From its origins in surf culture to its current status as an Olympic sport and a cornerstone of streetwear, skateboarding can’t be pinned down to one thing. Perhaps no one represents the many intersections of skateboarding better than Bear Walker. Walker is an Alabama-based woodworker and artist who has made a career of designing intricately detailed, pop-culture-inspired works of art, using skateboards as his canvas.
Walker’s references may be familiar — he’s collaborated with Pokemon, the NBA, Invader Zim, and Spongebob to name a few. Most recently he designed Spider-Man decks in honor of the character’s 60th birthday, which dropped on November 25th. But the boards themselves are anything but familiar. Instead of grip tape on top of the deck and a design on the bottom, Walker and his crew painstakingly carve the top of the board, creating a grippy surface that’s part of the board’s DNA.
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For the Spider-Man boards, Walker intentionally went for a more simple design. “I usually do these very high-detail, intricate designs.” This time, Walker drew inspiration from the comic-book iterations of Spider-Man. “With how iconic Spider-Man is and how unique our style is, I wanted at first glance for it to be a perfect blend of Spiderman and Bear Walker. The character itself looks [like] it’s pulled straight from the comic, but I think it contrasts really well with the solid wood of the background.” At the same time, Walker has continued his ongoing collaboration with Pokemon. “That thing is ongoing; we’ve done I think like 30 characters at this point. We’ll keep making them.”
Before he began collaborating with iconic pop culture figures, Walker attracted a wider audience online when his work drew attention from notable names in film, TV, and music. They all wanted Walker-designed boards themselves. Stars like Jason Momoa, Zachary Levi, Killer Mike, and Billie Eilish all have boards custom-made by Walker. But if you want a custom for yourself, you can expect to wait. Walker estimates that the waitlist is about a year and a half, and the studio only produces about 25 customs yearly.
Still, it’s clear customs are among Walker’s favorite parts of the job. “Those are the ones that I can really dedicate a lot of time to and do stuff that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do for mass production, so customs are pretty fun.”
Like many creatives, Bear Walker fell into his current career path nearly by accident, but college was where he established an interest in skateboarding and honed his interest in design. “I grew up on a small island in South Carolina and surfed my whole life. When I moved away to college and moved away from the coast, that’s when I got into skateboarding as a substitute.”
Walker studied graphic design in college and graduated in 2011, which was a tough time to be an artist looking for a job. “A lot of people weren’t hiring artists, not for decent pay, and I started working at this custom sign company carving out high-end signage. And when I was working there, I had the epiphany of carving out a design to create grip or friction for a skateboard. I just started designing them for myself, and people asked where I got them, and it sort of took off from there.”
When Walker started, he didn’t expect his eponymous brand to get where it is today. “To be honest, when I was first getting started, anyone appreciating the work was pretty awesome. I never knew, I never thought it would be as big as it was, but I’m huge into movies and comic books, so having these actors actually want one of the boards is super flattering.”
But while Walker is unfailingly humble in describing himself, he clearly takes pride in the work he does, as so much goes into each design. “A single board, if it’s a custom or a prototype, could take me two weeks to a few months to do the design properly, and then ten to twenty hours to actually build that. And then once we have it honed in, each individual board takes about three hours to make.”
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Walker added that what makes the boards special is “the attention to detail and the craftsmanship. Even the mass-produced ones, quote-unquote, take at least 3 hours to make. We carve everything on the front, we have a patent on the grip that we use, and it’s a joy to ride on if you choose to ride it. I’d say everything about it is pretty unique.”
While Walker builds his boards to be ready for the road, he acknowledges that most of his customers are buying his boards as collector’s items, which he wasn’t thrilled about earlier in his career.
“It’s like an 80/20 split; 80 percent think of them as a collector’s item. When I started, I felt that because they are a really smooth and good ride. So, I was kind of resistant to people not wanting to ride them. I used to be offended by it. Slowly that grew into like a point of pride. Now it’s like actually people wanting to collect these and display them as artwork. I think it’s pretty cool.”
But Walker still very much encourages people to ride his boards if they want to, and sees his boards as something of a collaboration between himself and the board’s rider. “When I design these, I try to make it so it’ll look good with some age on it. So I feel like it’s almost like you’re putting your own; it’s more of a collaboration. Like a person wearing and tearing and how they ride it, that’s their contribution to the board. I love seeing the ones that have a little wear and tear, scratches, and all that. We do make them super durable, but these boards look cool with some age on them.”
However, Walker’s passion for design isn’t contained to skateboards, and he’s looking forward to new creative opportunities, like designing guitars. “I kinda got the board thing honed in, I feel, it kinda took a while. I had to learn to blend the functional and aesthetic parts, and now the same with guitars. There are very specific things with different tones or different overall sounds. They are very small details that make them way higher quality. It’s now a new mission to make the highest quality guitar as I did with the skateboards.”
In addition to guitars, Walker is eyeing in-person shops, where people can appreciate the boards more tactilely, and he’s willing to follow his creative whims. “We’re making apparel, guitars, you know, we have a bunch of really talented people in the shop and high-tech machinery. I used my grip to make the highest quality ping pong paddle I could possibly make. So it’s really in the next couple of years we’ll move beyond being a high-end skateboard company and just be a high-end product company.”
You can see the entire Spider-Man collection here, check out all of Bear Walker’s designs here, or follow Bear Walker on Instagram.