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10 Questions: Michael Sieben

Michael Sieben is a designer out of Austin, TX., whose work has been exhibited and reviewed worldwide as well as featured in numerous illustration anthologies. He has worked with an impressive list of clients – Addidas, Harper Design, MTV, Nickelodeon, Toy Machine Skateboards, Juxtapoz Magazine, VICE Magazine, and Volcom – to name a few. His illustrations and designs demonstrate a style that has two major influences: skateboard graphic illustration of the ’80s mixed with the aesthetic of children’s book illustration from the ’70s. ”I was blown away by all of the skate graphics the first time I picked up a skateboard,” writes Sieben “…I was really interested in drawing, and seeing the stuff that VCJ, Jim Phillips, and Pushead were drawing at the time – I was blown away.”

Recently, Sieben was approached by Harper Design (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishing) to illustrate and publish a contemporary version of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz with a refreshed look and feel. What has resulted from the collaboration is an amazing redesign of L. Frank Baum’s classic story featuring over sixty full-color illustrations.

Beyond illustration and design, Sieben also has a monthly column at Juxtapoz magazine, contributes to VICE, and owns his own skateboard company under the brand name Roger Skateboards. He has also been involved with Thrasher Magazine for almost a decade and now serves as the Managing Editor. Michael graciously sat down with us to speak about his childhood, his work and his connection to skateboarding.

Can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from? 

I was born in Kansas City, MO, but moved to Seguin, TX the day after my sixth birthday, so most of what I remember about being a kid is Texas memories. My mom had cancer when I was younger and succumbed to it when I was 15. That being said, my childhood was overshadowed by a pretty heavy sadness. I don’t mean to paint a completely tragic picture, though. There were plenty of good times and good memories as well. But I mention it because I think I grew up with a hyper-awareness for the brevity of life.

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 What’s your connection to skateboarding? 

I started skateboarding in 1987 when I was 12 years old. My first board was a Nash Executioner from K-Mart, but later I saved up for a Rob Roskopp street model. The skate scene in Seguin in the late ’80s was great. Tons of kids had boards and you’d always run into little groups of dudes out shredding. A few years later, though, there were only a handful of kids still skating. By the time I graduated from High School in 1992, there were only two of us left. I’m sure that’s a pretty common story, though. I still find time to skate, for sure. I skated House Park (the downtown Austin park) yesterday morning with some old buddies. And by old I mean friends I’ve known for a long time. Who are old.

How did you get into illustration & design?

I’ve been interested in drawing as long as I can remember. There was never a time when I wasn’t practicing and trying to invent new, weird characters. I have old sketchbooks from Junior High that are so embarrassing. But I just never quit drawing, and over the years I’ve tried to distill my characters and illustration techniques into something that I can honestly call my own. I don’t know if there was a particular moment where I thought I had a knack for drawing, I just kept plugging away at it year after year until I was happy with what was going down on the paper.

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 For you, was skateboarding and design always tied together?  

I was blown away by all of the skate graphics (and t-shirt graphics and sticker graphics) the first time I picked up a skateboarding magazine and even more so when I actually went into a skate shop and saw all of the boards adorning the walls. Like I mentioned, I was already interested in drawing, and seeing the stuff that VCJ, Jim Phillips and Pushead were drawing at the time—I was blown away. I didn’t specifically target skateboarding as a market, though. I was just so immersed in it that it seemed like the only logical place to start trying to get my work seen.

How would you describe your style?  

I think of it as a blend of my two main influences: skateboard graphic illustration of the ’80s mixed with the aesthetic of children’s book illustration from the ’70s—the two genres of illustration that set me down the path that I’ve been following almost my entire life.

How has skateboarding influenced your work? 

My work has obviously been influenced by other designers within the skating, but I don’t think I’ve really taken any cues from the physical act of skateboarding. Although one could argue that the process of trying a trick over and over is similar to trying to getting a drawing on paper to look the way it does in your brain. I wouldn’t make that argument, though, because it sounds dumb.

Outside of pure design you seem to be involved with a lot of other things. One of those is your own board company Roger skateboards – can you tell us a little bit about the story behind the company and how things have gone since you guys started?

My buddy Stacy Lowery and I were hired by Giant Distribution back in 2005 to start a new board brand. That brand became Bueno and its existence was short-lived; Giant filed for bankruptcy a few years later and took Bueno to its grave with it. We cried for about a year and then decided to start our own brand. We named him Roger and he’s been slowly growing ever since. It’s definitely not something that we’re able to do full time, unfortunately, so it goes through periods of growth when we are able to really focus on it. Ultimately it’s just really awesome to have a brand where we’re able to do fun, weird stuff without asking anybody for permission.

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You recently took over as managing editor at Thrasher Magazine, how are things going over there? 

I’ve been a staff writer and illustrator for Thrasher for almost a decade now. Six months ago I took over the managing editor position, and now it’s my full-time gig. My role is totally different at this point. Instead of asking for deadline extensions from the previous managing editor, I’m in charge of making sure people don’t ask for deadline extensions. I’m basically responsible for collecting all of the text assets (and editing them, obviously) for each issue. It’s quite a bit of work, but I’m eternally thankful to Thrasher for extending the opportunity to me. I’ve been reading Thrasher since I was 12, and the opportunity to participate at this level is an honor.

 The new book you illustrated “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” looks amazing – how did you get involved with that project? 

I received an email out of the blue from an editor at Harper Design (an imprint of Harper Collins Publishing) asking if I had time to discuss a possible project. She wanted to publish a contemporary version of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz that would be released around the same time that the film, Oz The Great And Powerful, was premiering. It’s always been a dream of mine to illustrate a book for children, so there was no hesitation on my part; I immediately said yes. I only had three months to finish all of the art for the book, based on the movie’s release date. After I finished the project, the movie’s schedule was pushed back a year, so it turns out I could have worked on the art for a year and three months. After I finished the illustration, I had to wait almost two years for the book to come out and I was under contract not to mention the project to anybody. It was strange times.

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 Any last words of advice to all of the people out there?

Don’t wait around for opportunities. They don’t come your way unless you’re already doing stuff.

Check out more of Michael’s work at his website www.msieben.com 

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