Skateboard chic: Old boards become art, furniture, and more

In his South Philadelphia home, artist Josh Leach works on his skateboard creations. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
In his South Philadelphia home, artist Josh Leach works on his skateboard creations. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer) (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 11, 2012

Artist Josh Leach is riding his canvas down the street, doing flips on it, falling off, riding it some more.

When he wears this skateboard out, it won't go in the trash. Leach will give it another life by carving the deck into the face and body of a wild character he has dreamed up, and filling in the edgy cartoonish creature with acrylic paint.

"I've always just collected my boards after I break them. It's like the board's second chance," he says in the cluttered South Philadelphia basement where he creates his art on a small table next to a broken washing machine.

Leach, 24, belongs to a subculture of skateboarders in Philadelphia and elsewhere that has found unexpected ways to extend the life of worn-out and broken skateboards.

"Skateboarders are generally creative characters, whether it's music, art or building ramps," says Victor Perez, who owns the PUSHSK8BOARD Gallery in Fishtown. "That's just the way we roll. We don't wait for things to happen. We just make them happen."

Picture skateboarders doing their high-flying tricks off ramps and ledges and anything else they can find, and it's easy to understand how boards go bad. They can break from normal wear and tear, or more quickly if the rider lands the board in the middle, where it's not supported.

Skateboarders are a surprisingly sentimental bunch, Perez says. They'll look at a broken board and say, " 'This is my favorite skateboard, I learned this trick on it.' "

And so they figure out how to recycle it.

Perez, 52, makes skateboard lamps that sell for $150 to $350. He has sold 79 so far.

In fact, do an online search for skateboard furniture, and you'll find photos of bookshelves, coffee tables, lounge chairs, and a whole household of goods made of skateboards. They look counterculture cool.

Jason Podlaski, 34, uses skateboards to make benches, stools, bottle openers, key chains, and magnets.

"I started when my brother and I had a pile of broken skateboards and nothing to do with them," he says.

He and his younger brother designed their first skateboard bench around 2003. Now, a 60-inch bench sells for $800; a stool is $200. He's making a couple of benches now for a Miami advertising firm. (His website is www.deckstool.com.)

While Perez and Podlaski might be considered veterans of this alternative arts and crafts, Leach is a relative newcomer.

He grew up skateboarding and doodling in Downingtown, graduating from Downingtown East High School in 2005. One day after he graduated in 2009 from the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia, he looked at his broken boards (minus the wheels and other hardware) and at his doodles, and imagined a marriage between the two.

What might be most creative is where the knot is tied: at the break.

"I love how he incorporates the cracks and jagged edges as teeth and monsters," Perez says.

So, the jaws of the monster that looks like a cross between Bart Simpson and Chucky meet at the board's two pieces. That's the design, too, of the red-orange fanged termite and the green one-eyed alien.

Each piece of art takes Leach about 14 hours to make. First, he traces out the face, starting with some focal point. For a Viking character, he began with the horns, which worked well with the shape of the board he was using. Usually, though, he starts with the teeth-baring jaws. He paints the rest of the head on the top piece of board and the body on the bottom.

He has been using hand tools to carve depth to the face or hands, but he might switch to a power tool since his mother recently gave him an electric carver and sander.

Leach has had a few shows of his work around Philadelphia, including one at Perez's gallery and another about six months ago at the Black Vulture Gallery, also in Fishtown, which finances the rent by giving tattoos.

Hoode (he gives no other name and emphasizes it's pronounced Hood-ee) works at the Black Vulture and admiringly remembers Leach's boards. He also recalls that a woman paid $175 for one to give to a friend who collects skateboards.

That was the first piece of board art that Leach sold.

"It felt great to see somebody was into my art and somebody liked it enough to pay that much."

Despite being a skateboarder, despite drawing zombies, aliens, and termites, and showing his work at tattoo parlor galleries staffed by a guy who goes by one name, Leach doesn't feel as if he's part of a counterculture.

"I feel like I always have," he says. "Like an artist."


Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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