Artists of Theory: John Vitale of The Killing Floor
Interview and portrait by Isaac McKay-Randozzi
Art can be a statement. Putting art on a board with no other gimmick than the appeal of that image to draw the potential buyer in seems more like a declaration of freedom than a marketing campaign. Since 2007 we have seen a veritable explosion of small board companies on the skate shop walls. Well known pros have left long time sponsors and created their own independent identities and creative minds have started their visions of what a board company can be. This reaction to the status quo is what makes skating as a whole amazing, we see something that needs to be done and we do it. Even if it fails we have to try. I don't know if that train of thought was going through John's head when he decided to create The Killing Floor Skateboards but he saw that something different was needed and that he should put his money, time and effort into creating it. His basic goal of creating something that inspires others while a common theme is something hard to obtain, yet a growing loyal fan base makes it happen. We have seen other companies grow from that type of fan base. Those that back an idea, an image that is something new yet familiar. I think the difference between John and the previous generation of owners is that he does not strive to be where others are. This new, more personal generation of small companies don't want make the next Blind jeans and polo shirts. His aim is share an idea with the individual skater and make it something that sustains the stoke.
The text that follows was gathered over a three month period that included personal conversation and e-mails. Vegan John's responsibilities and mine complicated the compilation of the needed materials for this q. and a. but I think you'll find it worth your time to read. I would like to thank John and his family, Mat O'Brien and Cats Paw Saloon in Portland for making this possible.
How did a wiz kid of 25, star of Wall Street and the investment banking world fall so hard? Has the SEC cleared you of all charges yet? What about the overseas investors that lost millions on the island resort deal? That one seemed like your prize and pet project?
We’re off to an unsettling start here… Do I need a lawyer for this?
What's your name and who in the hell are you?
My name’s John. I own a small skateboard brand. I’m just a human, and a middle aged skateboarding enthusiast. I’ve been refusing to grow up and get a real job for years. No one’s even heard of me honestly, I’m still not quite sure why I’m here being interviewed?
You ran a shop in Northern California for a while. What made you move to Portland and start a board company?
Well, kinda long story actually. Twist of fate honestly. My wife (girlfriend at the time) Jen was moving to NYC to go to college at FIT and I guess it was stay out west and likely lose her, but keep my shop, or roll a big ass pair of dice. One of those life changing decisions, where you have to close your eyes and hold your breath to be able to do it. I sold the shop to a friend and made the move out east with her. NYC was short but really influential for me. I grew up on the east coast outside of Atlanta in a city called Athens, so NYC skateboarding was always on my radar. Most of my favorite skateboarders growing up were from the east coast. I remember the first time I skated the banks. It was a little surreal. I had a lot of those moments while I was there. One time I met Cardiel AND saw Yoko Ono in the same hardware store in the village. Only in New York! While I was living out there I was hoping to get a job with some type of team or marketing position, maybe even warehouse level shit and start a new chapter but still be doing something I had interest in. I had a few decent interviews lined up in the city but literally the week I was set to do them the economy tanked. New York was a weird place to be during that shift. Everyone was kind of freaking out, it all felt like it unfolded so fast. Needless to say, I didn’t even make it into the interviews, all the companies that were “hiring” all of a sudden were scaling back, literally overnight… We stuck it out for a while there. I was taking a couple painting classes at SVA and really enjoying it, and my wife had to finish her semester up, then we moved back out west.
When we settled in back in northern Cali, I honestly didn’t know what my next move was gonna be. I was up talking to Jen one night, and telling her that I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel on working in skateboarding. I still had the thought of doing something of my own and decided that maybe for some reason, it was a good idea to start a board brand, ha. This was late 2008 I think? I remember I was pretty uninspired by most of the skateboard industry at that time and I remember I felt like I could do something interesting, I also remember being horrified that no one was going to get it or really like it. No logo boards, or shit like that. I wanted to have the littlest logo possible on my boards, if any. I wanted the boards to tell some kind of a story, not just sell a brand. That might all sound kinda normal right now but at that point there wasn’t very many brands at all taking a strictly creative approach to their graphics. We’ve definitely seen periods in skateboarding before where a lot was changing and people weren’t afraid to step out of the comfort zone but the industry had become pretty logo driven. All the big brands were basically selling their names, not their concepts. I had some ideas and I think I was basically just hoping to create what I thought I’d personally like to see. Board graphics are kind of the best canvas for expressing anything visually in skateboarding, right? A couple years after starting it Jen and I got married and decided to move up to Portland. Change of scenery, small town version of a big city, It felt like at the very least, a good stepping stone. It was pretty affordable, and a reasonable place for us to both do our things it seemed. I figured it couldn’t be a bad place to operate a board brand.
How long has The Killing Floor been around now?
I kind of conceived it that night, thought it all out for a while and I think I had my first tiny run of boards at some point in 2009, near the end of the year, maybe early 2010. I like to say 2009 was when it started but honestly I think it really took root once we moved to Portland in 2012. That was sort of when I decided to go all-in on it. The first couple years were a bit of an experimental phase of trying to find a game plan. There weren’t a thousand new small brands then, so I had no formula to go off of for what I should be doing. I even had a couple distributors at that point but I was still trying to figure it all out.
Did you get the name for your company from the 70's band of the same name?
Is there a 70’s band named that? It actually came from the Howlin’ Wolf song. Which is an old blues tune. So, yes on the musical reference but not from a band name. But I did draw the logo I still have after an old Allman Brothers logo on an album cover. I wanted the logo to feel nostalgic.
Do you do all of the artwork and ad design?
I do. Once in a while we do a guest artist board but yea besides that I’ve done everything myself since the beginning. I’ve learned a lot. And I still have a LOT to learn too. But it’s really been my baby. I haven’t let anyone else sway me to do anything I haven’t been 100% on doing, which is rad.
When did you first start messing around with the arty stuff?
I’ve been making art since I was in grade school, or even before that. I’ve always been into drawing and when I got into high school I found a love for painting. I had a few older skate friends that were doing a lot of abstract painting in art school at UGA and it seemed fun. I got pretty into it, but skating and playing music were always my two main interests. In my 20’s I painted a good amount, which naturally led to interest in all types of artistic type stuff. I think it’s always been a big part of me. I’ve always felt like I was better at working things out visually, as opposed to being someone that could talk my way into or out of things. I kind of spent a lot of my years in my own head for the most part. Art was a great way to feel productive and work out my thoughts without having to actually put it into words I guess. I think the same goes for skateboarding, at least for me personally. It was always a really personal space that I could take myself to.
Are the graphics you make for TKF mainly digital creations?
Yea, a majority of it all is nowadays. I got pretty into collage art in the beginning of the brand and I liked the way it looked as board graphics. I wasn’t seeing many graphics like that then and that was part of my whole direction that I wanted to express with TKF. Using actual imagery of people or things and events has a really striking way of making a point. All the collage type graphics in the beginning were cut and paste on 9 x 33 matte board. Lots of hunting for stuff to chop up and mash up. It was endless. I still have them all in the closet. I wish it was all still actual cut and paste, but doing a lot of it digitally allows me to keep up with seasonal deadlines for getting new stuff out now. I do like 10 new graphics every drop now, 3-4 seasons a year, so it would be a lot to pull off by hand. I’d be spending half my days out in the world, searching for new material, and the other half with an exacto knife and glue stick. I got a kid to take care of now, and it’s nice to try to skate once in a while, so that was only possible for so long. But I still hand collage periodically, and I paint currently still also. I actually had a little solo show recently. I try to keep myself involved in as many hands-on creative projects as possible. I’ve done a couple small hand numbered runs of boards lately that I painted by hand and then had hand screened. I plan on doing more stuff like that for sure. It keeps me in a balanced mindset with all the design work I do on the computer now.
Does it bum you out or get you stoked when you see larger companies follow your lead on art direction?
Collage and the other elements of aesthetic in my brand aren’t new concepts, I definitely don’t own them. I just did it and liked how it looked and the way it was able to project an idea or concept. It’s probably partly just a more popular art form or style now. There’s a lot of people doing it now, a lot of people doing it the same way too. Everything ends up saturated and kind of boring at a certain point. Usually by the time something really isn’t interesting anymore or needs to be approached differently is when numerous people and brands decide it’s going to be a good thing to try to capitalize on or utilize. I do see that happening in creative direction and graphics with bigger companies right now for sure. Even some newer ones. But I try not to let that stuff get to me and instead motivate me to try to do stuff differently, so I guess that’s just natural creative progression.
Do you do the video editing as well?
I used to back in the first few years, we didn’t put a lot out but I did do the editing back then. I used to film a pretty decent amount since back when I had a skateshop and I made the shop video projects we did. I sold my VX and I don’t do any of that stuff now. I feel totally foreign with a camera now, it’s crazy how you can do something for so long and then stop and after some time it feels foreign again.
Do follow a quarterly schedule like other companies?
I don’t necessarily actually follow any schedule, I try to, but I’m always a little all over the place. There can just be too many variables. I’ve really tried to stick to putting out a spring line, summer line, and fall/winter line, sometimes, fall and winter, so between 3-4 seasons a year. I guess I’m following the seasonal change. That’s kind of what everyone does, and it makes sense for a lot of reasons. Also, because I kind of cashed in all my chips with TKF, I don’t have time to work a full time job now, and I didn’t want to spread myself between a part time and trying to do a brand right. I still can’t afford to hire a team to delegate different tasks to, so by doing everything myself for the most part. I guess I’m able to keep overhead low and actually pay bills, so I am surviving off of it now. Any time you are thinking about that aspect of life, timing becomes important. Gotta make sure all the ends meet and when that’s all in your own hands, you kinda got to start looking at a calendar a little and thinking things out.
You include political and topical images on your boards. Why, why not just make it all about the pretty pretty?
Sometimes I like graphics that are just done for the sake of looking cool, nothing wrong with that at all. Especially when it’s done right and looks good but I like the idea of making a point, or there being a concept behind an image too. Boards just seem like they are already such a disposable thing, why not put something on them that might make people think a little, so much more fun when it makes you work a little for an answer, or when there’s something there that resonates with you.
Are your shapes based on what you and your riders like or on what you think will sell well?
Definitely not for sales purposes, at least not intentionally so. I can’t even keep up with what shapes sell best. I feel like everything is so finicky now. One minute it’s the big shovel noses, the next people are buying footballs again. I have just found some shapes that I like over the years that are kind of tried and true. I like to add new ones in sometimes too, but I think most of them are just solid, functional shapes. And I hope the team likes them! If not, that sucks haha. I definitely try to make sure they are feeling what I send to them.
In a saturated and very full board wall/market, why keep making boards?
Good question. Ha. It’s more saturated every week too. I don’t know man, I think every time I sit down to make a new season of graphics, I still get so excited to work it all out. It’s problem solving and
Sometimes it can be super difficult and frustrating, but I keep wanting to try to do better than I did previously I guess, and I keep having ideas for things. Not that I think I am doing better each time necessarily but I guess it gives me a goal each time to try to reach.
You make small runs of bags and other soft goods. Do those sales help keep the company going?
Not really. I do a lot of smaller runs of things (I’d like to do way more limited runs if I had more free funds to toss at that stuff) and usually it’s either just something I personally really want to make, or it can be a way to test the waters a little I guess. My seasonal softgoods that release with my board drops usually do pretty well, but the smaller runs of things don’t really make me a lot of money, especially when they are small runs. Every bit counts, so they don’t hurt either but those things, as well as the small hand done board runs etc.. That stuff is all just more for fun and my creative outlet and I think it helps to diversify the brand and what people might perceive it as.
You've done what some would call homage boards for people like Mike Daher, Tony Cox, Matt Rodriguez and others. Not to sound insulting but why toss money at doing limited release boards like that? Is there a niche' market out there for that sort of thing?
Well, most of those boards, I do the same quantity as all my other boards. Like two or three hundred each or whatever, so in the big scheme that’s pretty “limited” but really all my graphics are.
Some of those guys I know or have known and in some way they are all really specific influences on me personally. That’s the main thing with them. I know that a lot of kids nowadays haven’t even seen many videos past fully flared. It’s crazy when Mouse, Tincan Folklore or Underachievers is a foreign language to kids. That has something to do with the guest boards… I want to make kids say “who the fuck is that guy?” They might go home and google them and open up a whole new universe they weren’t aware of. That could be pretty heavy for a young and influential kid who’s into skating. Some of the guest boards didn’t even sell as fast as my other graphics due to that I think, which is insane to me. It’s wild to think about the guest boards I’ve been able to do and the people I’ve done them with. I think if it all ended tomorrow, I’d have those things and I’d feel like I was a winner. Forever grateful to all the guys that have let me honor them!
Did you have a team in mind when you started or did they come along naturally?
I didn’t. I mean, I had it in mind to have a team, but I didn’t have some grand plan. It started the way any little trunk brand would for the most part. I had some really talented homies I hooked up and then added a person here or there once in a while. The team has really gone through quite some changes since then. The only real OG still on is Lance Chapin. He’s been with me since almost day one. He’s such an amazing skateboarder. Go to New Orleans and mention his name. He’s a wizard. I’ve always been really critical and particular about who I hook up and why. Seeing their skating has to do something for me. “Style is everything” as we’ve heard. It definitely is for me. I probably don’t make those decisions for the same reasons that a lot of people would. We actually have the best team right now that we’ve ever had. It feels super tight. It’s finally a full and well rounded family of relatively like minded individuals that all bring something unique to the table. I’ve been waiting on this for a long time. We are working on a new video right now that should be out around summer 2018.
Ha. You should probably talk to Josh about that. I think last week he got tagged as Jake Anderson by a shop, and made a comment to me that he wasn’t Josh Matthews anymore. Josh is a legend up here in the northwest especially. He has been killing it for years. I don’t know why Organika never did anything substantial with him, but then again, Kayo clearly has had it’s issues I think. But it worked out for us! He’s the best.
In doing research for this interview it seems that you are just in it for the cash. High priced limited released boards with fancy art by folks like Mat O'Brien and Brent Wick, combined with limited distribution it makes them a highly sought after item. Are you on the path to be the next Palace? Is that what you learned with your time on Wall Street?
You are obviously not very acquainted with my wallet or bank account Isaac. It’s like post-apocalyptic Wall Street… Wall Street in reverse. It has been really cool to work with a few artists/friends that I am inspired by. That is always exciting. I have part two of Paul Urich’s guest artist boards coming out in the Spring drop. It came together pretty serendipitously. No high prices, I’ve always sold everything for the same price, except for a few really hand done super small run projects I’ve done recently that I had to charge a little more for. I totally plan to continue to do those, but those aren’t guest artist boards and generally, it’s all meant to just get skated.
Do you think the values of Wall Street reflect the way modern skate companies operate?
Wow. Actually, I think there’s a little bit of that mentality in everything nowadays, unfortunately. The “values” (or lack of) projecting from Wall Street are just the epicenter of the greed that we all battle with at times in some way. Some of us are just strong enough to try to do the right thing, some not, there’s a whole spectrum. But when that’s technically the core of our financial system and those fools are so unbelievably corrupt, of course it can work it’s way into so much of our daily life. I do think there’s a lot of bullshit in skateboarding these days but it’s not skateboarding. It’s just our culture at large. Some humans just happen to ride skateboards. I wish that skateboarding could be this pure thing, like a sanctuary from everything. I think those of us that at least try to approach our own skating with that mentality, keep a false sense of confidence about it but its more like we are making it that to ourselves personally so that we can continue to hold it as sacred. If you look outside of your little soul session, there’s a lot of dumb shit to sift through. Again, it’s not skating or any one thing that you love, it’s just that everything has been tainted by money or power or greed in some way now.
At time there must be points when being a one man show must get depressing. Team diapers that need changing, low sales, wood shop problems, ran out of printer ink – there are so many things that can cause problems. How do you get out of a funk when things aren't going well?
I just ran out of printer ink. I went to Fred Meyer and forgot to check the cartridge number, I bought the wrong one, went home in a time crunch to print some invoices to get some boxes shipped and realized it. I was so bummed. The main thing that can be tough is that it’s hard to turn it off sometimes. It’s hard to check out at the end of the day when you aren’t punching a time card. I’m trying to figure that one out better these days. But it’s pretty amazing to be in control of everything you have to do. I have to answer to a lot of people in some ways, but not in the ways most people do, and that’s a blessing. At the end of the day, I do what I want. That is the best feeling. All that being said, yeah I need some extra sets of hands haha.
Is the planet doomed?
That's kind of a pessimistic thing to put on a hat. Has the gray Portland days turned you into a grump?
Probably. I don’t feel like a pessimist, I am actually pretty optimistic… I have a 3 year old, I try to eat healthy and consciously, and I think little daily actions have a great reaction and impact on everything around you.
That line is from Sun Ra’s book of science fiction poetry. It has always resonated with me as a kind of impending truth that we can still make an effort to reverse but it will take a lot of people that are unaware of their daily actions, making more of a conscious effort to not be shitty. But, no I’m not a nihilist. A few random people have asked me that when I wear that hat actually. Pretty ridiculous.
You recently teamed up with State Footwear for a special shoe and board. How did that come about, do any of your riders skate for them?
Yeah they turned out rad actually. I’ve actually always really appreciated shoe design, and had some interest in it. I have a long love affair with shoes, always have. Don’t know why. Our mutual New Zealand distributor Andrew Morrison at Irrom dist actually connected us in an email, Kevin at State was like “hey lets do something” and I was all about the idea. The process was super fun. State is like a small board brand in the way they seem to operate, so Kevin and I hit it off right away.
And, no. Interestingly enough when we were talking about a shoe collab initially, no one on my team was getting State’s. A couple of the guys have been getting some since though, but that’s what we both kind of thought was cool about it. There was no outlying connection that tied the idea together other than that we were both sort of doing the same thing with the same values. What else do you really need? It was a sincere collaboration for the sake of making something cool between two companies that saw things similarly. That was the story.
Why State? Wouldn't it have been a smarter decision to partner up with a larger company that can put the shoes in more shops and saturate the advertising market with images of it?
Selling out, or staying “core”, where does one side of the scale tip into the other… Everything is so gray now. People that barely pay their bills are selling to some of the most behemoth and widely despised beasts. Integrity still exists, it’s just been manipulated to mean a lot more things than it used to. I think that’s ok… mainly because it has to be. We are all playing the same game but it’s easy to get caught up thinking there’s so many different games out there. At the end of the day it’s paying bills, or you are lucky enough to be able to do things “for fun” and shield that integrity with everything you have. Most of us are on the hustle. But with the State collab, it was purely a fun and creative collaboration among peers. There was a real equal sense of investment and the final product feels extremely sincere. I can’t necessarily say I’d turn down an offer to do something with a big corporation, those guys make some of my favorite shoes, but I can say that the State collaboration felt very right. It was therapeutic as far as a product collaboration goes.
Why do you get bummed when people call you Vegan John?
I don’t. I only get bummed when Steve Fletschinger calls me that.
I’m nowhere near Vegan for the record. I eat healthy and I’m into whole and local or organic foods, I put mushroom powders and pine pollen in my coffee, but I eat meat. Steve thinks I’m a hippie.
What is the “industry contacts” discussion group about?
Oh god. You have been talking to Steve. It’s been a horrible waste of time group chat that’s been going for over 3 years now I think. What happens in there stays in there. Unless you are Steve. It’s had a lot of names. I think Ray from Prize Fighter Cutlery named it that and it stayed that for a while. Currently it’s called “boys in a bubble” fittingly. It’s a knitting circle for old guys, small company owners that like to reminisce and complain.
It’s horrible though, you want nothing to do with it.
What's next for The Killing Floor and you?
Honestly, I’d rather ask you that question. What do you think is next for skateboarding in general? It’s such a diverse, broad subject nowadays. I’m always curious to hear people’s perspectives. It’s so specific to each person. It’s weird to think of how “usual” and accepted it is these days… Olympics?
Last month you did a small collaboration with the Carpet Company, a small east coast company. Why do something with another small board company?
Well, why not? It does seem sort of counter intuitive I suppose, us small brands are all in the shark tank fighting for those same few precious open wall slots in shops but I try not to see things that way. I really dig what they are doing and I can tell that it is coming from the heart. That isn’t something you see all the time. They put a lot of work into each thing they do, almost too much and it shows. I think we both just have a like minded perspective to what we are doing, even though our brands are different, it made sense to come together on something. I actually loved the idea of a board brand collaborating with a board brand for some reason. I think it was a curveball and I like curveballs.
You and the team went down to LA recently to film. Are you doing a full length or will that footage be for a web edit?
We did. It was a great time. We had everyone but Lance down there, so it was a great opportunity to get everyone together for a week and really vibe out together I think. Yes, we are working on a full length now. It’s coming along, and we are putting a lot of work into it on all levels. Our main filmer Seth Haupt and Andrew Gray have been creating a lot of unique visuals for it too. I want it to really express the diverse direction and aesthetic of not only the team, but the brand as a whole, and I think it’s going to achieve that. We are really excited about it. It should be out sometime this summer.
You had an up and down day recently that started off with the Killing Floor being called one of the worst 100 things to happen to skateboarding by an opinionated maker of board graphics via Instagram. Along with companies like Scumco & Sons, Otherness, Northern Co., Coda, Instrument and others. Later in the day the website Ripped Laces named TKF as having the best graphics of 2017. Sure the momentary and immediate response must have been a little bit of an emotional roller-coaster but now that you've had time to let it soak, how do you view these polarizing reactions to your work?
Yea that was kind of weird. I think it makes sense… TKF is definitely not a brand that everyone will appreciate or find themselves resonating with. I get that. The people that love it, love it. And the ones that don’t may actually even hate it. I think that’s a better slot to find yourself in as a creative person, or a brand. It means that there is substance in what you are doing and that it isn’t being done to please the masses. Which is definitely what I try to achieve with TKF. The graphics, and the concepts surrounding many of them are not things that I feel are going to resonate with every skateboarder, my work is personal and a lot of it is very subjective. I try to do the stuff I do to relate to all of “my people” out there and maybe even to help me find them. I think a lot of art is like that. I think you are successful if you have a spectrum of both appreciation and maybe also disdain for what you are making. I want the graphics to make people think, so that always comes with a mixed review, which I encourage.
The guy that made that “100 worst things in skateboarding” post does do graphics for a well known brand apparently, not sure what his angle was on that whole thing, it was humorous in the sense that so many of the brands on there were brands that I consider to be part of the whole newer wave of skateboarding that we have seen making an impact in the past several years. Maybe that intimidates some of the more well known and established brands? Who knows, but yeah, I was reading the list of brand names that guy posted when I got an email on my phone from Jeremy over at RL telling me that they chose us for their #1 spot in their 2017 best graphics. Those were definitely pretty polarized perspectives to read at the same time. Thanks RL! That was an honor. But like I said, I encourage the mixed review. I don’t expect everyone to like what I make.
Where do you see yourself and the Killing Floor in five years?
Alive and well.