The world of snow sports merges with the world of art in completely unique way. Tennis coalesces with the fashion world via custom-designed outfits (and just the right amount of complementary bling), and baseball intermixes with the music world via celebrity-sung anthems (and Papelbon's Champagne-soaked Dropkick Murphys jig). But snow sports pair best with cutting-edge graphic art. Skiers and snowboarders seek out expert functional designs for their equipment, but to many, stimulating decorations are equally (if not more) important. From graffiti to high art to photos, as long as it's creative, it works on a snowboard or skis.
Vibrant aesthetics have always been critical to snowboarders — bold and flashy board art makes any backflip even more eye-pleasing and differentiates snowboarders from one another on the mountains. But in the past few years, artistic ski designs have become increasingly prevalent, especially for younger slope-dwellers. Since “twin tips,” skis curled at both ends, were introduced in the late ’90s, skiers have been able to perform acrobatic, extreme-sports-minded moves. That put freestyle skiing, which had been around for decades, back on the map. Snowboarding was once the most widely practiced of rebellious snow sports; now twin tips coats skiing with an alluring, adventurous sheen.
"The freeride genre of skiing has brought in a whole new generation," says Bret Williamson, hard goods buyer for Basin Ski Shop in Killington, Vermont. And for that group, he says, "if the ski doesn't look good, it's not going to sell."
From 2005 to 2006, the number of cross-country and alpine skiers in the United States rose 29.4 percent, from 6.95 million to 9 million, according to a report released by the National Sporting Goods Association. The number of snowboarders dropped 13.1 percent nationally, from 5.98 million to 5.2 million. Which means snowboarding may be past its peak. According to the report, more Americans are hunting with bows and arrows (5.9 million) than are snowboarding.
Still, five million is not a small number, and snowboarding has never been about attracting the masses, anyway. Conceived by daring, dexterous parents, surfing and skateboarding, it’s the snow-sport counterculture, only for the adventurous. And that concept is not lost on designers. On a recent trip to the Ski Market/Underground, store manager Patrick Leary pointed out Burton's Dominant, a white snowboard with a dramatic array of gray sandpaper-like strips across the top surface and a pre-scuffed bottom, so that the new board already looks as if it's seen many winters on the slopes. "It's a throwback to the skateboarding roots of snowboarding," says Leary, who lists Burton among his favorite snowboard brand, especially the Twin, which features a large, elaborate image of a skull and crossbones that looks drawn in ballpoint pen popping out of a deep blue background.
Next he points to another recent favorite, a board by Burton subsidiary Forum called Destroyer PM. It’s the board of choice for Forum team boarder Pat Moore. The board features a dark-green coat-of-arms-style scheme on the top surface and an electrifying yellow bottom, emblazoned with "Forum" in swooping green letters. "It's hard to miss that graphic when he does a flip," says Leary. "It's puking vibrant colors onto your eyeballs."
That vibrancy is not confined to Ski Market's snowboard-packed lower depths. "Ever since twin tips came out, ski companies are getting more aggressive with their graphics," says assistant store manager Seth Warner, upstairs. He points out K2's MissDemeanor, a women's twin-tip ski, with a layered collage of snowflakes, evil-eyed squirrels, and bat-winged pugs. Nearby, four lined-up 4FRNT MSP skis of varying lengths create one whole image of a snow-capped mountain at sunset, with parts of the photo on each ski. K2 and 4FRNT-type art is appealing to the under-35 crowd, says Warner, and "they're coming in to get their gear early. They want to get the newest designs."
Some ski and snowboard companies are seeking innovative designs via unconventional artists. "This year Rome is using some designs by their pro riders," says Dan Janjigian, 26, an avid snowboarder in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a former Rome employee. In past years, Burton and Line Skis, a company that merged with K2 last year, have had the same plan. Burton tapped pro snowboarder Shaun White to launch his own line of boards (including one fantastical board with images of roaring lions and a bottom-of-the-ocean scene). For Line Skis, pro skier Eric Pollard produced, among others, a pair of skis that evoke the Minimalist art movement, with tall, lonely pines, assemblages of colored boxes, and outlines of fingerprints.
Art and ego
But this ability to create and decorate isn’t restricted to the pros or the major board makers. Web sites such as www.boarddesigner.com, and annual contests like the ones hosted by Warren Miller and Ride Snowboards, allow anyone with an artistic inkling (regardless of snow-sport ability) to submit and produce custom ski and snowboard graphics or vote on their favorites.
Let's be honest. Isn't it easier to just skip the middleman and personalize skis and boards with a can of spray-paint or a slew of vinyl stickers? "A lot of people do that here [in Jackson Hole]," says Janjigian. "You can customize your stuff and make it look the way you want to."