Jeff Boardman and Vikas Malik met through mutual love for skateboarding, music and art. Working across these scenes individually, they went on to combine forces and create a brand that fused all three of these shared passions, with a uniquely British twist.
Thus, Clown Skateboards was born in the year 2000, launching with the release of the ‘CLOWN BANKSY TEST PRESS’ series – two skateboard designs and their now legendary Banksy-designed Clown logo. At the time, they had one of the UK’s leading skateboard teams, Simon Skipp headed up the crew and brought onboard Chris Oliver, Benny Fairfax, Woody, Mattias Nylen, Bryan Jones, as well as some amazing up-and-coming talent.
With a surge of creative talent, Clown’s winning combination of skateboarding, music and art grew. Clown released boards with special one-off deck designs, hosting exhibitions from artists including MAU MAU, Adam Neate and Jock from 2000AD. The music programme saw collaborations with the country’s finest Hip Hop and Reggae musicians. The mighty Clown Sound System ran club nights up and down the country, including roadblock sessions at Plastic People in London, notorious pirate radio takeovers, hosting the legendary Trouble on Vinyl stage at Carnival, as well as releasing their own white label records.
Operating from their East London headquarters, Clown were punching well above their weight. In 2005 however, it was consciously decided to put the brand on ice with, the aim of restarting at some point in the future. They needed to take a break from absolutely having it for five years straight.
What was initially only supposed to be a short hiatus turned into 15 years, but now in 2020, Clown says they are “BACK TO FINISH WHAT WE STARTED.”
We caught up with Jeff to get the full lowdown…
So, Jeff, you founded Clown in 2000 – can you tell us a bit more about that? How did the brand come together exactly?
We officially started Clown in August 2000, it was started by myself and a friend called Vikas. We had hooked up to do some work together over pirate radio and got talking about the scenes of skateboarding, music and art – all the things we were a part of. We felt the time was right to come out with something that represented all those cultures. I would say our aim at the start was never really about building a brand, but about doing what we loved, in the areas of culture we were embedded in. We had both worked for numerous brands at that point and felt frustrated and annoyed at how they took hold off the things we loved and just used it as a tool for sales, our vision was the other way. We sold stuff to fund things that we thought were needed. Not to say we didn’t love the side of creating products, we did; creating something that people like, and want to skate or wear is amazing. Sunil Pawar came into the fold around 2003 and we have been tight ever since/ We’ve done numerous stuff together over the years – he is a true mate. It’s great that all three of us are back together again now.
Early on you were travelling a lot for events with the skate team, what was the community like back then? What was unique about the family and network that you had?
That was all down to the team, we managed to bring together a bunch of ramshackle individuals that got on really well and wanted the same as us, to grow the scene and be active in making things happen. I would say the family feel to the team is as strong now as it was then. It was a point of history for us all, a point that gave us strong memories and a bond that is still there, embodied in our notorious Xmas dinners. A lot of credit for getting everyone together has to go to Simon Skipp, who was, and is, such a great guy and part of the Clown comeback this time. To us back then, the travelling we were doing meant that we could hang out with mates, skate new spots, and help build the community. The skate community at that point was strong, but sometimes it just took itself a little too seriously, which we tried never to do, as you can tell by the name.
Your early projects gave a lot back to the community, giving people a lot of self-worth and positive headspace, can you tell us about some of the success stories of those days?
Success is a hard one to judge looking back and to be honest we want to create new success stories, that is what we are concentrating on now. I think the response and love we have received since coming back means we must have done something right in the past and we have been sent some great memories from people who knew and loved us back in the day. We always did things a little differently and because we had the attitude to just get shit happening, it helped other people do the same. We always wanted to see other people do well and tried our hardest to help make that happen.
You had a good run originally of about 5 years, but what happened to the brand back then? Why did things trail off?
The simple fact was that we were knackered, we had been on full-pelt with Clown for 5 years straight and needed to take a breather. It was always the plan to have a breather and then come back again in 18 months.
So, picking things back up, ahem, ’18 months’ later, in 2020, only 20 years after you started, what made you want to go back to the original brand rather than starting fresh?
What got me going again was a show I put on for Simon Skipp and the amazing art he does with skateboards. All the old heads turned up, including most of the original team and I realised I really missed them all. Me and Vikas have always been tight and carried on working together for years and we kept on saying we need to bring Clown back, we just never got around to it til now. I don’t think we could have done another brand; Clown was it for us – we had unfinished business that would not go away.
I know lockdown precipitated the comeback, but what is the story behind it? The phrase ‘back to finish what we started’ keeps cropping up, what does that entail?
It was always our plan to be able to build something that was there not just for us, but also for the communities that we love. Vikas and I have been doing a lot of pro-bono work over the last decade or so, and now we are back to do what we always aimed to do. Lockdown gave us the headspace to make that happen.
I know you’re backing some great organisations this time around, working with everyone from Greek refugees, to skate organisations and inner city kids, can you tell us some more about who those partners and organizations are and what you’re aiming to do with them?
We all know the world is pretty well screwed at the moment, not just from the pandemic, but through politics, greed and downright me-me-me attitude. It’s all bollocks. Over the years I have seen how people who want to make a difference have to answer to people who hold the purse strings, and the people controlling the money are sometimes not best placed to. There are a lot of people who really care and really want to help out, we just want to be part of that network and help out in the ways that we can – whether that is supplying free equipment, support to make shit happen, or just champion the good guys. There are some great organisations to work with, it’s just a shame we can’t work with them all – well not yet anyway! – but we can do our best going forward.
In 2021 so far, we are planning on working with: FREE MOVEMENT SKATEBOARDING, EVERYONE ON BOARDS, and other some local initiatives, but we have just started this process and also just appointed our community officer Michelle Rushbrooke, so we are going to continue building from here.
You’ve also worked with some awesome artists previously, what is your passion for art and how does that cross over into skateboarding? And who are the other artists you’ve worked with so far?
I’m really not sure where my passion from art comes from, just always felt drawn to it – it most definitely does not come from having an artist background at all. We’ve been really lucky over the years to have worked with some great artists, arts organisations and people who make things happen, me and Vikas also had a gallery for a bit of time called the Orange Dot which was amazing to run till we got priced out the market by a coffee shop that wanted our space. With Clown we were blessed to be able to work with Banksy as you know, Mau Mau, Jock from 2000AD, with a Clown Vs. Dredd board, and a series of 100 hand-drawn boards by Adam Neate. We also had Pete Hellicar do a board for us which people never understood as he ran Unabomber Skateboards at the time, which everyone thought was our competitor, but we were (and still are) mates, so why would he not do it?! The art side of Clown is something I am really looking forward to developing, we have started a Guest Art Project with 4 artists already on board. I have been handed the title of Clown Curator this time around, which allows me to cross from art, to clothing, to boards, and over to our makers partnerships – I’m like a pig in shit.
How did the initial Banksy collaboration come about? Originally you put on a show for his “Banging My Head Against A Brick Wall” book release, so you guys must have some history from before that?
Nope, we first worked with Banksy to do the Rivington Street Show, his debut outing in London, then on the book, and then helping him on numerous things over the years. I got to know him when he first came to London, we just got on and there was no BS. We were mates that wanted to see the best for each other and were not afraid to make shit happen, we helped him get his shit together and sell some works and he produced our logo and did 2 other designs for our first ever range of boards. It was a mate’s thing but also with a degree of professionalism as we all had a lot riding on the things we’d done together.
You’re using the original plates for the skateboards – apparently the original run of boards weren’t even that popular back when they dropped! The new releases so far have all sold out super quick, were you expecting them to be as a big a success as they were? And what will the money they’ve raised so far go towards?
To say we have been humbled by the response is an understatement. Of course, we have had a lot of people who are Banksy nuts, but we have also had a lot of people who are Clown people from the past and new people getting to know Clown now. Doing this has allowed us to accelerate our community vision, we have been able to bring a community officer onboard 6 months prior to our target, we have £20,000-worth of full skateboard set-ups in production and we have a float to help with other community ideas we want to activate in 2021.
I’m sure a lot of people will complain about bots and not being able to buy the releases as they sell out so quick, what is your experience of that with the releases and how are you combating the issue? Is it a problem for you if people buy stuff to flip on eBay?
As you would have seen by our last drop, we set up a draw. This way it’s all down to luck and not fast fingers. Not sure all that bot speculation was right – yeah, we do know it happens but when you have over 2,500 people waiting on the site for you to open the shop, you have to be quick.
I don’t know if it’s a problem, more of a disappointment when people flip – yeah, a lot of the brands love it as it gives them hype, but I am not sure they are as emotionally attached to what they put out as we are. Most of what we put out has a Clown Token associated to it, which means that we can buy skateboards for kids that cannot afford them. When you then see one of your shirts up for £250+ it’s a bit disappointing as that extra 200 they are getting for the tee could buy a couple more set-ups for kids. We know it is always going to be a small minority that does this, so we have to live with it for the moment. We definitely don’t condone it as it goes against the grain of what we aim to achieve.
I think the Art Club we’re developing will help people who genuinely wish to buy our stuff and also allow us visibility of who’s only in it to flip our Guest Art Project decks. It’s democratic and also allows us to know who owns what, and if people do want to sell things later on, it will allow us to put them out to the people who missed out the first time around. A lot of effort goes into making these things and we want people who love what we, the artists and the makers do, to have a piece of it, and to keep those who see us as cash cow at bay.
It seems like personally you’ve always been very supportive of the arts community, and maker-doers in particular, who are you working with in terms of production and artistic partnerships – Pepper Spray Press, LISA Project, etc? And you’ve got one of the original screen printers on board for the run, Tommy, what’s his story?
I love to work with people who are shit-hot at what they do – whether that’s a true maker, craftsmen or doer – and the Guest Art Project needs those people, as well as the artists, to be something special. We are working with Bryan at Pepper Spray Press, he is our New York ‘makers’ partner and he’s helping us on the Guest Art Project and more – what he is trying to do for artists and causes is second to none and his print skills are amazing, he is a like-minded person that wants to make and give!
The Lisa Project is an organisation that does so much for the community, Wayne who runs it has a heart of gold and a determination to make shit happen, they are pairing up with an artist of their choice on the 3rd drop of the Guest Art Project and helping us seed our way into NYC with stickering, connections and support. Once again, it’s a like-minded thing.
Tommy was recommended to us by Don Brider, the original printer of our boards. Don trained him up and gave me the heads up. Now Tommy is a master skateboard printer, well in my eyes anyway, and runs a company called Back and Forth. He gets so hyped on the designs and the process of how to print the boards. We work together at how we can turn the creative assets into a mixture of hand printed and hand finished products. We want everything to be slightly different on the Guest Art Project and having him around to help bounce things about has been amazing. If we did not find Tommy, I am sure we would not be in as good a place as we are now.
We also have a guy in San Francisco who is a t-shirt printing artist, he was our original printer for tees with Clown and I first got to know him in my pre-Clown days. We have some complex designs coming through and he is the only guy I really trust to make it a reality. Again, he is one of those people that you warm to, because he cares about what is going on around him.
You’ve also been supportive of some cool new zines, with sticker drops in their new issues, can you tell us more about some of those? And why do you like to work with them? What’s good, or different about the work the next generation of zine publishers is putting out?
Zines is something I have always loved and also loved making. It’s a platform that anyone can create. I don’t think the aim of zines has changed; I just think the subject matters have. With a world full of bullshit media, it’s a great way to get opinions and views from people on the front line of change and see alternative designers and artists and work with makers who need to be heard and seen.
What’s next for Clown?
We have the Guest Art Project to deal with, the Clown Standard and the community projects, so lots to deal with in 2021. We also have to get the team up and running. We will be announcing a new Guest Artist every 3 months, so there is definitely lots to be getting on with.
My biggest task will be the Guest Art Project – I am having so much fun pairing artists and organisations with talented independent printers to produce this series. It’s a bit of a logistical mare as each series has to be handprinted in the UK, San Francisco and New York. But we have all the artist locked in for 2021 and with hand on heart, I’m excited to see what develops. It’s going to be an honour and privilege to be working with such engaged and talent people. And to top it off, the hard work we put into it helps us build community action.
Awesome! And what is the overall message you want to send out to people with the Clown brand?
IF YOU FLIP OUR SHIT, DONATE SOME OF THE PROFIT TO DO SOMETHING GOOD.
Follow the rest of the Clown story online below…
All images courtesy of Clown Skateboards.