Richard ‘French’ Sayer is one of the most prolific artists and illustrators working in skateboarding right now.

Since 2001 he’s been exhibiting his work in solo and group shows in the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. He also finds time to run his own company, Witchcraft Skateboards. His distinctive work, influenced by all things metal, is also heavily in demand commercially, whether from core skate brands such as Vans, Independent, Creature, Real, Cliché, Zero and Antizas, or mainstream clients such as Virgin and the BBC.

He talked to us about creativity, balancing artistic and commercial demands, and the huge influence skate and heavy metal culture has had on his life and work.

What came first for you: art or skateboarding? How did you get into them and who were your early influences?

Art came first. I’ve wanted to be an artist ever since I was a little kid. My Mum used to work at an art college and she was always into the idea that I was interested in art. So I was always into that in school and at home.

Then I got into skateboarding around ‘91/’92, a bit later. They were totally separate for me at the time. Skating means you start to see things a bit differently, rather than just looking at the stuff you see in galleries, or art your Mum, Dad or teachers say you should look at. You start to see things that are a bit different, skate-related stuff. And for me, music-related stuff as well had a massive influence, as I started listening to my own music at about the same time I started skateboarding. Maybe even a bit earlier. I think I was into metal before I was into skating to be honest.

Was skate art itself – board graphics, the fact that skaters themselves made some of it – an influence?

Not really. I didn’t really know who did the artwork when I looked at the graphics at the time. I didn’t have much choice as there was only one skate shop and they pretty much only had Santa Cruz and Zorlac so I just used to go to Surrey Skateboards in Woking and look at the boards they had. So I didn’t know until I was way older that, say, Jim Phillips did the graphics for Santa Cruz. I just thought Santa Cruz graphics were really good, some Zorlac graphics were similar to some of the Metallica ones (legendary artist Pushead, a.k.a. Brian Schroeder, created graphics and artwork for both Zorlac and Metallica), and I liked King Horse one that Danzig produced.

I didn’t really take on board who did what, I was just really into that kind of artwork. I used to have a lot of storybooks when I was a kid, that sort of fantasy artwork I was just really into. The music and the skateboarding really went hand in hand and I never really cared if someone who skateboarded actually did the artwork…and I don’t think I still do to be honest.

Left: Brentwood Skull, original available at the Looking Sideways shop. Right: 2 Skulls, original available at the Looking Sideways shop

So music was and is really important to you. Tell me a bit about how music inspired and influenced you now and then?

I first started listening to metal in the early 90s, and was really into bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden and that type of stuff. Then I got more into thrash stuff like Slayer, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Exodus, that type of thing, and the artwork for that I was into. Then I started getting into the more DIY type of stuff, like Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror. The early Bolt Thrower covers are really hand drawn, same with the Napalm Death ones. Like, the Scum cover (first Napalm Death album) and From Enslavement to Obliteration are pretty different. So it was kind of the realisation that you could draw like that, and it began to influence me a lot. But yeah, metal has always been a massive influence. I’m not really into other music. You know how some people are like “Oh I’m eclectic, I like all sorts of music”? Well, I don’t like all types of music. I like heavy metal! You know, I know hip-hop and other music from being in friends’ cars, from growing up, going skating, but I never really gave a fuck about any other sort of music. I just cared about heavy metal – and all sorts of metal, I mean I always thought of different types of music as like ‘I listen to Saxon, then I listen to Deicide’. You know, different types of metal! So I guess if you get into metal, and you get into skateboarding, and you get into Gothic architecture, it’s all going to influence what you’re doing.

Yeah, it definitely seems that metal, and the album artwork, influenced you in a massive way.

When I was a kid, in Aldershot, and I got into skateboarding, skating was on the wane. But metal – death metal, Florida death metal was on the rise. There were no other skaters in my school, but there were metallers – so it was either hang out with them…or get into rave music, like fantasia. What are you going to choose!?

Any particular covers you remember from the time that you liked or influenced your work?

Cause of Death by Obituary I remember as one that stood out, with the eye and the dude in the tree as if he’s been caught in a web. I thought was really rad. Old Bolt Thrower covers, like Realm of Chaos, with the space marines. And I always liked the black and white stuff: Napalm Death covers, and all those bands that had similar covers like Monstrosity and Malevolent Creation that were really sort of hand drawn and coloured, that were obviously really skilled, detailed fine art work. I can see now looking at my artwork that it kind of relates back to that.

It’s interesting you mention the skilled, detailed aspect of that work, which I definitely see in yours. Is there a connection between the way both skateboarding and art require practice and skill as well as just creativity?

Yeah, I mean I think with all those things, if you want to be good at at something, or you’re into something -actually I don’t know if being good at it really matters – but if you really love doing something, the more you do it the better you get at it, and the better you get at it the more you enjoy it. Personally, I don’t really do things by halves. If I don’t want to do it I just don’t do it. Which is why pretty much my whole life involves skateboarding, drawing and listening to heavy metal. A lot of skateboarders are like that. Like guys who get really good, you just kind of get obsessed by it, which is how you get good at it. And with the art thing, I was just obsessed with it. Just trying to get better at it. Understanding where you are in a certain place and knowing where you want to get to and how you need to work, I think, is a good way to do it. It’s what I did anyway. You know, ‘I want to work like this, but technically I’m not that skilled yet. So I know I have to work at it’. I’ve looked back at work from five years ago and thought, ‘Shit, it’s so much better now’.

It’s like skating. Six years ago I couldn’t skate transitions. All I wanted to do was skate street. Now I pretty much skate parks and bowls, and you develop and learn new things and skills.

French in Situ

So it’s not all a simple expression of creativity…

Nah. I don’t buy into all that creativity crap, maybe because I’m not so deep and meaningful. I just think you’re into it, you want to get into it… if you were going to be into art then you’re going to be into art, whether you skate or not. I find it funny when people give you the ‘skateboard artist’ tag. I’m not. I’m an artist who skateboards, and if I didn’t skate, I’d still do the art, and if I didn’t do the art, I’d still skate. I know there are links, obviously. But if you were into tennis and you were an artist, and every now and then you did some work that involved tennis, you wouldn’t be a tennis artist would you? You’re just an artist.

I think it’s just a weird label to be given. I think you need to be given recognition for the work you do rather that the area you’re put into. I’m not saying I don’t want anything to do with skateboarding because I really love it, and I’m pleased with all the stuff I’ve done.

On that note, what do you feel about working on commissions or collaborations with brands, versus working on personal pieces for exhibition?

The difference is that to be a commercial artist is a really fucking hard thing to do. Obviously, I would love to never have to work for anyone again, and just make my own artwork for galleries and my own shows. In fact, I think the best thing would be to be independently wealthy and not even ever have to worry about selling a piece of work and just make it for yourself!

I got into art because I wanted to make art like you found in a gallery. But realistically, unless you want to enter that whole game of becoming really expensive, which isn’t really my thing, you have to make commercial work. And I got into it in a funny way, in that my friend Marcus, who is an illustrator, said I could do well as one. So I started sending work to people or companies that I liked. I don’t think I ever actually said ‘Can I have some work?’ I just showed them what I do. At the start companies mainly gave me boards and t-shirts in exchange for work, but it grew to the point where people offered to pay me. Now I’m in a position where I people are asking me to do work for them, which is great.

So I think to be a professional artist in this day and age, you have to be adaptable. I want to make stuff for galleries, so doing work for companies is a way of finding it. I’m just incredibly lucky that I get to work with some of the best companies and brands out there in skateboarding.

Two of French’s campaigns for legendary skate truck company Independent

Any specific clients, work, collaborations you’re particularly proud of or stoked on?

Independent for sure! Independent, Creature and Vans for sure! I was so into Indy. I was really into Creature the first time around, before they re-released it as well. Santa Cruz too. I really wanted to do work for them so bad. You know, when I grew up skating you didn’t wear anything other than Vans, and like, I know people cuss it, but I fully have Indy pride, even if I wanted to I would never ride another set of trucks in my life. I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole! So to get to work with those companies and to get to make graphics they like is amazing. Lee at Creature literally asked me what I wanted to make. ‘Send it to me and we’ll pay you’. That’s amazing!

Obviously sometimes I’ve done commercial work and it sucks big time. Like some mail order company needs a logo ,and the money’s good, and you can’t really say no because you need the money. Which is a sad thing, because in skateboarding there’s not a lot of money anymore so you have to be diverse. And you have to value your work, but not be too precious about it. You have realise that it is a service and a tool, and people need it. Sometimes it’s what I’m into and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you don’t even put you name to it and just think, well no one’s going to see it so I’ll take the money and it’ll let me do things which I’m not going to get paid so much for or I just want to do.