Everyone finds their route to art in different ways, for Bear Walker it was a culmination of a lot of his "random passions". By this he means his love of skateboarding, pop art and culture and his training as a carpenter. Walker, you see, makes collectible skateboards, hand-crafted and good enough to hang on gallery walls as well as grind rails. This is very modern pop art for a modern audience.
Today Walker is famous for crafting artistic skateboards, carved from wood before being spray-painted, etched, engraved and scorched, depending on the designs. As we talk, behind the artist is a wall patterned with his skateboards, one designed with tactile fish scales and another a retro Spider-Man. There's a long tradition of skateboard art, and we've highlighted some of our favourite skateboard graphics before, but Walker's boards are his art.
Walker's latest project is a series of limited edition collectible Pokémon skateboards officially licensed by Nintendo. These custom-designed, special-edition Pichu, Pikachu and Raichu deck designs are now available in the US and, for the first time, in the UK from the Pokémon Center. "Fans are going wild for Raichu," Walker tells me excitedly.
Bear Walker, getting inspired
After studying graphic design at college Walker took a job making custom signage and props, and it was during one of these projects that he was inspired to adapt the techniques and tools to something more personal. "So I carved that first skateboard just for myself," he reflects. "Then people started asking where I got it from, and so they started taking customer orders, and that was 11 years ago now. It's just kind of snowballed."
The design process is very personal to Walker, even, perhaps more so, when he's creating some of his collaborations with famous brands, including Marvel and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He explains how he recalls what he'd want as a kid and aims to create that vision. There's a direct line from Walker's childhood to his art, and it's one that strikes a cord with millennials.
"I always design stuff for the 90s kids, where you have that nostalgia, that sense of something you're passionate about when you were a kid. But now you have a little extra money to get something for your personal collection," says Walker.
He laughs as we discuss how 90s design nostalgia is one of the recent biggest trends, saying: "It all kind of worked out […] it just so happened when I started making these higher end boards, skateboards started becoming more popular for pop culture and decoration."
Walker only makes 25 custom boards each year and has a two year waiting list. So it's no wonder the artist has his celebratory fans; he can namecheck actor Jason Momoa, 'Shazam!' star Zachary Levi and Billie Eilish as owners of his custom boards. But he retains that sense of authenticity about his creations, and tells me, his limited edition skateboards are made in pairs, "one to ride and one for the wall".
The idea that people who collect his boards as works of art came as a surprise. "When I first started, I made these things to ride," he says, explaining these are "super durable" and he spent time perfecting the boards' grip and even made his own truck and wheel company to ensure the wheels match the board perfectly.
"I was almost kind of offended after the first couple of years where no one was riding them and everyone was hanging them on their walls," he admits. "Then it just hit me that this is actually good, people are liking them so much they don't want to ruin them."
There's art in wear and tear
It's the bashed and scratched editions that Walker has a love for. He designs his boards to be battered. Each scrape and scratch adding to the design. "It's a complicated process" he confesses, "because I strategically put where I want texture […] I have to think about where your feet would be on this design and where I need to add more texture where I can have a flat area, where I want to put darker colours of paint as opposed to lighter colours of paint."
The creative process begins with pencil and paper, Walker also uses Procreate on an iPad and has started to teach himself ZBrush. His designs need to be thought through in three dimensions because these are carved from wood and care is taken to ensure texture and details work in harmony. Each board is hand-painted and gradients are airbrushed.
Walker now uses CNC routers, large mechanised woodworking machines, to carve his boards. These are similar to the newer laser cutters you can buy for your home. He also gets hands-on too, creating the around 20 prototypes for each board design. His Miami workshop and gallery has a room filled with over 200 boards that never made the cut. "If you open the door it looks like a frickin’ Harry Potter library archive," he laughs.
Interestingly Walker's designs are created to wear down, with gradients becoming deeper and richer as a rider's feet scuff the board. "It should actually look cooler as they age," laughs the artist. "As you wear it down, it will almost have this ombré effect where you're just adding to the gradient as you're wearing it down."
Walker's work intersects between traditional Pop Art and a modern textural, sculpture approach. "I'm always trying to find a way to play with your eye or play with your senses by making different textures and having different colour pops and blank spots," he says explains how surfing as a kid and love of skateboarding influenced his craft, but he really "pays [his] dues with the pop culture and the art realm and the craftsmanship and the woodworking […] that's where I tell more of my story."
Pop culture, collectibility and art have always gone together and in 2023 it feels like art is easier to discover, own and covet than ever before. "I feel like we're in a new renaissance era for that kind of thing," comments Walker. "We hit this point, I feel like in the early 2000s where mass production and convenience was oversaturated and I think slowly, over the last five or ten years, more bespoke, handcrafted stuff has become more appreciated."
Now the 90s kids generation are grown up and looking to buy art and own collectibles that remind them of their childhoods but in a unique and creative way. "Nostalgia is getting people into spending some of their money on the things that remind them of their childhood," says Walker, and he has a point: according to a report, 'kidults' are responsible for one-fourth of all toy sales annually.
Walker says his collectors are looking for something that reminds them of their childhood, but in a unique way. For him, it's the "little imperfections" that make the difference.
A DIY attitude
As we talk it's hard not to be drawn in by Walker's infectious passion for his art, and he mentions everything he does is self-taught; "I couldn't airbrush, so I taught myself," he says, "I'm learning ZBrush from YouTube, when I bought my first CNC machine I needed to learn CAD programming," he adds.
There's an excitement in Walker's voice when he discusses how he started and where he is now, and there's no sign he's going to let up. He also points out how now is the best time to be creative. Whether it's software like Procreate, technology like Glowforge or the ability to set up a store and sell your art online, Walker sees no reason why artists can't succeed.
"There's so much opportunity to create out there now and so much really good technology that you can use to create these things that, yeah, it's really only kind of hindered by your imagination," enthuses the artist. "And yeah, it's a crazy time to be a creator."
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