British artist Nicolai Sclater (aka Ornamental Conifer) grew up without a television, but with a deep interest in BMX and in the customization of objects. Now art director at Race Service, a Los Angeles-based creative agency focusing on cars and motorsports, Sclater’s aesthetic style incorporates typography, wordplay, and deep pop-culture cuts, Sclater’s works — often hand-painted cars, motorcycles, helmets, and other objects — deliver sneaky conceptual gravitas through the visual languages of skate, BMX, and graffiti culture (Sclater produced both the cover and a centerfold for this issue).
What’s your backstory?
I grew up in Wales and England and I was always interested in the customization of objects. It wasn’t specifically anything to do with sports, it was just shoes, hats, and all that stuff. I was lacking in certain skills. I was terrible at anything figurative. I would work with my friends who seemed to be terrible at lettering. I was like the guy that would make the comic book covers and do all the lettering and everything, and then they would do the figurative stuff. I kind of went through that phase as a child, got into school, got thrown out of school at a very young age.
At which point my parents decided to buy me a BMX bike because I was already into BMX quite heavily, and I was very focused on it and they thought rather than scolding me for being unacademic, they were like, “Let’s encourage him at the thing he is good at.” So they’re very liberal, extremely, like hippies basically, and encouraged me to get into this kind of BMX lifestyle. But then I ended up trolling around the UK going to various different BMX stores and skate parks and getting ingrained with all those guys and, off the side of that, suddenly realizing I could do a little drawing of someone’s logo and they would give me three hundred pounds and they’d have it screen printed on a tee shirt. And then I was this little hand-to-mouth guy that was traveling around in his late teens and early twenties, sleeping in the back of a van and riding BMX the whole time.
That progressed into motorcycles where I started charging a little bit more money, but ultimately the same principles were there. I was doing lettering work for companies and being freelance, and the entire time this is going on, I’m also heavily involved in graffiti. So when everyone would start going to bars and clubs, I opted to kind of go off and paint trains through the night.
I was thinking recently about the two different worlds of customization. There’s [one] kind, to personalize it, to stand out as an individual, or there’s this other discipline where people customize things to replicate something to be part of a tribe. I saw that in BMX, and I saw it in motorsports — motorcycles and cars — people putting a lot of time and just personalizing their vehicles to replicate old liveries. And that really confused me. I was like, “Are you trying to be individual or are you trying to be part of this other thing?” I always wanted to be the individual. So that’s when I started painting leather jackets and helmets and tanks with a kind of extreme nod towards the feminine and trying to break down the barriers of this kind of perceived macho culture that surrounds cars and motorcycles. So yeah, that’s kind of where I got those.
I ended up going to university for graphic design and was taught all the analog skills. It was still early enough that laptops weren’t that prominent. They were definitely there, but they weren’t the main focus. I learned a lot of screen-printing and letterpress stuff and woodworking. And then that just kind of led onto me being a squatter in London when I met my wife, then we had a studio for three years, and then I moved to Australia, and then I moved to America, and I’ve been a commercial artist ever since.
It’s really interesting that so many creative people in our world started out in that way. Were you into motorsports in the traditional sense?
I was never really aware of what motorsports was because we didn’t grow up with a television. I was aware of car toys, but I never associated those to the vehicle that I would get driven to school in. To me they were just abstract forms, sculptural things in color and bright and words on them and stuff, and I was like, “These little things look cool,” but I didn’t put them together with the things I saw on the road until I went to Italy and I witnessed a rally for the first time. And I’m like, Holy fuck, that’s my toy car, but in life-size scale. Now I understand what the fuck is going on. So my mom passed me her Olympus OM-1, and I must have shot about six rolls of film, and they were all out of focus. It was just the back end of the car, or the front end of the car. I plastered them all over my wall, and was instantly in love with the aesthetics of motorsport.
My dad, seeing that blossoming in me would take me to these events, but we would just walk around the paddock prior to the race and I would just drool over all the insignia and the graphics and the stickers placed on there, and the weird little vents and the louvers. And then as soon as the race came, I just had zero interest. I didn’t want to sit on a cold plastic seat and watch this guy go past me every minute and then be gone. I just liked the color and the shapes of them all. So to me it was just purely an aesthetic interest, and I still am that way today. I couldn’t tell you any drivers really aside from the ones I’ve worked with and I couldn’t tell you where they place, so what group they drive in or anything like that. I’m just like, I like the liveries and I like the forms of cars, so it’s purely an aesthetic thing.
Were you interested in the racing liveries of the past, the Martini colors and the Gulf blue and orange?
I think by the time I was aware of it, this would have been early nineties, that stuff was already played out, and that was where I was confused about why someone would build a replica of something. You spend a hundred thousand pounds building a Martini [Porsche] 911, but you’ve got the opportunity to use that as a platform of something far greater and far more unique. I just don’t understand why people would ever want to spend money to replicate someone else’s cool thing rather than focusing on making their own cool thing. I’ve always found more grassroots, basic stuff the thing that I really enjoy. The little guy in Italy who’s sponsored by the local delicatessen, and then he takes things and just downloads it and prints it himself, and it’s all crude. I like all that weird stuff.
It’s interesting because motorsports traditionally had very little punk-rock influence in designs. Probably, there’s no less punk rock sport than motor racing in general. I think that’s what’s really interesting about what you’re doing with Race Service.
Yeah I think that was one of the main goals we had. Even the way I work is different compared to the majority of people in this industry. Everything’s analog. I rarely work on the computer at all. And when I do, I have to pass it over to the juniors and I feel sorry for them because they completely don’t get it, growing up with everything being digital, and I give him a bunch of random pieces of paper that I’ve done watercolors on. They’re like, “Oh God.” I’m having to learn a few things along the way to keep up with what clients expect from me, but I’m trying to stay a little bit more like that kid, twenty years ago, that was just drawing on bits of paper and telling them it’s a KeyShot graphic.
“I just don’t understand why people would ever want to spend money to replicate someone else’s cool thing” “
You’ve done a few art cars. How did that [Volkswagen Scirocco] come about?
That came about through a guy called Jason Whipple who owns a wheel company called Rotiform. I painted a helmet for one of his friends. He had been a fan of my work for a while and he hit me up and was like, “Hey, I’d love to do a little collection with you of like tee shirt graphics and skateboards and stickers for my customers.” And I don’t really have enough time to commit to that type of project anymore. I’m not really interested in doing miniature things. I mentioned that I used to be a big Volkswagen guy back in the UK and I had a [Volkswagen] Caddy. I was looking into buying some things, and I was asking him if he had any leads over here and he said, “Oh, I’ve got a really cool mark I Scirocco.” And I was like, “Oh, that would be rad. That’s what we should paint, then. Like let’s do that.” And he said, “Oh well, I wasn’t really thinking of that, but I guess that would be cool.”
And I just kind of went for it and I said, “Look, this is the angle I want to take. I want to say that the future is our fault and things won’t change until we do. And if we all got together, things might just work out.” And he was like, “I love that sentiment. No one’s speaking like that in the car industry right now.” And I said, “Look, you’re going to get a lot of backlash from it. People are going to hate it.”
But realistically I only want people to love my work or hate it. I don’t want it to be a little bit of a, “Oh yeah, that livery was kind of okay.” I want people to be like this is the fucking stupidest livery I’ve ever seen, what a pretentious cunt. I hate it.” Or, “Oh my God, that’s so fucking on point right now. I love it.” So he was down with that and he gave me free reign. My work is very organic. I kind of make it up as I go along. I have a basic idea of stuff, but I just start putting things down and painting. It got a lot of good feedback. It got a lot of confused feedback too, people weren’t quite sure what was the point of it, which again I think is fun conversation starter. And yeah, ultimately that car got a lot of press, and some bad press, but it is still seen by a lot of people. So I think it kind of got the message out there.
For you, it’s the most natural thing in the world. But it’s very different to see someone who’s putting conceptual thought into an art piece in this world that’s very standardized and tribal.
I think that there’s an underrepresented group of people who are into cars who are also into art and design and they often go to these events and just accept the fact that there’s this kind of standardized kind of boring thing, but they still like cars. But on the next weekend after the car show, they’ll go to a fine-art museum and wander around looking at conceptual sculpture and love it as much, and those people have to just accept the fact that when they buy a car magazine, it’s generally pretty poorly designed and doesn’t look good. And some of the stuff, the layouts are pretty ugly and whatnot. But I feel like the people who saw that car were excited to be like, “Oh wow, this other interest of mine is now creeping into this world.”
And I want that to happen more and more because I’m surrounded by people who love cars but also love my paintings that I do on canvas. So if I could mix the two together, I think that’s perfect. I think the people that don’t get it, it’s fine because I haven’t been getting motorsport my entire life, so welcome to my world.
Usually if anybody’s interested in combining cars and art in any way, like at Art Basel, it’s never part of the car scene. It’s always only part of the art scene.
Exactly. So you’re preaching to the converted in that situation where you do an art car and you put it in a gallery and then show it to a bunch of art enthusiasts. They’re excited to see it and totally understand. Whereas if you put that into a scenario where it doesn’t belong and you’re asking them to stop and think about something for a second, then you’re slowly converting the people to a new way of thinking about motorsports. And I do think that it’s needed it for a long time. I don’t see the value in showing my work in a gallery that is already dominated by fine art. To me it would be funnier to put a full-on Monster Energy truck into a gallery and make artists, make art critics look at that and be like, well why is this art? If you put a painted car in the gallery, you’re just showing it to people who already get it. So it’s about kind of flipping things upside down a little and sort of trying to make people confused and bridge the point between pop culture and motorsport and art and having fun.
“I’ve turned up at other places and they’ve told me to turn on my computer and I’m like, ‘I didn’t bring a computer, I brought a pencil case’”
So what’s next?
What’s next for me is trying to find new concepts and resisting. I have to find a system to create a barrier so I don’t get overly influenced by what’s around the all the time. When I came into this, I wasn’t surrounded by car people. I need to continue focusing on external stimuli that isn’t cars and resisting the fact that I see all these things around me day in, day out. Maybe take a kind of two-month sabbatical every year where I go and focus on just painting somewhere else and, and I, you know, I don’t even own a car. I ride a bicycle.
Well that’s, that’s why the work is so, so fresh. You don’t, you don’t want to end up doing the Martini livery accidentally just because you’ve been around it.
I mean, it definitely, I can definitely see the influences sneaking in every now and then. And like certain things that I started painting lately on helmets, I was like, “Oh shit it looks like a classic helmet now,” which some people think is funny because it’s referencing a bygone era of when drivers were cool and sexy and smart and funny and a little bit rebellious maybe. But to me it’s a shock that I’m being influenced, and you can’t help but be influenced by your environment. Previously when my studio was in a rough neighborhood in East L.A. and I was surrounded by all these crazy signs with bright colors and drawing the tacos on them, that was coming into my work, whereas now I’m surrounded by Porsches and Mercedes with liveries and stuff on them. Suddenly that what’s coming out in my work, so I need to be conscious of that create a barrier.
I do have to give credit to James [Kirkham] and Jacob [Agajanian] [co-founders of Race Service] for understanding that and giving me the opportunity and not trying to mold me into this kind of render monkey. It was very cool of them to kind of have that understanding. I didn’t realize they were going to be as flexible as they were when I turned up. I’ve turned up at other places and they’ve told me to turn on my computer and I’m like, “I didn’t bring a computer, I brought a pencil case.” and they’re like, “Oh okay. Yeah, I don’t think this is going to work out.” And I was like, “Okay, bye.” But these guys are totally cool. They were like, let’s build an art studio and you get weird, drink beer in the middle of the day and paint cars. It’s all good.