Keeping an art form relevant to the next generation is essential for its survival, and a skateboard company in Juneau, Alaska, is using the Native formline art of the Northwest Coast to both celebrate this cultural tradition and create some sweet decks.
“The main reason I use contemporary surfaces is to make formline accessible to Native people in their day to day,” Rico Worl, the founder of Trickster Company, told Hyperallergic. “I also am very aware of many companies that use knock off design work to make money from our art. I see Trickster Company as a means of recapturing some small portion of that market in a way that gives back to our community.”
Formline is defined by its bold, connected, contoured lines produced mainly in black and red, that use ovoid shapes around negative space to frequently evoke animal and human forms. Worl started by painting his own skateboard, then was asked to do one for a family member, and the interest evolved from there until he launched his own company last year.
“After a long enough time, the demand proved to be consistent for the style, but most buyers were art collectors,” Worl explained. “I decided that I also wanted youth to have access to decks that represented their own culture. I wanted the items to be used as a means for youth to identify and hold pride in their culture. I was raised as Tlingit and that culture has been the source of a lot of strength throughout the years. I wanted to make this strength accessible in one small way to others.”
While he’s now manufacturing boards and working with other artists, such as Ronnie Fairbanks who created Raven’s Thievery showing the trickster Raven stealing the sun, he still hand-paints many of them. He even recently expanded into playing cards that were funded with a successful Kickstarter project, where the goal was to show the “vitality, adaptability, and survivability of a living art form,” as Worl stated in the Kickstarter video. He’s currently working on a design with Chugach Flyer Snowboards and on another skate deck for the coming month.
Throughout it all, he’s maintained that the selected designs be both authentic, and only used with permission, which is why the manufactured boards keep to the raven and eagle designs that are across clans, and why he only uses his own family crests. As he explained: “The clan is the basic social unit in Tlingit society. They are the property holders. At.oow is our treasures. It may include land, names, songs, stories, designs, crests, and more. It would be inappropriate for me to take from another clan.”
He cites as inspiration Robert Davidson, an artist who has expanded the use of formline in contemporary art, as well as the work of his Alaskan forebears, whom he studies in books and museums.
Yet above all, Worl asserts that it’s important “simply to represent” and “to show that Tlingit art and culture is a live and vibrant. That we can rock some nice products along with the best of ’em.”