The street shredder and impressionist painter is switching up the way we see skate.
Pioneering street shredder and impressionist painter Brian Lotti is switching up the way we see skate.
Skateboarding history is littered with great storytellers – pioneers who were driven to tell their own tale. At the age of forty-one, Brian Lotti has mastered the art of building narratives, whether he’s painting, filming or simply reminiscing. Rising to notoriety in the late-1980s, alongside ‘golden generation’ stalwarts like Matt Hensley and Jason Lee, Lotti saw skateboarding morph – as every every cultural movement can only ever do once – from an activity into a nascent art form.
His seminal segment in Planet Earth’s classic 1991 video Now ‘N‘ Later is still cited over twenty summers later as a defining point in the genesis of skateboarding. “Not only did he innovate, but he made it look amazing,” says modern keeper-of-the-flame and Enjoi founder Marc Johnson in ON Video’s Why Style Matters.
After Now ‘N‘ Later spread his lore around the world, Lotti joined Blind Skateboards, which back then was a hothouse of technical progression. Then suddenly, at the peak of his powers, Lotti vanished without trace. He eventually surfaced in a Buddhist retreat in Hawaii where he dabbled with painting and sought an alternate perspective on life.
And like all great enigmas, he kept on popping up. In July 2007, at a bar in downtown Madrid, I’m waiting for a ride across Spain with a team of skateboarders and someone phones ahead to say Brian Lotti is with them scouting locations for a film, which would later become Free Pegasus.
We meet at a plaza off the historic Gran Via where the professionals among the group are warming up before filming. Lotti starts skating around the periphery and within minutes all eyes are transfixed. Everyone sits down. French pro Thibaud Fradin leans over and says, “It’s not every day you get a masterclass.”
It was the start of a remarkable renaissance for Lotti. Today, from his garage studio in Los Angeles, Lotti runs a creative hub that spans graphic design, film, painting and animation. Former studio-mate of Shepard Fairey, collaborator with Beck, the prodigiously productive watercolourist has rekindled his love of skateboarding and is representing its highest expressions in spheres and mediums all his own. His most recent video, Blue Line, dropped November last year to a roar of approval from the shred pack. And he’s already working on it’s next iteration, a full-length project he’s calling Mountain To Sea. But Lotti is only just getting started.
Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you become interested in skateboarding and art?
My dad was in the US Military, he was an Air Force pilot, and we moved around a lot. I remember we were living in Salt Lake City, Utah. I didn’t have a lot of friends there, but I got really into riding and racing BMX bikes, but that wasn’t that much fun. When BMX freestyle came around I was drawn to it because you could do it anywhere, by your own rules and standards. Then somehow I saw one of the first Powell Peralta videos, The Bones Brigade Video Show, and I just thought, ‘Fuuuck Man. This is fucking incredible.‘ I remember thinking, ‘I think I can do this, I can’t make it on a BMX but I think I can do it on a skateboard.’
How do you feel about the ‘golden generation’ mantle given to the first street-skating pros? Is that overstating the era?
Well maybe we really embraced it and made it our thing. I mean, at the end of the day the Bones Brigade guys all went back to the ramp to do their handplants and airs; we never had ramps. All I had was fucking… parking lots and shit. We were looking at people like Chris Miller doing backside lipslides on a vert ramp and thinking, ‘How could I do that on a bench?’ That was what was really important to us, to take what those guys were doing but be able to do it in a schoolyard.
What happened on the day you decided to get off the hamster wheel of pro skating. Was it a single event or a series of small things?
It was a series of small things… a series of injuries, first of all; broke my foot, broke my thumb, broke my shoulder and I really wanted to film something comparable [to Now ‘N’ Later], you know, but with the Blind guys. So I kept getting held back from filming and at the same time I was still going to college, getting into photography and art, so I think my interest was changing. There was a certain frustration building as well until I got to a point where I just thought, ‘Fuck, it would be kinda rad to just make a clean break.’ There really wasn’t that much pressure from the outside, I just wanted to make a change and move ahead in my life, and I didn’t feel like I could do it in skateboarding.
And so to Hawaii…
Yeah [exhales]. So I quit pro skating, got into painting and art, and I had this kind of… existential quandary. I was reading all these philosophy books, trying to go back to school and to get something going and maybe what happened was I just started waking up to how much suffering there was in the world now that I was outside of this nice comfortable bubble of being a professional skateboarder. Anyways, I discovered Zen Buddhism and meditation, met some different people and ended up going to Hawaii to study at a Zen centre there.
From an outsider’s point of view, we didn’t see much from you until your dreamlike directorial debut, 1st and Hope. It divided opinion – some thought it heralded a new aesthetic, others thought it was too dreamy for the skateboarding world…
You always look back and want to change things sometimes. If I went back to it now I would structure it differently with some more intense passages. The new project [Mountains To Sea] will have more peaks and valleys and be a more rounded production. I certainly hope we can get some freaky projects going this coming year… I think there is a lot of potential for pushing the boundaries of how skating is represented. You know, music, filmmaking, art, they all have so much in common. There’s a ton of opportunities to make fresh presentations of skateboarding that are not just brand promotions.
Your enthusiasm seems undiluted now…
Absolutely. I am a total fan of skateboarding. I’m a total fan of skateboarding [laughs]. I guess that’s it.
Who do you like in skateboarding now?
Oh man… who is ripping right now? Mark Suciu is really fun to watch. Guys like Chima Ferguson and Dennis Busenitz. Dennis Busenitz is always spontaneous. He is a real treat. Lucas Puig, Silas Baxter-Neal, Dylan Rieder.
You could drop any of them in at any point in skateboarding’s history and they would still be standouts.
Well imagine this: it’s the NSA street contest in Phoenix, Arizona in 1987, and Neil Blender is drawing on the sides of quarterpipes, Lance is doing long boardslides and Eric Dressen is tearing around the course. Imagine Dennis Busenitz just appears in there – twenty-five-foot-long backside tailslides; imagine that.
Your peers in the LA art scene like Dave Kinsey and Shepard Fairey have enjoyed great success within the world of street art, but you’re more of a ‘fine artist’…
Yeah for sure. It’s funny because with the stuff I do, it’s kind of like I’m one of the outsiders here now. Street art is like the main entree in the art world so with easel painting, landscape painting on an easel, people are like, ‘Woah dude.’ […] My natural response to a lot of situations is to paint impressionistically, immediately. Whether from a photo or just being there, I try to get it down all at once.
You produced a lot of watercolours from Spain during the making of your second film, Free Pegasus, and you have referred to the ‘romance’ of the land. Is Barcelona romantic, despite its reputation as a pickpocketing hotspot?
That’s a good question – it’s absolutely both. From an aesthetic standpoint it’s an incredible city what with the old-world architecture and this new kind of modern design vibe – Gaudi was popping mushrooms and building these archways to the heavens. And there’s a lot of hot chicks and people from all over Europe so it’s a good place to get it on. I had so many positive experiences painting in the streets there; it’s not like downtown LA, I’ve been kicked out of so many places here…
Was there a specific story you wanted to tell with Blue Line?
It’s a session-based film; we’re trying to present a slice of skateboarding now, a real, raw, sick picture of skateboarding as we know it today – so it has banks and pools as well as street and ditches and so on. For those of us living here in California there is so much good skateboarding going on, but most of the output is brand videos and so the kind of skating people see comes through these narrow pigeonholes and we want to make a film which is more, sort of, everything.
Urban environments are essentially the same the world over, and the ‘moves’ of skateboarding can be learned entirely through mimicry and imagination
You’ve said that you think of Blue Line as kind of a sketch for a bigger project, Mountains To Sea. Can you tell us a bit more about your vision for that?
For a while now I’ve been imagining a film that takes viewers on a journey from the mountains to the sea. Something akin to the scientific tone of Charles Eame’s short film, Powers of Ten, but using skateboarding as the vehicle and set to music a little more charged like Daft Punk. The big idea has really been to involve a lot of skateboarders across the board, and use the twists and turns of the unfolding landscape to make novel and eclectic presentations of the many approaches to skating: downhill, pool, block, bank, school, street, city, park and beach skating. A handful of rad little sessions that continue to empty out to more journeying toward the sea… the water’s path of least resistance.
Do you think of your work in terms of narrative?
In the dream of dreams, yes. It’d be rad to include bicyclists, motorcyclists, truck drivers and train operators to a slight extent – and make the inference that all these folks including skateboarders are the new natives. The new Indians. People whose lives are defined by their relationship with the greater landscape.
Skateboarding, like art, is a language. What makes it effective?
Freedom is contagious. At a certain age, most young children are spellbound when they first see someone rolling effortlessly down the street – boy or girl. Urban environments are essentially the same the world over, and the ‘moves’ of skateboarding can be learned entirely through mimicry and imagination. Skateboarding is visual, and the recurring joy is in learning and doing what one has seen done. Some get to the point where they can see what hasn’t been done yet and do that. This is the turning magic.
Are we likely to see any exhibitions of your work here in Europe any time soon?
I’m collecting together a motley body of work that I would like to exhibit here [in LA] and maybe a show or shows in Europe, too, I think that’d be a blast. I’d love to get back to paint more, too.
Are you excited about the prospect of tomorrow?
I am excited, but I’m not content. I feel like I would like to weave all the predilections and interests I’ve had and stitch them together more tightly. I feel like I’ve been on my own for a little bit, doing my thing, but now I want to get my work out there and I’d like to engage the outside world a little bit more. A lot more, actually.