Explaining Volcom’s Featured Artist series isn’t exactly brain surgery. For each instalment, a new artist creates a bespoke set of designs based on a brief. These are then applied to a range of the lifestyle brand’s trademark apparel, from high-quality tees to generously cut hoodies and staple sweatshirts. What is a little closer to brain surgery, though, is the set of themes concocted by Volcom for this year’s budding artists (as in, it’s all science-focused and deliciously psychedelic).
First up was Modified Human, a collection designed by artist Pentagram Pizza, aka Mike Mailman. Raised just a stone’s skim away from Volcom’s HQ in Newport Beach, Mike was the brand’s first art hire back in the nineties, honing his chops via their cult lo-fi, cut-and-paste collages. “It’s always fun to draw for Volcom, it’s kind of second nature as I’ve done it for so many years,” he says. While the digital age has led to more eyeballs (“it’s amazing how much more visibility social media can get”), the same laissez-faire approach remains. “It’s still kind of loose, as far as drawing for them goes. They give me a subject and I run with it, sometimes going off on a tangent.”
His latest springboard? The Darwin Awards, those trophies given out for the dumbest deaths or inadvertent sterilizations (naturally, they’re always posthumously awarded), so-called as they advance society by selecting against less intelligent genes. “The idea came one day when I saw someone go down hard on a bicycle riding…,” he reminisces, “…while they were taking a selfie.” It led Mike to sketch a collection of doodles depicting ‘Darwinfluencers’, vacant individuals sacrificing their own lives for an internet-breaking selfie. “Yeah, it’s definitely shots fired towards the Influencer universe, but in a funny way” he concedes. From go-pro clad unicyclists negotiating clifftops to a man snapping a pic while being eaten by a shark, Mike’s designs revolve around a deliciously macabre sense of humour, poking fun at our collective desire to be there, do that and get the t-shirt.
Next up was Dan Haywood, working under his Animoscillator moniker, a project that sees him splice together trippy graphics with glitchy, gurgling synths. For his collab with Volcom, though, he went back to basics. “Often I have either music to make a video to or vice versa, but for this project, I had to start from scratch on both fronts,” he explains. “I began by composing a number of different pieces of electronic-based music. After some conversations with Volcom’s Art Manager we narrowed down the music. In the meantime, I began creating my visuals.” The result is Disturbed Medium, a design inspired by human reactions to external stimuli and finding order in chaos. Think skulls surrounded by electrical spaghetti and computer-generated heads stamped with Volcom’s signature five-sided stone logo (run of the mill stuff, then).
For Dan, it wasn’t just about making tees to look at, but designing them so they gaze back at you. “For this piece, I featured many different faces both animated and realistic. They often seem to be expressionless or stare straight into your soul,” he muses. “I think of my work as what you feel just behind your eyes as you interpret the world and environment around you, often chaotic with glimpses of beauty if you know where to look.”
The initial drafts were a little too dark. “When I started this project it was the beginning of the pandemic in America. I make a living in the live music and entertainment industry so I had recently been laid off from work,” he remembers. “I was scared about the future and its unknowns, I was angry at the political environment and I was just trying to navigate each passing day as best as I could. I think my frustration and anxiety subconsciously came through my work.” It didn’t go unnoticed. “I even got some feedback on one of my first drafts that said something to the effect of, “Less nightmarish.” That was eye-opening to me.”
Fast-forward to now, and it’s the turn of German illustrator Max Loefller. Known for his warm, retro-futuristic sci-fi art, Max transcends time completely, impossible to place and always pulsing with a sense of the uncanny. “I guess classic science fiction is pretty far away from the usual surf or skate imagery, but that’s exactly what makes it fresh and unseen there,” he explains. “I think there’s a big potential of what can emerge from combining these two worlds.”
His fifth collaboration with Volcom is titled ‘W.E.I.R.D S.H.I.F.T’, bridging the division between science and art. “I feel we’re living in an era where everything can be seen as art,” he asserts. “Hang some hi-res microscopic images of a petri dish on a wall of a white cube and it could be art (and in my eyes that stuff would be more interesting than some of the contemporary art you see in galleries nowaday).” While forward-looking, the crucial point about Max’s work is that it’s always imagined from “a vantage point set in the past”, warping the unironed wrinkles of spacetime.
For all three creators, Volcom’s Featured Artist series is special for the fact that it stays true to its name: the artist is always featured front and centre. “Volcom’s Featured Artist Series is an amazing way for Volcom to give back to the art community,” Dan says. “They give underground artists such as myself a chance to get our names heard and art seen.” Mike agrees, citing the project’s mix of big and small names: “They have a good mix of contributing artists that span from the early days up to current younger and very talented individuals.”
It’s become a blank canvas for artists to express their wildest ideas, with no red griptape in their way. “It’s always so much fun working with the team at Volcom,” Max says. “They’re very open to any ideas or explorations, and I think it’s a great way to showcase different artists giving them the platform of major skate brand and the freedom to express themselves.” While this season’s collabs are tied together by an exact science, the beauty of the series is that all the tees – even though designed in total, unrestricted isolation – somehow slot together. “There’s definitely something tying them all together, but I can’t put my finger on it,” Mike reckons. “But when you see a FA t-shirt you immediately recognize it as Volcom.” Hey, it might not be brain surgery: but that is pretty fucking genius.