Vernon Courtland Johnson, or VCJ, is one of today’s most influential artists working in a commercial medium. His iconic designs for Powell Peralta have inspired thousands of other artists worldwide, and he routinely gets namechecked by street-art superstars like D*Face and Shepard Fairey. VCJ didn’t invent the idea of skateboard art, but he both defined it and set a standard that others have yet to match. VCJ is unique in today’s art scene, as his work is admired by an incredibly wide range of fans and other artists. Fine artists delight in his skill in freehand drawing, especially skulls. Street artists love the way he makes images iconic, and designs into globally recognizable characters. Commercial artists marvel at the precision and deceptive amount of detail he is able to work into every design. And those of us who are fans adore the power, humor, beauty, and intensity of his art– millions of us saved up our allowances to be able to buy a Powell Peralta deck with a VCJ design. TACO recently got the rare chance to ask Vernon a few questions… stay tuned after the interview for a mini gallery of high-res VC Johnson Powell-Peralta decks.
TACO: How did you get your start as an artist? When did you hook up with Powell Peralta?
VCJ: Born as a human with large brain and opposing digits, I learned to amuse myself with material found along the road on Campus Earth. Mud, rocks, sticks, water, paint, paper, metals, fire. I had an aptitude for art and other fixations from an early age. They let me play. George Powell married an older sister of mine and took interest in me as a late teenager looking for direction. When I was thirty, he noticed that I was floating along as a hippy who could work, so he hired me to help outfit a factory for mass production of skateboards. I was jazzed to have many creative projects every day and to master a production line towards market success.
TACO: Do you have a favorite of all the characters you’ve created? A favorite deck?
VCJ: No favorites stand out for me in my work. My skate poster series truly satisfied my appetite for mastery of composition, components and chiaroscuro.
TACO: You’re an icon in many circles, but it seems that many street artists mention you as one of their primary influences. What do you think of street art and the way people re-use your iconic characters in their works?
VCJ: I am glad to be an inspiration to others in my time. I’ve been inspired by many artists and I’m sorry that I haven’t told them so. Some of them, like Escher, Eichenberg, and Rick Griffin, have passed on and I could have written to them, but I didn’t. I hope to do better with my praise of the living examples in the days to come. Street art looks to make the world a better place and to notify others of ones existence. I have such an interest myself and have placed sculptures in the ocean for the dolphins and divers to enjoy.
TACO: During the time when you were away from designing skateboard images, did you mainly focus on your sculpture? What can you tell us about your approach to sculpture and what you’re working on?
I took 20 years off in order to recover my health, to know myself and to develop an effective inner dialectic. The results have been very effective and assure me of long life. I spent time at the beach, in the ocean, and flew to Florida often , to swim with dolphins.
I developed my skill with applied kinesiology and mastered the ability to read the body’s systems, which I have used now for 20 years. I am used by many for my ability to scan systems for origins of disturbance and for restorative measures. My wife also reads systems with muscle testing, which facilitates her professional work with clients. We have published a workbook for those who take our course in Instantaneous Intelligence & The Mojo Philter. After setting this major piece of true-life-work in print and sealing it into a time capsule, I began to engage ferro-cement as a convenient sculptural medium. Layers of expanded metal are cut, manipulated into layered forms that will hold cement that gets pressed into the layers, finished and cured, then to be painted. Cheap, fast, durable, ferro-cement. I’m working on a Phoenix that rises up from a stand to 8′, to honor a community here that burned in the last big fire.
TACO: One of your decks is now in the Smithsonian, have you been to visit it? Where do you see your place in history?
VCJ: So, my work is represented in the Smithsonian now… I guess I can die happy. I heard that a wine label got into the Library of Congress a few years back. I’m warned about pride but feel the tingle. After all is said and done and we’re laid to rest, it’s funny what we get remembered for. You should read my “Lymerics for the Mystic Minded”, not out yet, but some of my best work in black and white.
TACO: What’s your favorite taco?
My favorite taco place is “Pinchy Tacos” in Watts. They don’t sell to the public, only to pinchy dudes like me who like the best. Don’t tell Hector and Lupe that I told you anything more specific, ‘cuz they’d 86 me.
Do you have a lucky number?
I’ve answered 7 questions … One for each chakra. I trust I’ve hit all bases. One last question and response. My favorite number. After a brief pause to consider, I shall offer “7” and/or “6”….. “7-6″ This represents my enthusiasm for soul. To all Souls now extant on the physical plane I say, ” I wish for you all, the highest fulfillment.
Manifest Essence, V.C. Johnson
Vernon Courtland Johnson Gallery
Click on each image for a large version
Special thanks to Michael Furukawa and everyone at Powell Peralta for helping to arrange this interview.