First off, I have great news: This post does not take place in 1992. Nor anywhere else in the oft-romanticized in ad nauseam '90s for that matter. It is, however, mired mostly in the Neolithic late '80s—the years of 1988–1989 to be specific—a strata of skating that still feels like yesterday to me, which is strange because I can barely remember anything at all that literally happened within the past week, let alone if I've ever used this sentence before, which, in all likelihood I have, because I rarely recall anything I've written and that should probably worry me much more than it does. Anyway, in the event you fall into a later generation of skateboarding, like say the '00s or up, the majority of this post will sound damn near BC in nature, but if not now, eventually, you too will come to appreciate the history of skateboarding . Unless this just happens to be some fleeting lark in your teen life, in which case you'll never give two shits about any of this useless wooden toy minutia ever again. Regardless, consider yourself time-stamped, and bear with me as I go back, again, to a day and age when dinosaurs rolled the earth on ridiculous shapes and big wheels.
I'm a sappy man of many mental sentimentalities when it comes to skateboarding, but Ray Barbee will forever be at the forefront of all my warm, fuzzy, maple-laced memories from throughout the years. Ray's big-time video debut moment came in 1988 via Powell-Peralta's fourth video release, Public Domain, whereupon he instantly became one of my favorite skaters . His effortless style and flat ground flair completely altered the way I approached—I mean, heck, who am I kidding… wished I could approach street skating. He just made everything look FUN, whereas I made it look like a monumentally constipated Sisyphean ordeal, like the enormous amount of time I once spent repeatedly hucking my front truck up onto a ledge of a glass-enclosed bus shelter in nosepick formation over and over and over again with the vain hope of landing a 360 shove-it out but only ever succeeding in cracking one of the big glass panes and having to scurry away like the invasive skate rat I then was.
Well, to be fair, the entire "Rubber Boys" part revitalized my worldview of street skating then, where the emphasis wasn't so much about the final "spot" destination as it was all the play spaces between. What I mean is, typically our days and nights of skating were fueled by a "stop and session" mentality, as we caromed about our daily haunts in and around the isthmus of Madison, WI. Post-Public Domain, though, I was inspired by the boys of rubber to toss a spontaneous backside wall ride up onto a random building I'd never once considered or touched before while making an otherwise routine skate down to the Slam Walls (RIP) from California Connection (RIP) with a group of friends. Consistency has never been my forte, but through some cosmic fluke I rode away clean, momentum miraculously intact, and continued on down the block without looking back. No one else witnessed it, the satisfaction (and surprise!) was mine and mine alone, and 35 years later this one carefree wall ride remains a crystal clear lifeburn on my psyche. I may even go so far as to claim it was my most pure moment of skateboarding ever, but that also sounds like something I would have read in a TransWorld Skateboarding mag, circa 1997, so maybe I should just quit reminiscing like a behind while I'm still ahead.
Simplicity and style is indeed everything. (Photo: Luke Ogden, circa 1988)
What precisely does that wall ride tangent have to do with Ray Barbee? Not much, I guess, just went off on some more Dear Diarrhea bullshit from my immersive time on the streets of Madison, but just a month or so later on January 4, 1989, I would leave the below-zero concept of winter behind with a one-way trip to Santa Barbara, CA, where I would take up residence as an in-house artist at Powell-Peralta. My first two months there were mostly spent on inconsequential tasks and ghost-work—wobbling around on training wheels, you could say, trying to find my sea legs in the wake of VCJ's abrupt departure—but just before the "Am Jam" in early March, when virtually all the Powell ams of the time descended on the freshly acquired lemon-packing plant in Goleta , I was told that Ray would be joining the pro ranks and I'd be responsible for his graphic.
The one thing working in my favor was that Ray had no prior graphic history with Powell, which enabled me to work from a clean slate free of any milestones erected by VCJ. It was Stacy Peralta, I believe, who first shared the idea of a "rag doll" with me after Ray had shared it with him—which I want to say was actually an idea suggested to Ray from one of his good friends—so with that germ in mind I set to work. I'd like to say I did so while consciously trying to capture and embody the essence of his skating with the loose-limbed rag doll, but that would be total hogwash. The sad truth is I was mostly freaking out the entire time that I wasn't gonna come up with anything decent , they'd realize a grave mistake had been made in my being hired, and I'd subsequently be fired and forced to return back home to Wisconsin with nothing but shame and a Rapidograph between my legs.
One good thing about doing graphics in the '80s is that you actually had the luxury of time to laboriously work out all (or at least most of) the kinks in an idea before arriving at the final illustration. Good thing, too, because I'm pretty sure my career would've been dead in the water with that first rag doll sketch.
My initial sketches were pretty bare bones and no frills , but the rag doll continued to evolve as I worked more with the shape of Ray's board and added a few "trademark" accessories like his baseball cap and beads. As for the playing cards... well... to the best of my recollection, I'm not sure? I know I always loved the old Steve Steadham "Ace of Spades" sticker that accompanied his short-lived model on Powell-Peralta, circa 1985, so I'm thinking that may have played a subconscious role in my incorporating them into Ray's graphic (the final playing card sticker art with the rag doll would lend credence to this hunch). Anyway, I eventually managed to pull an image out of my ass that was wholly unlike anything else previously produced by Powell: a simple cartoon drawing. I wasn’t sure if this would be construed as a good or bad thing in the marketplace, but I took solace in the fact that Ray’s popularity would be the linchpin to its success if anything.
Words cannot express the amount of joy I felt seeing these images in the skate magazines of the time.
Several months later at the Action Sports Retailer trade show in September 1989, I was walking through the aisles of the slum section (an area where all the small-time companies were situated in conference rooms far removed from the main arena), and stumbled upon the World Industries booth. In striking contrast to the all-out 800-square-foot effort of Powell-Peralta—a company that took immense pride in its inventive booth concepts—World had nothing more than a folding table with some chairs strewn about it. While surveying the minimal scene, I noticed a short man of pinkish pallor checking out my ID badge. With hand outstretched and a gleam in his eye, he approached me saying, “Hey, you’re Sean Cliver! You did the Ray Barbee graphic!”
This was in fact Steve Rocco, the very man painted out to be everything going wrong in the skateboard industry, and here he was now shaking my hand and telling me how much he admired the first original graphic I’d drawn and how it saved Powell from becoming a laughingstock in the industry. Looking back on that moment now, like a critical freeze-frame in a Martin Scorsese film, this was probably the beginning of my end at Powell, but that's also a story you can continue to read in my first book, Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art (2004), where I lifted a good chunk of this text from.
The "Rag Doll" went on to become a thread of sorts that would loosely connect Ray and I throughout the years even once we both left Powell (much to my horror, Lance Mountain "reissued" the original playing card sticker art as a full-size deck graphic on The Firm, when I would've been perfectly happy to redraw it with all the proper dimensional details if asked), but eventually bring us back together in 2009 when Element asked if I'd be into doing a version for Ray's debut model on the company. These sporadic joint projects with Element went on for almost a decade, but after the last one came out in 2019, Ray surprised me by saying he'd quit the Element team and was moving on up to Krooked. This is of course Gonz territory, so I figured our graphic relationship had finally come to a conclusion—but I wasn't quite mentally and emotionally prepared for that yet. So after making a few respectful inquiries, I was fortunate enough to obtain all the proper blessings from Jim Thiebaud, Deluxe Mfg., and Ray for one last graphic outing with the Rag Doll.
I've often quipped how in the 33 years I've been drawing board graphics that my very first one for Ray in 1989 remains to be the most popular of all and how that doesn't say much about the rest of my career—and I'm okay with that. I seriously don't know how I wound up creating a graphic that would remain synonymous with his good name throughout all these years, but I'll be forever glad I did and I'm even more stoked he graciously allowed us to do this extra-special one-time guest model appearance for him under the StrangeLove banner. So thank you, Ray. This one means a lot to me. —Cliver
1. With just one year of skateboarding under my belt and an outsized ark of opinions, I couldn’t have cared less about what any old fart had to extol about anything or anyone that came before the moment Tommy Guerrero ollied the bush gap in his Future-Primitive part, circa 1985. It wasn't until many years later and a large acquisition of several vintage Thrasher and Skateboarder magazines that I began to truly appreciate the history of skateboarding and that which came before my time on the board.
2. And everyone else’s. There’s no shortage of opinions and biases in skateboarding, but I’m fairly certain the one thing we can all agree on is Ray Barbee being one of the best of the best in skateboarding.
3. Not really a footnote, but I did want to throw a plug out to Larry Ransom and Matt Picker's podcast The Bones Brigade Audio Show. If you were so Brigade it hurt in the '80s like I was so Brigade it hurt in the '80s, then this deep dive into the video history of Powell-Peralta is right up your Gutierrez alley. Several episodes are up now, including one devoted to the lesser known "Summer Tour '89" video and the aforementioned Am Jam that supplied a good chunk of its skate footage.
4. For what it's worth, I still operate on a hi-octane mix of anxiety and fear to this very day, never knowing and always stressing if I'll be able to adequately pull off whatever ideas are tossed my way or cross my own limited transom.
5. Back in '89, my friend John Pearson and I routinely exchanged letters through the mail and I'd often write mine on the back of scrap paper and color copies from my office at Powell. Luckily he saved some of them, because one just happened to be a raw, early sketch of the rag doll.