. I guess people keep responding to it and it makes sense to them and it feels like, I think at this point if you think of a Ricky board you might think of that. Which is like a really awesome feeling. When you think of how fucking disposable skateboards are to make one that resonates with people that's like you remember it. That's pretty sick. 95% of skateboards graphics now are pretty forgettable. I also liked the recent Philadelphia Experiment capsule collection with Theories. Those guys wanted to revisit the concept I did for one of the first series we did. We made a cool corduroy hat and shirt as well.
It's also rare. We came from a generation where you would see the same graphic year after year. Now graphics are disposable so having one that sticks around year after year is a real rarity.
I can only imagine the only reason they keep doing that is because shops ask for it. It's funny because number one it's a photo of a guy holding a skateboard, like it breaks all of the rules that we talked about. It represented this idea that I had way before Traffic was a thing and it seemed like this random idea was also a thing other people could identify with it made sense. For the most part I'm usually I wouldn't say underwhelmed, like we said sometimes a board won't come out the exact way you wanted it to. But also I think as an artist you have this tendency to be looking forward so with skateboarding you're on like a four to six month time line. I'm going to finish it and it's not going to come out for a couple seasons. With these bigger companies, apparel and footwear companies you're at least a year out. So the work I'm doing now I'll have completely forgotten about by the time it actually becomes a thing. It's good that it keeps it cyclical and moving forward all the time but that's probably why I respond to the first couple boards that I did. Because now I'm like looking back over a decade, which is pretty crazy.
When something does hit, like the Ricky board is that, for an artist, something like or towards immortality for an image?
That's just a weird term to think about but I know what you mean. Um, yeah I don't know how many of those you are going to get. For one thing Ricky means a lot to a specific group of people for decades now and that's why it's sick to do boards for Kerry or Maldonado or Bobby. These are the dudes that I admired for twenty years, how can I make something that somehow reflects this dude's overall impact on skating. It's a super small part of it but as someone that got so much from skating and having that be your life, it's cool to put little pieces back into it.
It's contributing to the shared feeling we have all gotten from skating, putting something back into it not necessary going to reap a reward but because it is a contribution.
Like you asked before about actually making money in skating. What happened was I think I did the Traffic stuff for very little money but it gave me an outlet and exposure. In people around the world in very little isolated pockets to actually see it and appreciate it but also just as a creative person - to make a thing, a product that is produced and sold. I went from doing Traffic stuff to doing this design project for Burton, then got a job designing apparel at Mitchell & Ness. It's like that was a spring board for me to actually being able to make real stuff. I didn't make money in skating but it gave me great platform to move my career forward.
Is there a Traffic favorite series you've done?
Maybe the old history series that has the Mummers, Liberty bell and the zoo. I guess I have a fondness for those first couple things when it was a completely new thing and super trippy to be like I made this thing and now it's on a board and people all over the world are seeing and skating it. After you do that sixty, eighty times it's still cool but it doesn't have that same "you don't have to pay me I'm just fucking hyped" thing. You know, now it's like "dude when is that check coming, where's my box?" (laughter). I think that's how a pro skater feels, you skate and skate because you love skateboarding then it becomes an opportunity where you can make money and it makes it less fun because there is pressure and your motivation is maybe not the same.
Is it hard to keep coming up with new and different graphics for the same company for multiple years?
It can be hard. I think there is still a bunch of things that we can do that we haven't done yet. It's also funny, if you think about Traffic the most obvious thing to do would be vehicles but Chocolate did that so long ago that even though I would do it in a different way it's just that I'd rather not do it. We've done a bunch of similar kind of things I guess you could say. I feel like there is a lot of things we could do most photo based stuff that we haven't done which is obviously super trendy in skating right now and in some ways can kind of be easier. But at the same time I don't necessarily want to do what is popular right now. Even though there are a lot of times when I'm like so, "oh man I have a friend that is an awesome artist and she should do a series or the homie that is a photographer we should do a whole bunch of that dude's art." I don't even need to be there, that almost feels like I would like to pass it on in a way. Let other people, do at least guest artist series which we haven't really done much of.
I don't recall ever seeing a guest artist Traffic board.
Not really, I mean Rob Erickson did a couple of Puleo boards back in the day. I think maybe Hiroki had a buddy do a board for him as well. There are certain fine artists and photographers that I love their work and I could see it fitting but maybe it's never worked out. It's also that for certain artists if you can't pay their standard rate, which most skate companies can't it's just not going to come together.
There is a new guest series in the new season, were you a part of that or was that something Josh and Pat put together?
I just saw them for the first time on Instagram the other day! They're sick! I'm a bit protective of the brand visuals but again I trust Pat and Josh to curate good stuff. Mark the Shark has done some cool stuff as well. I would love to see Traffic series from so many people though! Tim Gough, Thom Lesner, Jim Houser, Miriam Singer, Jon Boecksel off top. The sickest would be if Eli Gesner would do a series! Or at least a Rick board. That's Rick's favorite skate designer for sure.
I see that you are wearing one of the Toynbee tile pins that Theories put out a while back. I've watched the documentary on that a few times, it's pretty interesting. Are you into any other conspiracy or odd thing humans do?
That's a Philly thing, that guy actually lived a couple blocks from me in South Philly. So there is a super high concentration of them throughout my old neighborhood. He's interesting because it's kind of conspiracy/street art/outsider artist. He's in his own lane. I like all that stuff. I'm super into all the masonic legends of how they built this whole country. Most recently I've been super into Stanley Kubrick’s (Toynbee idea) and was so blown away by it that in my like looking at YouTube videos of Kubrick, you will get to faking moon landing/alternative NASA history pretty quickly. I just like considering all these things. We live in Bigfoot country, you know. I collect some old Masonic and Odd Fellows “fraternalia” as well. We were supposed to make a Toynbee tiles series where we were actually make the tiles, going to put Rick's name in tiles in there somehow and make them and photograph them. It just became too much work, to get the stuff to build the things wait for summer time, wait for it to be fresh roads (asphalt) lay the tiles wait for them to sink in then get so-and-so to go shoot the photos then get the photos back and make the boards. The amount of time it takes to cut out the linoleum blocks and the time it takes to go out and do it and wait for it to press in is a couple months and then shoot it. Such a big long process. But, I still think it would be sick and if you asked Rick what was the one that got away from Traffic point of view he would instantly say the Toynbee tiles. Because he was gassed on it he wanted to do it for so long, we just never got to do the shit. It would have been so good. As people in the streets so much, you just saw that stuff. Especially since me and Rick lived close to each other and the dude that did them lived a couple blocks from us. So we would see them constantly. You'd see really weird test tiles or like extra letters that were kind of chucked and they would sink somewhere. Like weird off-brand ones. But I think there are other people that started doing them now. I saw one out here actually, I'm quite sure there is or was one on MLK right by the Nike outlet, I don't know if it's still there because that's the thing they eventually pave over them. For me I remember there is one at Fourth and South for years (in Philly), a big one it was literally where you walk on South Street, millions of people saw that thing.
Would you have any advice for someone considering getting into the board graphic game, aside from get use to Top Ramen?
Just do the homie board, work on the homie video, make shirts or do the flier for Mike V's poetry night. Do that random shit because you love it and then that gives you a stepping stone to the next hopefully better thing. It's a way to turn those little student projects into actual things that people will remember.
Interview and photos by Isaac Mckay Randozzi