When Andy Howell told his mom he was going to art school, she sent her skateboarding, punk rock-lovin' son to a psychologist. Unfazed, Howell explained to the doc that he all wanted to do with his life was be creative.
“The doctor told my mom that she was the one with the problem,” he recalls with a laugh.
Since childhood, Andy Howell had been obsessed with two things-skateboarding and art-and he wasn't about to give up either.
Born and raised in Virginia Beach, the 34-year-old Howell grew up surfing the Atlantic swells. When he was 13, he took up skateboarding to fill flat-surf time. “When I started skating, something snapped in me,” he explains. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do!'”
That, and create art, which he'd been studying since the age of 5. As a perk of his mom's teaching position at Virginia's Norfolk Academy, Howell attended the private school and worked with a single art teacher-Mrs. Adler-for more than a decade. “She pretty much cultivated me and taught me how to use color.”
Mrs. Adler wasn't the only one who recognized his talent. When he was 7, he won “Year of the Child,” an art contest in Virginia. Elizabeth Taylor presented his award. “I didn't know anything about her, but I thought it was all pretty cool,” he says.
During his teenage years, Howell hung around with outsider skate kids and punks. When he was 14, he published his first 'zine, a skate rag called Sic Nature, which he was soon trading with zinesters he met on the skate-contest circuit.
Howell's first forays into graphic design were Sic Nature's logos and illustrations of skeletons skating in pools. “That's when I learned that I could make something from scratch and people would be into it,” he says.
After high school, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Atlanta. At age 19, after a trip to California, Howell went pro and split his time between skating, his classes and a hundred other pursuits (though he admits that he tended to favor Atlanta's “killer skate scene” over school).
Unlike his hometown, Atlanta was brimming with inner-city culture and the skateboarding scene was right at the heart of it. Obsessed with hip-hop and public graffiti art, Howell and some friends-including Dave Kinsey, who'd been at the Art Institute in Pittsburgh before transferring to Atlanta-formed the City Aerosol Posse, aka the C.A.P. crew. Between 1990 and 1992, Howell and his skateboard-artist peers forged the street-inspired urban art style that's so popular today.
Howell's skating abilities, artistic talent and inexhaustible work ethic led him to impressive business success over the years. During school and after, he worked with other creative types to form New Deal Skateboards, Element, Giant Distribution and 411 Video Magazine. He also developed several clothing lines, including Big Deals (the first fitted baggy jeans), Zero Sophisto and Girly Things.
Zero Sophisto, a character from one of Howell's 'zines, represented the fiercely creative underground skateboarding community of the late '80s and early '90s-before big-name sponsors and the X-Games made skating a lucrative sport. “We were considered zeros by all the suits, but at the same time we had a streetwise sophistication that they didn't understand,” he explains. The non-suits got it, though, because Howell's designs flew off the racks at skate shops and trendy boutiques alike.
In 1993, Howell moved to San Diego. Early business attempts with his friends Kinsey and Shepard Fairey-who moved out at Howell's suggestion-didn't go as planned, but Howell soon met Forum Snowboards owner Gregg DiLeo. Together, the two founded Imagewerks, a marketing and advertising agency specializing in youth culture. Early clients included TimeWarner's TransWorld publications and K2 Snowboards. Imagewerk's real breakthrough was developing fingerboards for McDonald's-the mini-skateboards were the ninth most popular series in Happy Meal history. Since then, they've worked with such prestigious clients as Activision, Big Bear resort and Tony Hawk.
No matter how hectic his schedule, Howell will never give up his purest artistic love-painting. Bold and striking in color and composition, Howell's works are populated by characters and body parts that fall indecisively between playful and sinister, beautiful and grotesque.
Some elements, like background layers of spray paint and tag-style lettering, hearken back to his Atlanta days, but his overall style is ever-evolving and increasingly in demand.
He's been involved with numerous solo and group shows over the years, and has upcoming solo shows planned in Stockholm, Paris and Los Angeles. He also actively supports San Diego's burgeoning art scene, and recently curated the art for “Artifact,” a San Diego art/fashion charity event showcasing local artists and fashion designers.
As for Howell's mom-these days, chances are her psychologist's children have been stoked by Howell's work one way or another.