Steve Olson Has Come a Long Way From Appearing In Devo Videos
"Smoking Americans," by Steve Olson
Photos courtesy of Steve Olson
To be sure, Steve Olson is the modern equivalent of a renaissance man with a street edge: he is a man of action, not bulky proclamations, weak dribbling philosophy or crimped visions. He steadfastly helped revolutionize skateboarding in the late 1970s, brainstormed the clothing line SOS, was cast in movies (Thrashin') and music videos (Devo's "Freedom of Choice"), showed up in adverts from Chevy to Reebok, has made penetrating art with the likes of Yaniv Evan (Powerplant Choppers) and music with bands like the Joneses, written a screenplay and contributed to Juicemagazine, and much more.
Since Olson is in Houston briefly making art and showing his work, Rocks Off caught up with the restless soul before he is inducted into the International Skateboarding Hall of Fame on May 15.
Rocks Off: Although many people derided skateboards as toys, do you think they were one of the most profound tools of the late 20th-century -- a way for a whole generation to rethink space and the human body? Steve Olson: First off, the skateboard was a toy. Through the years, it developed into a sport. Now, it's a way of life for a lot of people around the world. It's really an amazing feeling. Whatever level you're at in your skill set of skateboarding, it kinda rules. Profound tool of the 20th century...YES.
It helped launch so many different types of attitudes. It opened my eyes to music, that then lead me into everything else I would eventually discover and become involved in. For an example, when I came to Houston this trip, I forgot my skateboard in my studio as I was leaving super-early in the morning. When I reached the airport, I realized I didn't have it.
Whether or not I would get to skate on this trip, it really felt like I had left a piece of me behind, and that was so not cool and really fucked with my head -- strange, but true. I'm 52, [and] that was a funny realization. Luckily, someone shipped it to me, and now I'm complete. Hah!
"I...continue to break the boundaries...Always," you've said. Does that come from the skater in you, the punk, the artist, or all those sides of you? As long as my peers and I continue to skateboard, we will always be breaking boundaries. See, we're all in our fifties and some in their sixties, like Cliff Coleman, and we still skate, some more than others, but nonetheless.
Not too many people understand that it's quite alright to keep doing things you love until you die. It just hurts a liltle more, no big thing. You might fall but get back up to do it all again. Simple. Painful. But so worth it. That's just the way I feel about it, and that comes from living how one chooses to. It's all in the attitude you develop as a person, throughout life. Live it, or get out of the way.
You've described your art as a "self-made style" that "gleefully trashes conventions of beauty." Is your subversion another way to explore art-as-commodity as well? If you choose to do something for yourself, like I make art and make a living doing what I dig, then you need to get paid somehow to pay bills, get supplies, just basic needs. As a commodity, yes, it is. Why wouldn't you hustle what you love doing, so you can keep doing it. It's not the most important part of it, at all, but something has to pay your bills, that's just life in the modern world. I just love making art, just like skateboarding, or whatever else gets me excited about life.
You've also said you harbor no secrets -- are you living according to some kind of Walt Whitman legacy, making life transparent and open, or some other code? If you're living and not doing lame things, and have nothing to really hide why would you not want to share life with others that might get something out of your experiences and figure something out that they're struggling with, or vice versa. It's called sharing and not [being] in the egotistic side of fear. Pretty easy way to deal with it. Would Walt agree? I'm not talking about Disney...
I know you are here in Houston making public art -- a sculpture for a skate park and an art car. How do these mediums, spaces, and audiences speak differently to you than, say, a gallery show? I'm not so sure if the mediums are so different. The Art Car is different only that it's a moving vehicle driving in a parade, which is really exciting to me because of the history of the parade itself, as well as I've never been in a parade. Dopeness. To be collaborating with my good friend and Wolfbat General, as well as Dennis McNett, and Dylan Goldberger, life is rather crazy sometimes...but superb.
The Public Sculpture is going to be Amazing. "High Noon" is the title, and the opportunity to be able to produce the piece is mind-blowing just the same, but making stuff is just that -- making stuff, really cool and beautiful stuff/Art.
I know Texas skate-punk legend Tim Kerr appeared in the "Generationless: Skateboarders Are Artists, Too!" show with you just a few months back. Did the Big Boys have a big impact on you? I just really liked what they were doing a lot. They had their own take on everything, which is really important to me as a person. Just the fact that they'd do a version of "Hollywood Swinging" spoke volumes to me.
Since then, I've just kept up on what Tim Kerr has been doing, from Poison 13 and Bad Mutha Goose to Monkeywrench. Not to leave out that he's just a really good person, which is why he's so awesome, and I rarely use that word. His art is also outstanding just like him...But he's got a great support system, his amazing wife. Enough said.
Story continues on the next page.
Olson and son Alex
Who has propelled you more as an artist -- your icons like Barbara Kruger and Marcel Duchamp, your older brother, himself an artist, or someone else entirely? I'm inspired first by my brother Bucky, it's how it happens being the younger brother, and he's capable of doing most anything, from building great surfboards to becoming a ballet dancer to being one of the best airbrushers around, and being really a cool brother.
I'm also influenced by my son Alex, indirectly. If I make something, and he tells me it sucks, then I know I'm on the right direction. As far as artists go, there's so many that are badass, and to mention all them would take way too long. But a Texas guy I love is Bob "Daddy-O" Wade. Some art I like, and some I don't, but it's subjective. That's what is interesting about it.
You've argued the skateboarding industry is "Getting more broke all the time. And no one wants to fix it." What would you do, given the means and chance, and would it include challenging "lame dudes producing boards to be broken"? Skateboarding is big business now, from clothing to sneakers and whatever else it can be branded with. Star Wars, really? Back to the Future I'd understand, but Star Wars, why? I like the movie, but I don't see the relationship with skateboarding. I don't have the answers, but if you talk about it, eventually we might figure it out, like how to stop the nonsense, but it's just weird that manufacturers don't believe in the power of their own industry. But that's their problem, not mine. I just love skateboarding. That's an easy way out.
You were barely 16 when your first pic appeared in SkateBoarder (and soon you became their Skater of the Year). Do you think that such fanzines, and those of underground music, have been mostly replaced by social media, and does that matter? A lot of the social-media-outlets get information out, it's just the reality, and it's not so bad. But it's really cool to still hold and flip through a magazine, read articles, and look at images that aren't the size of your fucking phone.
But they keep saying magazines will be a thing of the past. That'd be a shame but might save some trees. I love looking at magazines, but I'm old, so what does that matter? Fanzines are cool because anyone can make them. That's freedom.
Olson on the cover of a 2004 issue of Juice
You've also interviewed myriad people, from skaters to George Thorogood and [Dictators front man] Handsome Dick Manitoba, for Juice. What led you to your subjects -- curiosity, compulsion, sheer opportunity? I like talking to people and hear their stories, passions, and just have a good conversation. Juice has allowed me to do just that. They'll ask who I'd like to talk to, or ask what about this or that person. Then I get to talk with people like Bootsy Collins, Joan Jett, whomever, and it just happens kind of like that.
I like when they say I'll give you 15 to 20 minutes, then two hours later we're still talking. Boom, it just happens . It's super-cool to be able to talk with people about what they love or whatever direction interviews go.
You often pointed out the contradictions of people like environmentalists cutting down portions of a tree for a photo shoot or the investments of Michael Moore. Is your credo really just about having fun -- or is there more to it, like speaking truth to powers on all sides? Often we as people get thrown into a place of contradiction. It's hard to avoid that trap. But the out-and-out straight lies are what kills me. Some say that I just like to have fun, but they really don't know how much thinking I do about most everything. The state of the world is a little bit sad, and it can be fixed, but the powers that be don't want that because then they'd lose out on a profit of substantial amount.
To see people just going hungry, not having water, shelter, killing each other is what I'm talking about. I truly have a dark hole in my heart about all of this. I'd have no problem shedding tears over any of this. Animals are another situation that just kills me.
As corny as it sounds, Rodney King said it, "Can't we all just get along?" In my artwork, there's always an underlining message, but that's for me to know, and hopefully others to understand. But I have no problem explaining it. The truth just hurts, but it's much better then a big giant lie, which, it seems, we always get from the ones calling the shots for the better of the people. Really???
Steve Olson has a pop-up show May 17 at Spring Street Studios in Houston.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.