Seven Layer Stacks - John Vitale
Seven Layer Stacks - John Vitale
Interview by Isaac McKay-Randozzi
It’s been a hell of a couple years, for the world and for skating. The surge of free time during the first Summer of Covid created something most if not all skate shops had never experienced – empty shelves. A mass of furloughed, laid-off, discharged, suddenly found redundant adults mixed with the youthful zeal that comes from closed schools hit the streets. Coupled with the federal stimulus and bolstered unemployment, pockets were fat and people bought what they wanted. Now, a year and a half later and the shops are stacked with decks, people are back to work, back in school and the prices have gone up. The wood shops filled back orders and now the shops are flooded with product.
Smaller companies that survived the drought are now faced with a pile of boards and distributors unable to buy their normal numbers. In today’s seasonal graphic game, old graphics just don’t move. For some this might be a problem The Killing Floor’s John Vitale saw this situation and decided to do something different with his glut of decks. He’s expanding on a project we discussed previously and worked himself into a new creative fury that hopefully didn’t burn him out.
Sitting still is not John’s forte and I’m glad that his inability to be inactive has made him think outside of the box. He acts upon their idea in moments, his day is mentally measured in second and minutes, ours in half and full hours. That type of energy is not normally appreciated except in very few and select fields, like skating and art. Or it could just be meth.
In brief, how did the first six-to-eight months of Covid affect The Killing Floor?
To the same degree it effected everyone else at first. An insane onslaught of demand. It was like a brief moment of complete fear, I had that moment of this is it and I don’t know. I’m going to wake up in a week and that’s it for the brand and my current life. And then it seemed like over night it became the polar opposite and it was a snowball of it being more intense and there was just no way of filling demand. I probably could have sold… being a small brand… I don’t know man I don’t want to throw a number out, but a shit-ton of skateboards. Let me put it this way, at the time if I could have gotten a hold of way more boards I could have sold them all. Within the first 6 months if not longer.
How bad did the shortage affect you?
It was pretty bad. I have a good relationship with Generator (wood shop that makes all of the Theories brands, Magenta, Picture Show, same wood as Deluxe and many many others) I’ve been working with those dudes for 17 years, and there was no special treatment for anyone, there was nothing. They were in the same boat. It was what it was and no one could get what they needed. I think the wood shops were similarly overwhelmed like the brands where. No one knew what to do. It was territory no one had been in Isaac, there were no clean or easy answers. I was getting whatever the hell I could get and it came down to being resourceful and figuring out different ways to hustle. If you have that kind of mindset then I guess you can figure things out. There were a lot of small brands that were going under because they couldn’t get the wood, that goes on long enough and that’s the end. For me that wasn’t the end-all be-all, I wasn’t willing to accept that, so I went down every avenue I could to get whatever the hell I could. I sold some boards I wouldn’t normally print our graphics on but shops ultimately just needed whatever we had and it went up on the wall. In a perfect world I would always use Generator and if I couldn’t use them I would probably use the other shops, you know those other few that you would use. I got some random stuff from little woodshops and yeah, some random stuff from wherever I could. And shops didn’t care, they didn’t care what graphic it was, they just needed stuff to put up on the wall to fill the demand they had.
Is it true, that when boards were in short supply you were contacted by small wood shop in Colorado made by a christian sect that uses holy water in the glue mixture (according to local unsupported rumors)?
Is that real?
This is what I have been told by local sources that don’t want to be named.
Haha I didn’t know that man, that’s news to me. To be honest, that makes the whole thing that much better. Their boards were actually good. You know they are gone now?
The whole company?
Yeah, they are gone. They came in hot and heavy and religion stuff aside they may have had a shot because their boards were really good. It didn’t last a year I guess. Covid was a hell of a drug, for businesses, some could handle it and some went too hard.
There must have been days or even weeks where you were at a stand still, is that when you started painting more?
Yeah, I was in another industrial building down the street from where TKF is at now. It’s an artists studio/warehouse loft kinda work thing. I was there during the bulk of Covid and it doubled as my art studio and that was keeping me busy while I was waiting. The second I could get boards and that was in random spurts, I’d drive them up to Seattle to my friend Kyle and he would print the graphics on them, then I’d drive back. I’d just do whatever I could and had to. And then the boards would be gone. The orders were there waiting to be filled, so they were gone before I had them. It was a lot of hustling and navigating but there were plenty of windows of time in between where I could paint.
Was it around that time you started showing you paintings around Portland?
Yes, I started out with a handful of paintings that I had accumulated over the past couple years. I’ve been painting for a long time and I’ve had a couple shows but I never had the time or energy to really try to dive into that side of it. It’s always been this back burner thing that I’ve been doing but it was never at the forefront of what I was doing.
I took some paintings to a cool spot that’s not quite a gallery but this mid-century modern furniture and art type place down the street from my warehouse. I showed them to her and naturally she kind of blew me off, I’d have blown me off…but I left and like an hour later she messaged me and said that they were good and I should hang them up in here. They started selling and so I painted more and that started it. It just organically turned into something where it was something I really wanted but never had the focus and time to see it through. It’s working itself out I guess.
Do you think that burst of creative energy you had painting helped fuel this one-off board project you are in the middle of?
Um, I don’t know maybe man. I was already doing one-offs and stuff like that. The reason I bought the machine [heat transfer press] was because immediately in the beginning of Covid I had these ideas that I needed to be more self-sustainable and I also wanted it as an art tool. So I was already doing the one-offs, I was figuring them out before I even had my own machine, using other peoples machines, so I don’t know if it inspired me in that way. It more so kind of was out of a necessity, it was adaptation. I needed to figure out how to do this myself if and when needed and being the type of person I am that’s, I guess a more artist type brain, that’s why I went with it. What can I do in this situation that maybe will get people excited, I guess. More out of necessity on how we get these things [boards] out of here and have it interesting and not just get them out but make them something cool.
So at first with Covid, it was a famine and now it’s a feast of boards and the one-off project is using up some of that back stock. A while ago you were selling three decks for one-hundred dollars, was that to help get rid of a few of them?
Yeah it was. I’ve never been one to do those kind of things because I’m constantly thinking of the image of the brand or whatever you want to say. I know it’s not something that I necessarily would usually, under regular circumstances want to do but this whole thing had kind of turned it into an anything goes type of situation. I’ve talked to shop owners who say, other good brands are doing “this, that”, seeing sales on Instagram or pricing offered to shops, doing something similar. It came down to a really tricky thing with timing and quantities for me particularly. It came down to that I had this one last season (right before this flood began setting in) with a bunch of stock in production, and once I started seeing the pattern of what was happening, it was too late to cut back on the order. I think some people were able to cut back but I didn’t have the timing right and couldn’t cut back. All of the boards came and here we are. If shops can’t buy boards then what do you do?
What do you mean by shops couldn’t buy boards?
Shops were too flooded, a lot them still actually are. I’m kind of sitting and waiting for this shift to happen and its not necessarily happening yet because they are still super flooded. All of my international and domestic distributors are super flooded. It’s nerve racking and every where I turn I hear new stories. Originally in like October I was thinking it will be cool and in early Spring things will shift and I’ll start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Here we are and nothing has fully shifted yet really, not drastically yet anyways. Talking with my distributors, they are expecting the whole year to be rough. So I think that flood, coupled with some other things we are currently experiencing, like inflation, and the disappearance of all those first time board buyers during Covid, ended up kind of worse than anyone could have mapped out in advance.
So you think this flood of wood is going to last for a while?
It could. That’s what I’ve heard from people that would know. I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to think that but the way it’s going now, it totally could man. We could be seeing the effects of this deep into the Fall, you know. I hope Summer flushes it out. It’s bigger than just a lot of boards got produced. We’re sitting in like a perfect storm of like this time last year everyone was on unemployment and everyone was out buying skateboards. There were a lot of elements at play, it wasn’t just as simple as – there weren’t boards then and now there’s a lot more than we need.
The previous one-off projects you did were like 50 boards? And now you’re doing five-hundred?
Yeah, five-hundred. Which is gnarly. I’m at like two-hundred fifty right now. I’ve been working long days. I’ll print for six hours in a day and I’ll get, if I’m lucky maybe 20 to 35 done when I do it by myself at the most. I have a lot of other work I have to do during the day , as well as painting commissions or work for a show, so I can’t just print eight hours a day. I devote a chunk of my day to printing these things and on average I’ll get twenty boards a day done. Those are the days I can actually squeeze a shift of printing in. It’s been going on for weeks and weeks but I guess I originally thought this was going to take me three months.
And how long has it been?
Two, almost two. So I might make it at three months.
So you are releasing them all at once to shops?
Yeah, they are going to be a part of my wholesale line sheet which should be interesting because it’s kind of a weird thing to put on there. I’m not sure it’ll even make sense for some people. I’m gonna release some small batches of them on our site for fun too, but I’ve never made enough to realistically offer them at wholesale.
Did you theme or make any sort of series within the five-hundred?
No, there are certain random ones where I sort of rode a wave of doing one and doing another one like this. But no, they are all unique. It’s been draining. Sitting there doing sporadic collage, non-stop sporadic collage and you can only imagine when you’re doing five-hundred of them and I have a lot of transfers, a lot of old graphics but it’s still limiting. I have so many transfers I have to interact with boards that already have a graphic on them and so I’m incorporating the under-graphic into the collage and it becomes a numbers game. You get burned out and there are days when I’m like, I’m fucking done. I can’t think of anything new to do with these. I don’t want to go digging through more transfers. So yeah I’ve had days where I’m on a roll and days when I’m like yeah, fuck this I’m done.
That’s something I wanted to bring up actually. You only have so many options, so much material to pull from. How challenging has it been?
Super challenging, exhausting but it’s also been something that’s really rad… and frustrating because I don’t want to make two of the same one. And sometimes one will come out so fucking good but I can’t do another one and I have to move on and what else can I do? So far, as far as I know… shit I might get called out if there are a couple in there but when you do five-hundred I forget what I’ve done. And either way those would be somewhat different since these are all cut up and done by hand. As far as I know, to the best of my abilities I have intentionally made sure each one is different.
That’s amazing. It sounds like it’s been a labor. Has it emptied your mental creative resources?
A little bit you know. I also have a full line of regular graphics coming out for Spring. I try to do ten boards every season and I still have nine boards and theoretically these one-offs is the tenth. So yeah, it’s been exhausting but that’s where the painting comes in, they are completely different modes of creativity and they do inform each other but they are completely different and I can kind of bounce back and forth. My day usually starts at 9AM and lately I print boards until 1PM, or 3PM if I’m in a groove then turn the machine off and go upstairs to my studio and start painting. So it’s kind of like one cancels the other out when you’re burned out on it. It’s been nice in that regard that I’ll go upstairs and paint and then next morning I’m ready to print again.
John, I gotta ask. You’re fucking busy as hell with the board project, your painting career is growing and you are father to a small child. Level with me, are you doing some of that good good Portland meth?
[Laughter] No man but Portland is a hot mess right now with that stuff and heroin etc. But no, I’m not on meth. I’m just very charged and wound-up creatively, I’m just a Tasmanian devil of energy I guess.
You mentioned that part of what inspired this project was all the wood you had laying around. Why not just sit on those graphics and slowly sell them off in the regular manner, why torture yourself to make five-hundred unique graphics?
I thought about that too. You know how skate graphics are, there is a certain shelf life to them for most people. You can keep some in there but people aren’t dumb and kids know what’s going on and they know what’s new and what’s old. That’s one side of it, and I think there is something that can be perceived by sitting on old graphics months or a year later still trying to sell them. That’s the one public angle and the other is personally I don’t like that idea. I’m a board graphics person and we’re an art driven brand is the best way to put it. That’s what I’m into and that’s what I like the brand to be known for. That’s the last thing I want to do is ride this thing out that way and be like, oh I still have these graphics from last Fall.
So you don’t want to be stale with what you put out.
Yeah, but this thing has allowed me the time to do these five-hundred boards. Putting in extra dollars and hours into each board. Then shipping them back down to Generator having them re-shrink wrapped too.
There isn’t a place you can get them shrink-wrapped in Portland?
Not that I know of man, that has a shrink tunnel to wrap boards. Maybe someone has a tunnel that can be used for that, but I figured it out. The whole thing is shit-loads of extra work but any worthwhile creative thing is like that I guess. It’s not torture, it is enjoyable but yes it’s hard work.
Would you ever do this type of project again?
Not five-hundred, no. I’ll do it like I use to. But I don’t know, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. We might go through this for two years again. I would like to think that I won’t have to do anything like this again, this is a very unique scenario we are all in. I’m finding my own way to sail the seas and that’s what it is. But yeah, I’ll keep doing the one-offs I love doing those just maybe twenty at a time. And I don’t really wanna even look at the transfer machine for like 6 months.
Are you going to keep the five-hundredth one as a memento of the project? Or do you just want to get them all out of the door?
I didn’t even think about it. I don’t know, good idea.
Have you kept any of the one offs you’ve made?
I haven’t. I don’t keep my paintings either though. I don’t make them for me. I mean I’m making them for me to some degree but they aren’t for me to keep, more for others to enjoy and interact with I guess. But with the regular graphics I try and keep one of each of those for my archive. I can always make another similar one-off. But I might keep the five-hundredth one, that’s a good idea. Guess I’ll have to make it really good, the best one so I want to keep it.
Do the opposite, just do next to nothing, paint an X on it and boom, you’re done. You don’t have to show it it’s one of an edition of five-hundred. No one will know. You can look at that one turd of a graphic and be glad the project is done.
[Laughter] fair enough. I might actually appreciate that more later honestly.
So a while back you did a collaboration with Nike. And it was only soft goods, no shoes?
We did, It was. They had never done that before. It started as a shoe project, it was going to be a shoe under the original plan and it turned into an apparel capsule. At the time I was kinda torn about it because I really wanted to do a shoe, I’ve skated in dunks and blazers for like 20 years… but it actually turned into an interesting and unique thing, being that that’s the first Apparel-only collab capsule SB has ever done with a board brand. It was a fun process designing things like the jacket from the ground up. A shoe might come down the road but it’s all in a weird spot. Everyone I worked with over there is gone and it’s a completely new team. That shifted the whole thing now I think. But doing a collab with nike is obviously like a skate brand bucket lister.. so no complaints here. It was an honor for us to do that. And we had a lot of fun.
I kind of thought you did that on purpose. Everyone does a shoe.
I’ve heard that from some people, and that’s cool too but the plan was to do a shoe. That’s what was approved originally, and then it was a shoe and lets do a couple tees to go with it and then the shoe got canned and it was turned into the full clothing capsule. It was kind of weird but maybe that’s something they are going to do more of in the future? I have no idea man. It sold really really well and they said they had never had it happen like that with SB apparel before. So that was really cool.
It seemed like it came into and out of shops pretty fast.
Yeah it sold out and it was on SNKRS and sold out in like thirty seconds and it sold out on my site in I want to say, thirteen seconds. I was scared the site was gonna crash. It was wild, like it was a Dunk. I didn’t order enough for our site, had I known I would have ordered twenty times more than I did. I thought, it’s clothes they’ll stay on my web store for a while so I didn’t order a lot and then they were gone in a blink of an eye. That was rad.
What’s next on the plate after you finish the last board? On to the next season’s graphics?
Yeah, I kind of already have to start my Summer stuff. I hope that what happens after that is that I sell off all the boards I need to sell off and can start Summer with a clean slate, we’ll see you know. It’s an interesting time and a slow roll for everybody.
Any plans for another Killing Floor video?
Yes, not a full length though. We are working on a few things but not a full length. That’s what I always want to do man, I’m an old guy. You can relate I’m sure. I just want a DVD but we have several thing we’re working on. Kyle is headed down to stay with Drew in Argentina and film and then Drew is coming stateside and we are all organizing some missions which will fuse together a cool project that covers not only US footy but Argentinean stuff too. All with our family vibe intact. The guys are all really tight.
Any guest artists coming up?
Yeah, I have a guest artist board coming out with a Filmer and friend of Andrew Gray. A guy named Kevin Enis, part of the Delivery crew out in Argentina, They have a really cool scene out there that Drew is in. So Kevin has a cool photography board. He’s not like a well know artist or anything necessarily, it’s more of an interesting thing about meeting him and seeing his work.
We also did a guest board with Danny Wainwright, which I’m really excited for. Danny is one of the ones who has always been in my mind when I think back to that era in skating, for myself personally. Usually that’s the criteria for our guest pros. So there are a couple guest board things coming out for Spring that I’m stoked for.