A Process Led Design.
Photography by Rob Whiston.
“Getting anybody to tell you anything about screen-printing skateboards is next to impossible”, proclaims Lovenskate gaffer and lifelong devotee of the screen-printing process, Stuart Smith. So much so that Lovenskate was already well into its second decade of existence before Stu got remotely close to even visiting another established print shop, Barret ‘Chicken’ Deck’s legendary Screamin’ Inc. (formally Screamin’ Squeegees), in Huntington Beach, California. “I was in America working on a job for Vans when I met an artist called Matt French. I got talking to him, and he said, ‘I know Chicken, he’s not that far away’. So I ended up taking this hour and a half, $100 cab to Screamin’ Inc. I got there, met Chicken, and all I could think was, ‘this dude is going to show me round one of the best skateboarding screen-printing places in the world’. We shot the shit for 45 minutes, and all the while I hadn’t got further than the front door, so I just asked, ‘can I see the print shop, Chicken?’ He answers, ‘no. I don’t show anyone the print shop. I’ve had people do work experience here who have stolen ideas, taken photographs, gone on to try and set up their own print shops. It’s too risky for me, I won’t show you’. Then I had to take another $100 cab ride back to where I was staying with my tail between my legs”. Though he might not have been bequeathed with the screen-printing wisdom that he’d hoped to acquire before embarking on his three hour round trip, Stu did leave the world-renowned print shop with a Pedro Barros board for Chicken’s brand Pocket Pistols. “It’s a halftone print, tip to tail; it’s absolutely perfect. I have it hanging in the studio as my benchmark for quality screen-printing. Once I can print that good, then I’ll be happy”.
July 2021 will mark Lovenskate’s 20th anniversary, and as that momentous milestone rapidly approaches, Stu opens up the doors to his Tottenham base and kindly spares us an afternoon whilst he’s finishing work on Lovenskate’s Spring collection. There’s no air of secrecy to be found in N17, no fear of confidential information being stolen, and no reason to suspect that Dexter and Sol – Stu’s current pair of enthusiastic employees – are on the verge of fleeing the workshop to establish a rival operation.
In place of suspicion, you are greeted with tea, and as Stu starts to prepare his next screen, our conversation takes a leap back to the early 1990s. “My first taste of skating came from an ad for MTV”, Stu recalls. “There was a guy in baggy, pyjama style trousers and Airwalk Ones, skating down a hill doing shove-its. I remember thinking, ‘that is the fucking greatest thing ever’”.
A teenage Stu, living with his parents in rural Kent, then went on to cross paths with a few boards that were conveniently scattered around his local area. “A guy in my village, Michael Bailey, he had a (Vision) Lucero Hippy Stick, and a girl I was seeing around the same time, her brother sold me a New Deal Tagger board”. The Law Courts has been a staple spot of the Maidstone scene since the second global skateboarding boom in the 1980s, and it was here, on a random Saturday evening in the mid-90s, that Stu accidentally stumbled upon a bustling session. “For the first time, I saw people properly skating, and I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do’, so I quit my Saturday job at Burger King and spent my last pay cheque on a New Deal John Montesi board”. From that point on, Stu’s Saturdays were reserved solely for skateboarding, as he embedded himself within the Maidstone scene, and fully immersed himself in mid-90s skateboard culture.
Growing up, the Smith household proved itself to be something of a creative one. Stu’s mum spent her entire adult life hand-making everything from curtains to cakes, and whether they knew it at the time or not, her resourceful and inventive thinking rubbed off on her three sons. Stu’s brothers – Graham and Jamie – have respectively gone on to become successful in the fields of joinery and photography, whilst Stu took inspiration from the screen-printed skateboard graphics he had become infatuated with, and carved out his own creative path that saw him graduating from Hertfordshire University with a degree in Fine Art Printing. During his final year at university, Stu took out a small yet not entirely necessary student loan, and used the money to buy a ticket to Ecuador (via New York), missing his graduation in order to catch the flight. From there, he followed the rough route taken by Peter Hewett, Matt Muffett and Eddy Alioto during their feted 1998 South American Thrasher Magazine expedition, working his way through Peru, Bolivia and Chile. “When I got back, I had no money, so I moved in with my mum and dad and got a job in a factory up the road, making filters for air conditioning systems”.
Coincidentally, the factory had a side operation screen-printing vinyl logos for lorries, and for the princely sum of £150, Stu bought one of their two gargantuan print beds – ‘The Iron Lady’, as it became affectionately known - and moved it into his dad’s shed.
Having quickly grown bored of factory work, Stu relocated once again to London and landed himself a job at the commercial screen-printers Bilko, but not before he decided to put together a series of zines covering his travels to South America. These photocopied travelogues included photos and drawings from the road, excerpts from Stu’s diary, and interviews with locals he’d met along the way. “The zine was about travel, so I’d been drawing my feet a lot”, Stu explains, “and like the tattoos ‘love n’ hate’, I drew ‘love n’ skate’ on my toes”. That drawing of Stu’s well-travelled feet became the cover of issue one, but the name Lovenskate took proverbial flight, finding its way onto an increasing number of products that Stu was working on after hours at Bilko.
Stu’s declared a well-earned tea break in the workshop, so we relocate to the kitchen and discuss the impact that Doncaster native and bearded social butterfly Kev Firth had on the Lovenskate story. “I’m not sure how, but Kev knows everybody. I’d be meeting shop owners through Kev, and they’d be asking after zines and shirts. Kind of sketchily, we got a bunch of out of season gear on sale or return, so me and Kev got a market stall just off of Brick Lane; there I had a platform to sell my Lovenskate tees, and give away zines”. Kev also managed to acquire 20 blank boards, and following an expensive and frustrating screen building venture with an industry insider named Damon – “the wildest geezer ever” – Stu was able to start figuring out how to screen-print boards from tip to tail. “At that point, I had boards, I had shirts, and I had zines. It started to feel like Lovenskate was becoming ‘a thing’”, Stu continues, modestly, “but it was just me in the garage, or me after work in the studio…Lovenskate became a company almost accidentally”.
Outside of the commercial work he was doing at Bilko, Lovenskate gathered traction, and Stu’s confidence as screen-printer grew; as such, he started to outgrow his own personal workshops, moving The Iron Lady around East London before settling on a decent sized space in Whitechapel. After five years at Bilko, Stu outgrew the printers, too. “I’d been taking on little commercial jobs, and as my studios grew, I’d need to take on more commercial jobs to pay their rent. It got to the point where I’d taken on so many commercial jobs I didn’t have time to work at the printers any more, so I made the transition over to self employment”.
Toby Shuall was someone who Stu had become friendly with during his university years, but through mutual friends at Slam City Skates, in 2004 the pair were put in contact again, as Toby was looking for an ambitious printer to work with on his emerging clothing brand, the legendary Suburban Bliss. “Toby pushed me as a printer, because he had all of these ideas that were against the norm; he had these weird, crazy drawings and found images he had that he wanted to print, he’d want an A1 image printed right across the front of a shirt in water-based ink…he was amazing to work with, and he cracked the whip as well. If there was print production going on, he’d sit in the studio the entire time. Toby showed me that if you want to have a brand that stands out, you have to do X, Y and Z to make it truly different”.
When Stu outgrew his studio in Whitechapel, his next stop was The Mangle in Hackney, where he was sharing space with Rob Ryan and Dan Holliday, two almost God-like characters in the world of screen-printing. “I had more space to do all of the commercial work, but Rob and Dan would both say, ‘you’ve got to make time for your own artwork. If this is for Lovenskate, sack off that generic way of printing; toss six colours on that screen and do a weird blend’. I had the foundations of this brand, but then I could make it as weird and wonderful as I liked, because I had these two guys acting as mentors. Suddenly, it was like I was able to concentrate on the artwork side of it”.
With the encouragement of Rob and Dan, Stu’s artistic tendencies flourished, as he started to devise unique graphics that consisted of found imagery, vibrant colours, bold text, and quintessentially British humour. “I grew up on Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, The Goons, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Round the Horne…all of which seem to spend a lot of time - in a really fun, gentle way - mocking things that are British, and I like to do that a little bit, with Lovenskate”. When looking for artists to collaborate with, Stu admits to being more drawn to how something can be broken down into layers, than he is necessarily the subject matter of a graphic. “I equally love French’s skeletons as much as I love Liisa Chisholm’s flowers. Their artwork couldn’t be more different, but I love them for the same reason – as screen-prints, they look absolutely fantastic, and I know I’m going to enjoy every minute of printing their art onto boards”.
Along the way, a Lovenskate team began to fall into place, starting with East Sussex native Ewen Bower, who Stu remembers as being “streaks ahead of most people, even as a young kid. I started giving him clothes, and eventually boards when I had them; Ewen has been along from the very beginning”. Over the course of the years that followed, Lovenskate became home to the likes of Alex Barton, Lee Santer, Craig Questions and Dan Hill, though it was the long serving champion of British skateboarding Lucy Adams who was eventually awarded with the company’s very first pro board, in 2018. “Even though there were people that had probably been on the team longer, I just thought - and I still do think - that Lucy does so much for skateboarding in the UK. She is non-stop pushing whatever aspect of skateboarding she thinks is wonderful, and she works really hard for it, in a very professional manner. All of her work deserved to be recognised, and turning her pro was a way that I felt I could do my bit for her. It was an easy, heartfelt decision to make”.
Alex Hallford joined Lovenskate in 2014, off the back of a few years riding for the final incarnation of Unabomber, with Jordan Thackeray following suit a year later, having stayed faithful to the Essex based Milk Skateboards until the very end. In these supernaturally talented, supernaturally serene transition skating prodigies, Stu had found another pair of certified Lovenskate professionals. “Jordan and Alex definitely taught me to relax a little bit more”, admits Stu. “When you’re on a trip with those guys, no matter what your plan is, or what’s on your agenda, things are happening at very much their own pace. Whereas I’m very much, like, ‘if we don’t start now, we won’t get it done!’ with those guys, you need to roll with it a bit. ‘We’re playing chess. It’s guitar and banjo time now’ (laughs)”. Over the course of the last couple of years, the crew has grown to also include Lucas ‘Goose’ Healey and issue 2 Push interview recipient Alice Smith, with Donald Huycke and Robbin Oost holding things down on the continent. “When things normalise a bit, I just cannot wait to spend some time with the whole crew in the van. As a unit, I feel like we’re at our best when we’re all together in some mad part of the world, on a mission. I can’t wait for that to happen again”.
In June 2014, The Mangle’s landlords increased the rent and forced its collection of tenants to seek new spaces in which to work. Stu, with no shortage of assistance from his then sidekick Lilli Cowley-Wood, upped sticks from Hackney and planted himself in Tottenham, where he has remained ever since. “It has got to the point where Lovenskate is my main focus, which was always the dream”, says Stu, now sitting at his desk, where he’s attempting to deal with the post-Brexit logistics of exporting products to Europe. “I’m doing exactly what I thought would be impossible in my early 20s. Now I’m in my early 40s, I can employ two amazing skaters (Dexter and Sol), we get to make some f*cking cool skateboarding stuff, and I pay my rent by selling skateboards”. Stu’s screen-printing operation is often applauded for being one of the last of its type in the skateboard world – most factories prefer to apply graphics to boards via the less laborious heat transfer process – though more light deserves to be shone on his efforts to make Lovenskate a more environmentally friendly company. “Largely, our industry revolves around doing the opposite of what mankind should be doing right now, which is cutting down trees, covering them in plastic inks, wrapping them in more plastic, then sending them out just to get destroyed”. Stu no longer shrink-wraps his boards, opting instead to send them out in reinforced paper bags. This new eco-friendly packaging solution didn’t sit well with some stores upon its initial run, and though Stu understood their main grievances (‘removing the board from the bag may scuff the graphic’, and, ‘you have to take the board out of the bag to display it in the shop’), he was still a little incensed by the reaction. “We used to hang people, and we used to put drinking water through lead pipes; we found out those two things were really fucking bad ideas for humanity so we had to stop. Doing things like putting boards in plastic bags just for them to be thrown away is now very bad for humanity; yes, it probably makes things a bit easier, but we can’t carry on like that”.
Stu has also invested in new equipment to accommodate the fact he now prints clothing using Soil Association approved, water based inks. Furthermore, Lovenskate has partnered with a factory in India to produce good quality, hardwearing t-shirts that are produced in the most sustainable manner possible. “The factory is wind-powered, all of the carbon is offset, everyone is paid a fair wage, everything is Soil Association approved…for someone who wants to produce clothing in a sustainable way, the list of criteria that the factory meets is perfect”.
“In July this year, Lovenskate is 20 years old”, Stu reflects, as our conversation begins to wind down. “There was never a start point where we said, ‘let’s launch a board company; here’s an investment, let’s go’. It’s been a very slow journey, but I think I work better that way. Even though I do love a bit of pressure to motivate me, I don’t think I’m very good at tackling enormous projects straight away; I prefer a gentle growth. What do they call it…?” Stu thinks for a minute, before the answer comes to him. “A process led design”, he says, laughing. “Get that on a shirt!”
Follow Lovenskate - @lovenskate