“You can play with reality” – An interview with Paul & Damon McCarthy.

Five years ago, a ‘Damon McCarthy’ called out of the blue to tell us that his father would be available for a collaboration with The Skateroom. Yeah right, we thought, the ‘Paul McCarthy’? Infamous Los Angeles iconoclast, whose massive inflatable ‘buttplug’ sculpture – Tree, Place Vendôme 2014 – blew up the Parisian artworld just two years before? It must be a joke – why would his son be calling us? Then Damon explained: much like The Skateroom’s own origin story, McCarthy’s personal encounter with Skateistan’s Oliver Percovich had given him an idea…

Five years later, and we’re unveiling our third edition in collaboration with Paul and Damon McCarthy. A collaboration which has already raised $200,000 in funds for Skateistan South Africa and enabled the construction and operation of their Johannesburg skate school. Today, that school welcomes just under 900 students, 43% of them girls. 

So what is this third edition? A triptych, depicting that very Parisian controversy: Tree. We felt it was time for McCarthy’s ‘buttplug’ to make its triumphant return, this time as part of Highsnobiety’s aptly named digital exhibition Not In Paris 3. The triptych, complete with a Snapchat VR filter, marks a comeback for the history books. And to celebrate, we arranged an interview with Paul and Damon McCarthy to talk about the power of art to change reality, and skateboarding to change the world. 

Damon, can you tell us a little bit about how you first got in touch with The Skateroom 

Damon McCarthy: You know, dad got me my first skateboard when I was 9, and he helped me paint it. We built a half-pipe in the yard, and I rode it until I was 30. Then I broke my arm, threw my skateboard over the fence and started collecting boards instead. Flash forward: dad and I are more successful, making a lot of art, and I’m still in the skate world – collecting. I always thought, you know, the boards should be skated on, not just hung on the wall. So sometimes I would skate on them, then realise I’d just ruined a board worth $1,500. Something didn’t feel right about it. 

At some point, Supreme even approached us to do a collaboration. I figured out that basically they would pay the artist to put the work on the boards, then they’d sell those editions on their site. But at that point they’d go into an insanely inflated secondary market. It didn’t seem like that chain had anything to do with the kids on the street who just wanted to skate. It was for the financial elite to take over something that was pure when I was young.

So I went looking for something else, and stumbled upon Skateistan, and through Ollie [Percovich] I found The Skateroom. I had an idea and so I got in touch, saying “if you guys are interested in doing a collaboration, I know somebody.” 

Yeah. We thought it was a joke at first: somebody calling up and saying “Hey, I have an introduction with Paul McCarthy.” 

DM: [Laughs] Yeah, you know, I knew Ollie from the skate world, but I didn’t know he was about to head off to Afghanistan to teach kids how to skate. Anybody who was willing to throw it all out there and go do that… I felt like I could contribute somehow. If we could create some editions to support Skateistan then Paul’s work on a skateboard would somehow suddenly make sense. 

Did you have a personal connection to the idea when Damon suggested it, Paul?

Paul McCarthy: You know, I grew up in Utah so there was always this thing of adventure sports, rock climbing, skiing, around me. It was in my backyard. I remember the canyons where I grew up in Salt Lake were right there, and so we bought skateboards out of California in 1964/5 and tried to skate down Little Cottonwood Canyon. It was a memorable moment. But it was short lived. Then when Damon was young, in the 80s, skateboarding became such a thing. You know, you’re a dad, you support your kid in what he wants to do… But what I loved was that there was no coach. Little leagues have those insane dads who coach the kids. Skateboarding is a lifestyle, it has clothing, music, and the kids make it their own. I could see the creativity there – the boards, the ramps, the tricks – but it wasn’t part of the art world. It was its own. I never really knew how I felt about skateboards being hung on the wall. What I liked about the boards, the art on the boards, was that it existed to be ridden. It didn’t need to be on the wall. 

And then when Damon came to me about Skateistan it suddenly made sense. You know, Ollie just goes and begins this thing alone in Afghanistan. It felt like how the skate world was. But the skate world was still very male. Which I always felt was a limitation and a bit fucked up. What happened there? Those other adventure sports I’d seen, like climbing, there were lots of women. Why was skateboarding like that? With Skateistan, the girls and women in Afghanistan were skating too. It was like, wow, there we go – finally – there’s no gender barrier here. The boards could then raise money for something really worthwhile.

In Afghanistan’s operation specifically, 80% of the participants are girls. We’ve seen their confidence boosted by skateboarding, they’ve learned English, and they may even be sent to the Olympics soon. It’s amazing how these worlds have merged. 

PM: It’s important how two worlds merge, you know? Art and skateboarding. A kid in the 80s can grow up, make some money, and then buy skateboards which are being sold as artworks to satisfy that nostalgia for his or her youth. Or people in the art world can invest or collect art on boards. But this is like a Robin Hood type thing, let’s use that money to build a school. That’s interesting to me. 

Yes, and we make sure that a portion of the boards we make are actually skated by the kids in the schools.

DM: Right, my thing with every project we’ve done has been to contribute a number of boards to Skateistan South Africa so that the kids can actually ride on them. They look great on the wall, of course, but the ones that are fucked up look a lot better. 

We’ve been collaborating like this for five years now and raised over $200,000. Have you been keeping track of the impact you’ve had on Skateistan South Africa?

DM: For sure. Of course, Dad and I enjoyed contributing to that world, but I’ve made personal friends there too. Knowing Ollie, knowing Charles [Founder of The Skateroom], it’s been easy to stay up to date. We always kept tabs on what was being built in Johannesburg, and that’s what led us to donating the Barack Obama statue to the skatepark there. 

Yes, the statue! Tell us a bit about how Obama ended up in South Africa in just his underwear? 

DM: We were doing the release in New York together, and figuring out how to display the boards in the window of the MoMA Design Store. 

PM: You think: okay, what goes in a store window? Mannequins, right? And I remember Damon saying: “You know, you can buy Obama mannequins?” And I said: “Are you fucking kidding? Let’s buy every single fucking one ever made.” 

DM: I even drove to New Jersey in a rental van to pick them up. I stuck one in the front seat, put the seat belt on him, and a hat, then drove back to New York. The reactions were hilarious. 

PM: We put the mannequins in the window. But, now what? At one point we thought, shall we put him without any clothes on? Well, of course, mannequins don’t have a dick, so that seemed too fucked up. So then it was underwear.  Finally we just taped the boards to his face. Did we actually understand what it meant? Like, he’s the president, you can draw all kinds of connections. But really it just sort of happened. 

It came to mean a lot to the kids in Johannesburg. 

PM: Yeah, well when the school in South Africa opened, we wanted to put a bronze sculpture of some sort at the school. And so Obama with a skateboard was the obvious choice… The foundry we were working with in Washington said they’d do it for free. And that’s really why it happened. I always thought it would be interesting if the sculpture was near the park, so it could get touched and messed with. 

And as you’ve seen, the kids have put hats on him, sunglasses, even painted him. He’s part of the family there now. 

DM: Yeah, you know, it’s not always obvious what impact a piece will have on the world. Like with the ‘buttplug’, we couldn’t predict that they would destroy it. But with Obama in South Africa, I had hoped he’d get dirty and grimy in the skatepark, it sort of fit. Making that thing was rad, and sending it there, keeping track of where it is, what it’s wearing – it’s important to us. 

As if the kids are actually taking part in the art. Let us finish with this: Do you see skateboarding as an artform? 

PM: I don’t need to see it as an artform. You know, I can say: sure why not. But on the other hand, why bother? I know people who went through skateboarding and are now in their 40s/50s, and that culture still lives in them. Maybe they’re filmmakers and artists now, but it’s a style, a fashion, and it permeates everything they do. Somebody like Mark Gonzales, for example. We were in Vienna, and he was trying to jump over cars. He didn’t need a skateboard. For Mark, the boundaries of what skateboarding is can be pushed with or without the skateboard itself. He can make all sorts of objects do tricks – a grocery cart, a stool, whatever – and that kind of thinking is what connects skating to art. I’m interested in how you abstract something, how you can play with reality. Skaters do that, they change how people see things. 

Watch an excerpt of the interview with Paul & Damon McCarthy below or watch the full interview on VIMEO.

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