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GM Interviews YKC

The Solitary Arts
“Climbing Through Windows and Looking out of Doors: Skateboards, Tables and the Importance of Bushings”
or “Climbing Through Windows and Looking out of Doors: Skateboards, Tables and the Solitary Arts”

by Geoff McFetridge
January 5, 2010

A table can be made out of two saw horses and a door. With a table like this, you could put chairs around it and have a dinner party. Yet as a design, it is teetering on the edge of legibility. It is a table reduced down to its most basic elements. A door on two sawhorses is almost a table, yet it only becomes a table when you sit down to have dinner at it. It is your understanding of tables and your acceptance of it, as the one that takes it the rest of the way. I like things that exist on this edge, where your perception of what they are becomes the final step of their creation.

I am part owner of a skateboard company called the Solitary Arts. We make boards, wheels, risers and bearings. We also make t-shirts, stickers and a newspaper called the Solitary Times. Everything we do revolves around perception; the perception of skateboarding. We are interested in how graphics and skateboard design can affect how people perceive what skateboarding is.

The average skateboarder is used to all skateboards looking the same; boards that vary slightly in size but are primarily popsicle shaped. An ollie on your board is the same as an ollie on my board. Companies have graphics and pro-riders to differentiate their boards from other companies. At this point in time skateboarding has never been more homogenous. The reason being; popsicle boards work great, in many different circumstances. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

The Solitary Arts is focused on uniqueness, boards that will ride in a unique way, forcing a unique experience. Our boards are more like the sawhorse-door-table. They exist on the very edge of what is accepted as a skateboard and, like the table, perception is our biggest concern. If people just hang our boards on the wall, or use them to go to corner store, we are not doing the right thing. If nobody will have dinner on your sawhorse-door-table then it fails.

When we get it right, our boards should invite skating. Getting it right is a bit of a process. I interviewed my partner in the Solitary Arts, Yong-Ki Chang about it – how he designs boards and about the details that maybe some of us take for granted.


GEOFF MCFETRIDGE: The first board we did together was the Big Red. I immediately liked the way it looked, but the real revelation was in how it rides. There were two things; the fact that you could not tap the tail, and how well it carved due to the (added control of the) contemporary upturned nose and concave. It actually took me awhile to figure out all the details that make that board what it is. With the Big Red I feel that the wheelbase is the most important thing. It is a small feeling board with a big wheelbase. Where did this idea come from?

YONG-KI CHANG: The Big Red deck, in shape and size was born out of what I believed was a marriage between what you did artistically/graphically and what I could create on a tangible level with 7 ply’s of maple. Your artwork was the initial catalyst and inspiration that formed the ridable finished result.   

I found the plastic original while driving home one day and saw it propped-up against the wall in someone’s garage. I bought it for $10 on the spot.  The original was flat but I liked the shape and to pay homage to it, I decided to make our own version with 7 plys of maple, an upturned nose/tail and some concave.  The wheelbase (15.25’) on our Big Red board was to create a wider carving radius within a smaller board length (28").  The short tail is the great equalizer.  Since we wanted to create a quiver of releases over time, our first release had to be a board that everyone had to relearn to ride!  It takes some dedication to get used to riding a board like ours. Like starting all over again.

I always like it when you see a skateboard on Dora the Explorer, or the Simpsons or something. They always draw the strangest, wackest, craziest looking boards! Yet, in the real world all boards look the same. Popsicles with grip-tape. I think it is funny that cartoonists can’t figure that out.

Skateboards all look the way they do because that shape works well. Our boards are unusual and can be challenging to ride, in a fun way. Our Pocket Horn (6" wide board on 89mm trucks) is obviously going to change your experience at a familiar park or curb. It is really small but it is 9-ply so it is super solid and weighted a lot like a regular board. What inspired the 9-ply? I think that is one of the best features of our small boards.

We made a 9-ply version of the Pocket Horn since the added weight would change the way we thought a small board should feel and would be closer to the primary board that we rode at that time (which was larger and a popsicle setup, always a part of the quiver).  Riding the 9-ply also made it more sturdier and with the small trucks and our 50 mm 87a Black Eggs, allowed us to push much further than the plastic boards that we used to bomb down the driveway with.  Pushing and carving on a small board makes me feel like I’m going way faster too! 

I love jazz and I’ve leant my ears to jazz for many years but rarely did I give my eyes the same respect towards photographs and paintings of these musicians. At that time, Don Cherry’s pocket horn was the inspiration. The smaller trumpet allowed him to have a distinct sound amongst other trumpet players and kept him challenged. The Pocket Horn is that board. it’s a good travel companion and it can make you feel like that slappy on a curb was mega!

In doing SA I feel like I am walking in a minefield sometimes. What we are doing is so inherently “wack” or “kooky” compared to mainstream skating. But that is also what I love about it. It keeps me interested.  In the surf world a few years ago people, like Joel Tudor or Dan Malloy started popularizing riding different types of boards. Up until the late 90’s it was unusual for people to ride anything but the most high performance surfboards (which at this point seems unbelievable). But now it is a very accepted idea that you surf different boards for a different wave, or to seek a different type of experience. I have always felt that you can’t compare skating to surfing really, but I think the idea of having a skate “quiver” is relevant for some of us.

A quiver is mandatory for me for riding whatever feels right at that moment… options are good and damn-it if it doesn’t bring a smile each time I open up the trunk of my car to grab a board!  

Back to that first Big Red…. from that board I also learned a lot about how you build boards. We used to make fun of our friends that BMXed because they always seemed to be talking about brake cables. But now… I like that you have an almost bmx attention to detail when it comes to building set-ups. What can you tell me about your philosophy of how you build set-ups?

I think a setup should make you feel like jumping on the board and rushing out to ride because you perfected it to your liking.  I had that feeling as a kid, though further apart with each setup than I do now but these boards can sometimes dictate that search for a specific ditch, bowl, or hill or make you stop and ride something familiar but with a totally different setup. 

I take the time I have these days to skate seriously and enjoy it each time.  I don’t get bummed anymore if I can’t land a trick or even attempt one at all!  I also take building these boards seriously for the same reason.  If you have a Solitary Arts board, each time you take it out is a conscious decision (to ride something different).  I don’t take that time and decision for granted.  My main goal is to build quality boards so that once you step on one, you knew that it was solid under your feet.  

You were the first person who introduced me to dialing in bushings and getting proper bearings. It is amazing how easy it is to ignore that stuff.

There are great trucks companies in skateboarding and none of them would be around if their trucks didn’t work.  Bushings are what I found to help me get the turn that I wanted from a truck.  I like my trucks loose so I can carve.  Carving corners is the reason.  

Are you a gear head? Where does your board design skill come from?

I did a lot of nose-clamping with wood glue and sanding it down when I was younger with my boards.   Creating a slightly morphed shape of the original was guaranteed.  Tails that were worn down and razor sharp were the norm.  Over the span of riding a board, the shape probably changed 5-7 times before another new deck presented itself so I made due with what I had.   I think that’s where it came from. Everything from age 13-16 that I tinkered with is what I tinker with now.  

Our first wheels were based on a mold from our original wheel factory, but then we did the graphic on the inside as a tribute to those of us who flip our wheels. Do you know who did that wheel before us? And what was the era? 

I’m not certain who used that original mold for our conical Drifters (58 mm; 87A) but I’m assuming it was in the early 70’s since they started that factory starting in the late 60’s. 

Later came the Black Eggs and now White Yolks. I really love these wheels. They are unique I think and sort of a gateway drug to other stuff we make. You think?

I gravitate towards the wood and urethane parts of manufacturing.  The wheels for Solitary Arts can dictate an entire setup!  The whole board shape might be birthed only after we dial the wheels.  It is a gateway!

Our new White Yolks wheels were inspired while riding bowls and wanting a smaller, harder, yet larger surfaced wheel to get as much speed on a 54mm size that would dictate our next board Solitary Arts complete (Spring 2010).  

When the new stuff arrives, either samples or production runs, what are you most excited to open the box to see?

Wheels and stickers!  I’m a huge fan of stickers and always have been.  That’s the most gratifying for me.  We have some good folks that all skate that make great stuff for us.

For me it is the wheels. I make a lot of stuff, but making a wheel is a really unique experience. I also love making stickers.

You are based in SF and I am Los Angeles. SF and LA are two different worlds of skating for sure. For me I was always drawn to how Socal is such a ying and yang on steroids of good and bad. If you see a beautiful sunset you know you are going to get stuck in a gnarly traffic jam to balance things out! I like the clean streets of So cal too. We do parking lots right here! thats our motto.
How do you feel about being in SF? My favorite skaters always seem to be from there…

I dig California.  You’ve got cities, beaches, mountains, and deserts and everything in-between.  You’re from Calgary and I’m from Hawaii and I think we’ve both found a balance of the things that we love about California and the things that we can live-with (like traffic) to keep what we love as consistent as possible in our day to day lives.  I’m here to stay in San Francisco as I plant more permanent roots with each passing year.  

And yes, I agree, SF breeds skateboarders.  Backside power-slides bombing hills!  

You’re also really into carving bowls these days. Do you ever do a session where you never lift your wheels or grind? When you grind it always seems like an accident!

I have a tendency lately where I’m only into finding a line and getting into corners as often as possible without kick-turns or grinding. The longer the run, the better for me these days.  I do throw a grind or two into a line but the gnarliest ones do happen by accident!  

What’s up with the AM (morning) skate scene up there?

There are crews everywhere skating the AM hours at any good park with bowls.  My good friend Mark Buddah Ishimaru is the reason for me as he was the first to invite me on certain mornings before anyone else showed-up to get a session-in.  It’s now a good-sized crew up here and one with no hype.  We're just riding and having a good time carving corners…


CONTRAST NO. 05  Cover by GM