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Drawing Jazz with Ian Johnson

We meet Ian in the legendary FTC skateshop, where he has a tiny office just up the stairs behind the counter. He is responsible for all the graphics that come up in the shop. He also runs Western Edition, a company strongly influenced by his love for jazz. He founded it at the end of the ’90s just as he came back to SF from a one-year trip to the Pratt Institute in New York. We have long been fans of the company and Ian’s work, which is far more mature in style than what you usually find in skateboarding.

What inspired you when you were younger?

When I was a kid, I really liked Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, that very famous cubist kind of painting he did, the colors and the geometry of that and the angles and straight lines and the movement that it got from that was probably my first biggest painting influence. We had a book of his stuff at home and he did all kinds of different shit, but that actual painting was catching my attention. Without that book, I probably wouldn’t have seen that painting. I would probably never have seen it in a museum. We just had all kinds of random art books, my parents were into that stuff. Shit like Picasso, Rubens, Caravaggio, and whatever. I also spent a lot of time in high school redrawing classic paintings.

You lived in NYC for a while, then came back to SF, and started Western Edition. How did that happen?

After Pratt, I moved back here and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I had worked at FTC all throughout high school. Since I was 14, this was pretty much the only real job I ever had in my whole life. I didn’t want to work in retail though, because I’m just not good at helping people, being friendly in customer service and all that. I mean, I can be friendly, but being an asshole to people is just part of growing up in that place, I suppose. It’s part of being a teenager, part of skate culture especially at that time. It’s not really healthy, but it was how we were. And I wanted to do more art shit. So I still had a couple of drawings from Pratt and kinda wanted to start a company and I showed Kent [Uyehara, owner of FTC, editor’s note] the drawings and he had the name Western Edition. Most of my drawings were of jazz musicians and the name Western Edition is based on “Western Addition”, which is a neighborhood that had this really lively music scene in the ‘40s-‘60s. It was called the “Harlem of the West”, so the name and the drawings went together. I designed three boards at first and a postcard with the boards on them and a Japanese distributor for FTC started selling it and we sold some at FTC. It was and still is pretty small. We still make pretty much the same number of each model 18 years later. We never really grew too big. [laughs]

"I loved skateboarding, and the graphics I saw back then didn’t really match what I wanted to see in it"

Are you and Kent doing it or is it, like, your brand and he’s just backing it somehow?

It is our brand together. I do all the graphics and social/web stuff. He kinda finances the production and organizes the sales and admin stuff. It’s like a part-time company. I don’t spend as much time on it as I should. I work at FTC and do other freelance artwork stuff, so it’s a pretty small amount of the stuff I work on, but it’s a part that I really do enjoy. It’s always cool to make a graphic and actually see that physical board. It always looks better than it did on the computer.

To me, the graphics always seemed grown up. Was that the plan from the beginning – to create a company with a very mature aesthetic?

Yeah, because when I was a kid, Stereo was my favorite company. And their first video, A Visual Sound, was probably the biggest thing that happened to me in my life as far as forming my aesthetic, interests, and identity. I learned what I wanted to see in skating and all that stuff. That’s why I wanted to incorporate jazz music and more mature visuals like mid-century aesthetics. There was a big hole and I wasn’t thinking about it from a marketing perspective or any of that shit, but I wanted to just see that because it was important to me. I didn’t really have anything to grab on anymore. I loved skateboarding, and the graphics I saw back then didn’t really match what I wanted to see in it. I always felt like I was this old soul, mature kind of person. Even when I was little.

Why is there such a big influence of jazz music in your drawings?

As I said, Western Edition is based on this neighborhood that’s actually down the street that used to be the Harlem of the West in the ‘50s. It had a huge jazz club scene. The first graphic was this Eric Dolphy drawing I did and that was the initial tie between my work and the brand name. The brand name was pushing me to do more jazz-related portraiture and work. It turned into a kind of feedback loop of me getting more into it and so on. Maybe it’s just me being around people who are getting older, but you’ll go downstairs and Ben Gore or other dudes who work at the shop will be listening to a lot of jazz. So it’s always still around, which is cool. A lot them still listen to ‘90s rap and stuff now also, which is funny because that was another way I got into jazz, just looking for samples from all of these classic records of my youth.

Do you also play jazz music?

When I was in high school, I played the trumpet. I actually bought it because Chris Pastras played it in A Visual Sound. He was actually playing a cornet, but I didn’t know the difference at the time.

What’s the best jazz music to listen to while drawing?

Usually, I try to listen to whoever I’m drawing to get something out of the music that magically transfers into the composition or the drawing. But actually, I can’t listen to any kind of music more than an hour anymore. I’ll start listening to a Pharoah Sanders album and unless I’m in a really good groove, I’ll listen to something else afterwards. Sometimes I get lost in the music or I start tuning it out. But it’s really helpful to start with because it will spark something like an angle or movement in the piece. It doesn’t always work, but it’s great if it does. My mind is not that sharp anymore, so I also have to do some research on the person I’m doing an artwork on to remind myself. When I was younger, I just retained all the knowledge. But all the stories of the people are so interesting. I guess it’s a bit romanticized.

I think there are a bunch of similarities between skateboarding and jazz when it comes to lifestyle.

Yeah, in a lot of ways. Take street skating, for example. Obviously, Mark Gonzales is the greatest fucking street skater of all time and it’s no coincidence that they used that song in Video Days. It’s like he’s improvising his skating and that feeling is the special part of skateboarding and it’s the special part of jazz as well. You see that the person just figured something out and that’s the magic in both of these things. Having someone skate a spot is like having a chord structure that someone is improvising on. It’s a very similar thing. But there’s also a part that doesn’t have a correlation with skateboarding – when a group of people play jazz at the same time. When somebody is soloing, it’s already great, but when everybody is contributing to it at the same time, that group improvisation is amazing.

Western Edition is heavily jazz influenced, but you also do graphics for FTC.

Yeah, but that’s more like art managing. We have photographers, artists, and people submitting different designs. There is no certain look to FTC graphics. To me personally, it’s more about the shop and the history. But a lot of kids don’t really care or know about that it was the number one shop in the world during the time in which skateboarding grew. Kids just want a shirt with something weird or cool on it. So FTC is more like a job to me as far as making the graphics for them. You’re talking to so many people. The audience is, like, the entire spectrum of everybody, which makes it easy and hard at the same time. Easy because you can do whatever you want, hard because it still has to have some sort of cohesion. I don’t have to be too much concerned about what I think looks good, but at the same time, I have to be open to the ideas of other people even though I may not personally like them.

So it’s not getting inspired by something, but you rather listen to what people want.

I mean, I can pretty much push through whatever I want, but every time it’s stuff that I want, it doesn’t sell good. [laughs] Whereas Western Edition is the complete opposite. I make basically all the creative decisions there. Having both is good, I think, because otherwise, I wouldn’t be reminded of how terrible my own ideas are sometimes.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Blue Note was obviously very foundational. Pretty much every season, I will look through all these covers still. As far as portraits and colors and stuff, it’s not confined to Blue Note artists though. But the aesthetic is definitely heavily influenced by that, but I guess I added some things I developed. I have branched out over the years with different ideas and techniques which I have built on, but that was really the root aesthetically.

Is the geometry you draw in the background related to the expression of music?

Sometimes. It’s concepts of chords and space. You know how you can translate sound to visual things or whatever. There’s some subtle ideas but no grant science of how I come up with that stuff. It’s more of a feeling. But it can be heavy-handed sometimes and it doesn’t always come out as good, because my visual language is pretty tight when it comes to the elements that I use. Sometimes the elements I use don’t translate to persons or sounds. But like, Eric Dolphy has always been my favorite musician and I think my work goes along with the things he was trying to do. He had some angular jumps and the music goes up and down, so it goes together really well.

How did San Francisco influence your work?

I walk and skate a lot around the city, so I think it all gets into your work somehow some way. I guess the hills are angular as well, which may be an influence. [laughs] Also just being around the skating in the city, in the shop and the energy and creativity of everyone. When I moved here, I was 13 and it was 1993, so it was right at the prime time of Embarcadero. I didn’t skate there too much, because I wasn’t very good and was pretty anti-social. But when I did go down there, it was 100 people skating every day. You could see all the legends on any given day. Carroll, Kelch, Jovontae… Every dude you can think of. Henry Sanchez or Lavar McBride doing crazy tricks, everybody sitting down at that plaza. It was mind-boggling. I kinda just started skating, so I was going from zero to the epicenter of what’s happening in street skating at that time. I can’t see how that could not have some kind of influence on me. I was always a big Mike Carroll fan. I always liked his style, but when I saw him skate a couple of times when I was little, it made me appreciate him even more. I was at Wallenberg one day, it was probably like ’95 or ’96, and he just rolled down, did like a tre flip, then kickflipped a shopping cart that was on the side and then did like a nollie back heel, switch ollie up, switch backside tailslide, 180, fakie tre. It was this crazy seven-trick line right when he got there and he just picked up his board and was like, “Argh!” and just walked away. That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life and he didn’t give a shit.

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