Lovenskate is a T-shirt printers with a difference – it’s also the last remaining company in the UK to hand print skateboards. We carved and ollied our way to north London to see the skate obsessed outfit in action
As the carousel turned and smacked an open pot of green ink into a box of white T-shirts, screen printer Stuart Smith decided his business had outgrown its Portakabin home in Hackney. “I got on the phone and found a new place straightaway,” he laughs.
Stuart, 37, runs Lovenskate, a screen printers which is unusual in that it is – so Stuart believes – the last place in the UK to hand screen print skateboards tip to tail. He studied fine art at the University of Hertfordshire – “I started off painting then I did some other subjects including printing in the first year: I ended up spending the rest of my time at uni hiding in the print room” – and had always been a keen skateboarder. He started printing zines (aka fanzines, to those not in the know), which he gave out for free at skateshops and sent to skateboard magazines, and when he moved back in with his parents after university he bought a flatbed printer and started printing stickers to hand out as well.
He came up with the name Lovenskate (inspired by the classic knuckle tattoo of love ‘n’ hate) and started making a name for himself. It didn’t pay, however, so he found a job at Bilko, a clothing and promotional merchandise company in Battersea, London. “Mark Wilkinson and Simon [Barker] showed me the ropes,” explains Stuart. “I worked there for five years, and in my own time I was working out how to screen print on skateboards, and eventually I got it.” As his own screen printing business took off he cut down his time at Bilko to four days a week, then three, then two until eventually Lovenskate became his full-time job.
He left his first premises, the Portakabin in Hackney, for a studio in Hackney Wick. As his business carried on expanding he moved to the Dominic Studio in Whitechapel and then he got a call from someone he worked with at Bilko. “She said she was leaving her space in The Mangle and did I want it?” remembers Stuart. “It was a brilliant place. Rob Ryan, [the artist known for his papercut work] who worked with Liberty and did all the handcut titles for Stylist magazine, and Dan Holliday [printer and painter] who did the original logo for Rough Trade [record shop], were there – they were a huge inspiration. I was there for six years, but I got out-priced eventually so I moved here last July.”
‘Here’ is a unit tucked away on a quiet residential street in Tottenham, north London. From the outside it looks like any other commercial unit, but inside the walls are covered with skateboards: each different, many humorous and all limited editions. It’s a skateboarder’s Aladdin’s Cave.
There are stacks of screens on the shelves, screens waiting to be washed, boxes of boards, decals for mugs laid out to dry; a Wicked Printing Stuff carousel takes centre stage, along with an old Panther dryer plastered with stickers, and there’s an office area tucked around the side. Working with Stuart is Emma in the office while James is in the studio along with Josh who started part-time at the end of May. Two other businesses work from the studio: Witchcraft Hardware, a distributor of skateboards and skating clothes run by Alex Irvine and Richard Sayer, aka French, and Palomino, an online skateshop owned by Nick Sharrat.
There is an overwhelming impression that everyone here would turn up even if they weren’t being paid, and they don’t half work hard. Lovenskate may stand out from others because of its hand screen printed skateboards, but it also has a thriving garment business that sees staff printing clothes for numerous businesses such as Market Sports, a London-based health and fitness club; skateboard shop, Bored of Southsea; and coffee chain Nude Espressos. “We’ll do anything,” explains Stuart. “Nothing is too small, we’ll do one-offs or a pile of thousands.”
The aesthetics of screen printing
The company is often asked to do neck-to-hem, multi-coloured prints that others might baulk at, and also works for a couple of fashion companies. “The fashion world is super demanding, always very complicated, but great to do. I’ve never advertised, although we did use to put postcards in with orders – it’s all been word of mouth. The most enjoyable printing we do, however, is printing graphics done by people we know, like French (of Witchcraft).”
Direct-to-garment printing isn’t an option for him at the moment. “I’m not a print snob,” he explains. “What I know is screen printing, and I really like it. I know it’s hard work, but I like hard work. Aside from D2G being easier, I just don’t think it’s as vibrant or long-lasting as screen print at the moment.”
As for the skateboards, most board printers now use the popular and less laborious heat transfer process; however, Stuart remains true to the traditional process of hand screen printing – a relic from the ‘80s and early ‘90s – using screens he makes himself. Some argue that when heat is applied to the transfer on the board it damages the board’s laminates, which are stuck together with cold press glue. However, Stuart is having none of it and isn’t interested in making arguments for and against either method. “It comes down to the process,” he explains. “It’s more labour intensive (doing it my way), but it’s immensely satisfying work. There also used to be an argument that when [skateboards are] done this way, the print wouldn’t flake off, but the [heat transfer] technology is such now that that’s not really true. Some say that the boards are ‘slidier’ when done the way I do it, but again, I’m not sure about that either. There are no benefits beyond the aesthetics.”
He loves the graphics from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with the inconsistencies found on a hand-printed board, and believes that while a lot of energy goes into each board, a lot of energy comes back out.
But at the end of the day, no matter how well the board is printed and which process is used, any self-respecting skateboarder will soon be giving their board a battering. “Skateboards are made to be used, not stuck on walls,” Stuart adds, acknowledging the irony of saying this while standing in front of a row of beautifully printed skateboards proudly displayed attached to a wall.
As James starts hosing down some screens Stuart explains that they’ve recently changed to Nazdar water-based inks. “We used to use solvents but breathing in the fumes all day… Plus the clean-up was horrendous, and I hated wearing a mask.”
The garments they print on vary, although Gildan and Continental EarthPositive are two brands they use frequently. On the board side, they’ve found a company called Penswood in Pennsylvania that is happy to experiment with the colour of the boards for Lovenskate. “We’re trying a fading process at the moment where we put one colour on each side of the screen, let them blend together and see what happens,” explains Stuart. “We’ve ordered boards that have been dipped in colour on one side and we’ll use the blended ink technique on them. So we’re starting with a blend, and adding a blend.”
Stuart designs a lot of the Lovenskate graphics himself and also uses a few other artists. There isn’t a set process for selecting a design: “Basically, if it’s a good idea then we go for it. It helps if it’s amusing, and I’m a bit into tea – I like the British theme.” And he’s not the only one who likes it: the company has just started distributing T-shirts, boards and stickers in Belgium, and France and Germany are the next targets. The aim is to build up slowly though because, as Stuart concludes, “You need strong roots to a grow a tree.”