Interview Hershel Baltrotsky Photo

Interview with Hershel Baltrotsky, former art director at Girl Skateboards and current art director at Nike SB and Nike ACG

March 26, 2021

Former art director at Girl Skateboards, Hershel Baltrotsky is currently the art director at Nike SB and Nike ACG, and we had a great time chatting with him to talk about his days at Girl, working on art shows, going from a skateboard company to a shoe company, brand strategy, and why Alex Olson didn’t like his board graphics.
Do you find similarities between being an art director for a skateboard company and a shoe company?
Absolutely, I think that at the core of it, the ideas are the same. Ideas are just a reflection of everyone in the world that you’ve met or that you see or the music you listen to. The ideas don’t change much but the way they get presented and the process that they go through to become either concepts or campaigns or whatever changes a lot. Skateboards are instant, skateboards just happen. You and I have a joke and then we make a skateboard, and two months later it’s on the internet and in the store. Then in a big company the process is different. It takes more time and more thought. In the end, the goal is the same, to make people stoked on creativity.
Is it as easy to express your ideas with a shoe as with a skateboard?
I’d say yes, but you have to be a better salesman of the ideas. If you’re designing a skateboard for a pro and there’s a name on it, it’s a personal connection. You talk to them, you come up with an idea, you joke about it, or you have something you thought up for them specifically. It’s not much different for a shoe, but like I said, the process is different because you’re appealing to a broader audience. The goal is to get some of that feeling from the original intent but bring it through to a broader audience.
Interview Hershel Baltrotsky Quote 1
Is it because of the rebellious attitude skate companies can have?
That’s a difficult question. Skate companies can easily have a rebellious attitude, no problem. They could do whatever they want, and they can get themselves in trouble because there’s no risk, for a lot of them. The risk is “Don’t f*** up and do something that you haven’t thought through”. But for a larger company, I think the rebellious attitude’s still there, it’s just really thoughtful and so we have to test ourselves in better ways and I don’t think it’s a bad time to do that. It’s a great time for rebellion, I think rebellion will be different though, rebellion will be more thoughtful.
So how did you start at Girl Skateboards?
I grew up in the east coast and I loved Girl skateboards. I always wanted to go to California, I found myself out there in 2005 and I ended up in living in West Hollywood in Los Angeles. I was just skating around, and I would start to see people. I remember driving around in those years with Sarah [his wife], and I’d say, “Oh shit there’s Eric Koston”, “No way! there’s Mike Carroll”. So I just skated all the time, and eventually through friends and people, I met a couple of those people, I met Mike [Carroll] at some parties, and I just started running to them. Then a friend of mine passed me a link and said, “I think you’d be interested in this”. It was a note that he had got from Andy Jenkins and it said, “Hey, we’re looking for a Royal Trucks art director” and I was like, “Oh shit, Royal Trucks, okay!”. So I applied and I sent them my work. I went to meet with Andy and when I got there he said, “Hey, that job’s taken, Tony Larson’s left and we need someone to do Girl Skateboards”, and I was like, “Oh shit, I can’t do this, there’s no f***ing way!”, that was the way it felt. They didn’t talk to me for two months and then I got a call back from Andy, they said, “We want to chat with you more”, I went back and that was it.

I remember the day when I went there for an interview, it was a funny story. I rolled up, I had a little red Honda Civic hatchback. I pulled up and looked over and saw the entire company in front of the building. It was the Crailtap Christmas photo. The whole team, the employees, everybody in front of the building on Vermont Ave. I just kept driving [laughs], I was embarrassed, I was like, “I can’t stop now”. So I went to the Starbucks even though I only had ten minutes until I had to be there. It was really funny, but I felt like it was meant to be because when I came in, Mike was there and I had never met Rick [Howard] or Meg [Megan Baltimore] or anybody else, Mike saw me and he said, “Why are you here? What are you doing here?” I smiled and said I’m gonna work here. Anyway, after that we all became great friends. I was always super inspired by the work they did and what Spike [Jonze] did. When I was working there, my work fit in because I think they inspired me so much growing up, we felt almost parallel and so everybody got along in a really great way.
Interview Hershel Baltrotsky Big Babies
The Big Babies series
Earlier this year, I interviewed Ben Petersen, the current graphic designer at Girl and Chocolate Skateboards, and he told me he kind of fanned out when he started there. Have you had that same feeling?
I think it’s a blessing and a curse maybe, but I never get that feeling. I would bring friends to skate at Girl, and they would get all weird. I don’t know how to explain it, but I never super fanned out, I just treated them as peers, not that I was trying to be cool, it’s just how I am with people. I mean I love them, and I just respect them so much. But even now working in Nike and meeting athletes, I get it but it’s not crippling, I don’t freeze up from it.
So let’s talk about Girl graphics, you designed the Big Babies series in 2014 and I’ve heard there’s Eric Koston’s son on his board graphic, is that true? [Laughs]
No this is not true, absolutely not [laughs]. We would make a lot of jokes with each other. Eric hadn’t come by the office for a long time. A lot of what made Girl really amazing is that there was a community of people always coming around, we’d all go to lunch, we’d go skate, we just hang out, it was just really fun, really great energy. So Eric hadn’t been by for a couple weeks and they were calling him a baby, so I took his face and put it on the baby board. It was right at the beginning of Instagram and we were all laughing about it. I always would make a board and I would go show to Rick the print on paper, and then to Aaron Meza and he usually said, “Get the f*** out of here dude”. So we were just starting Instagram and Rick’s like, “Let’s put it on the internet and see what the internet says”. People were into it, so it turned from just a joke and a one-off into a whole series. So those are just babies stolen from the internet. I just thought it looked funny. Everything that I made was very much a reference of something, it was just the way that the skateboards felt at the time to me. There was a feeling of skateboards becoming more in the moment and more temporary than skateboards of the past. I think that’s just the way graphics are still, but everything was made to give you an instant smile, not so much to be the best board ever that you cherish.
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What was the process to create a series and put such skater or such skater on it and not the whole team? How did it work?
Honestly, I think a lot of it came down to board sales at the time, but we were designing and releasing too many skateboards in my opinion. We would have ideas from all over the place, from riders, from me, from other people that worked in the creative group. We would just come up with stuff and we would sort of review the work together, we print them out on paper, and we lay it on Rick’s office floor. We would come by the office and be like, “That one’s sick!”, so Rick would move it over to the left or wherever. Then we’d be like, “That one sucks”, and some would disappear. Rick would save them all. Honestly, there’s thousands of graphics that are just sitting in a stack of papers, and they have never been made.
What about the Chocolate series Evan Hecox does with the whole team?
Chocolate was a smaller team, if Evan did a series, he would just do the whole team, almost always. And Evan’s board series would be less frequent, he might do a season sometimes, then he’d skip a season, or he’d send in a couple one offs or something, but it wasn’t like he was making every single design. When I was there, Jeremy Carnahan was doing Chocolate, he did tons of the board graphics.
How did you come up with the idea of the Shark Attack board graphic? This one seems very popular.
That poster is so famous, it’s one of the best movie posters. I don’t think there was a big thought behind it other than I was an admirer of the Jaws poster and I thought, “Oh my god, that’d be funny if Guy [Mariano] was swimming across the thing, trying to not get eaten by sharks. A lot of things had no big story. That board was a one-off and it was bought really heavily by Zumiez, CCS, and stuff at the time, and it kept getting reprinted for years and years after. I’d go in the warehouse when the shipments would come in, I’d get really excited because that would be new boards were coming. So I’d go out there to look at the boards to see what came, and I’d see pallets of all the new stuff and then I’d see big pallets of Mariano Shark Attack, years later, I was like, “Holy shit, they’re still selling a lot of these boards”.
What about the BK Schralper series you created? This is very rare when Girl and Chocolate do a series together.
That was the first time we did a board that was both Girl and Chocolate together, I don’t know if they’ve done it after, but even then, it was like, “Ooh, Girl and Chocolate board together, we don’t do that, you don’t do that”. It was because Brian [Anderson, riding for Girl] and Kenny [Anderson, riding for Chocolate] were skating a lot together at the time, and BK was Burger King. We thought it was funny because they were schralping! Growing up, my dad was a photographer and he had made this business postcard for his work that was a giant picture of a hamburger, really juicy with all the stuff on it, it was to promote food photography, I think. So I had the idea that we should do a big hamburger and it just split across two boards and that was it. I saved that series because I liked that it was the two of them together and it represented a moment in time. Food stuff feels really iconic.
Interview Hershel Baltrotsky Shark Attack
The Shark Attack board
Has it ever happened that a skater hated a board graphic that you made?
Absolutely! There’s a lot they hated. We’d do something as a joke, we would put it out knowing they probably wouldn’t like it and never show them, and that would bum them out. A lot of times Alex Olson never wanted to put any logos or big graphics on his board, so he hated all the ones that had big graphics. We started making him boards with no names or fake names to ride. I remember being so frustrated, he was sitting in my office, we were talking, trying to figure out a graphic, “What do you want?” and he’s like, “I want to make this old board graphic”, it was one of the original layouts. So we pulled it up and we were looking at it, and he’s like, “But I don’t want my name on it, I want Chris Farley”. So we put Chris Farley’s name on it, the comedian, and I actually found one of those boards when I was moving, and I sent it to Alex and there’s only two made. Alex had a lot of ideas which I really enjoyed working with him because even when he was difficult, like a lot of skaters are difficult to either get ideas from or to understand their vision, it was just fun, I loved when they had input.
So you not only designed boards, but you were in charge of creating the brand image of Girl, what was your favorite part to work on?
I think the favorite part was working with Andy Jenkins, who’s basically the beginning of the art department and the beginning of the art direction of everything for Girl. Like the things that weren’t related to product, working on special projects, we did a lot of fun art shows, we did a lot of fun dumb skits. Making the catalog itself was always a struggle because of the time, but the energy of doing that was really fun. We did open house, it was a big party at the Girl warehouse where people would invite the skate industry to come. Those were super fun, we would come up with ideas of activities. So that and the art shows I think were some of my favorite stuff because it was almost the side effect of having so much creative energy in one place.
Interview Hershel Baltrotsky Quote 4
Man, I’d have loved to go to the Girl and Chocolate 20 years shows.
That was around the time I was feeling overwhelmed, but that was maybe the best moment, the 20-year thing. We went through every board in the warehouse, we sort of organized them, there was a trailer full of skateboards they saved the whole time. We were just looking at them and thinking like, “Oh this one’s funny, this one’s great, this one’s cool”. So we did this massive edit, which was an incredible process, it was a lot of work, but it was really fun.
Do you feel nostalgic of your Girl days?
Oh for sure! I chat with other people that worked there in the past and we all are because it was a really fun time.
So now you work for Nike SB as an art director, what’s your approach with the brand and with the Olympics coming?
We’ve been working on it since 2018 and we’ve put a lot of energy into not making what people expect it to be, although all that energy got foiled by coronavirus, a lot of plans and a lot of work, it’s very frustrating. We felt like as a brand we needed to show skateboarding in the most authentic and real way. It’s just really hard as the world keeps throwing these curveballs, we’d be very close to finishing and then something would happen, and then something else, and then a pandemic. We don’t know what the Olympics will look like, it’s still an interesting moment for skateboarding for sure.
Interview Hershel Baltrotsky BK Schralper
The BK Schralper series
Some skaters are still hating on Nike SB, how do you feel about it?
It’s been interesting in the past years. SB has always been led by skaters. It’s very hard to talk to defend it to people sometimes. If there’s someone on the side saying it’s a corporation run by some evil CEO who only wants money, that’s a very narrow point of view. Actually it’s a brand of smart people who’ve hired a bunch of great skateboarders to make a skate brand, and that’s a hard thing to argue on the internet, so I’m not going to argue it. But I do think that one of the coolest things they ever did was open up spots and build parks, I hope we can do that in the future. It’s not hard to get into skateboarding but sometimes it’s hard to keep skateboarding, so it’s cool that SB could help out in any way. We’ve been working with different groups and cities and all over the place to try to create skate parks/spots and I hope that’s the future of what big brands can do for skateboarding.
So what are you working on at the moment with Nike SB and Nike ACG?
We have really cool stuff coming in the future, the team’s incredible, really great people, passionate about skateboarding. I hope that we continue to have resources to build community and spots, that’s what I’m fighting for, and I’m excited for the Olympics because I think it will make my mom think skateboarding is cool.
Check out more of Hershel’s work on his website.