Remembering the History of White Supremacy via Skateboards from the 1990s

After years of working for skateboard brands Powell and NHS, artist Jim Thiebaud established Real Skateboards with Powell teammate Tommy Guerrero in 1990. Thiebaud said, “After my experiences with Powel and NHS, I wanted my first board on Real to mean something, have a lasting impact. Skateboarding was at a point where graphics that didn’t really mean shit were just being churned out, and I saw it as an opportunity to do more than just cut-and-paste images that looked cool.”

As the Ku Klux Klan began to reemerge in the mainstream due to marches across the country in the early ‘90s, Thiebaud saw his opportunity to make a statement against the rise of white supremacy, designing both his iconic Hanging Klansman (1990) deck and The Klansman at Washington D.C. (1991)

Sharing these graphics—and the story behind them—is especially important following the riot and failed coup on January 6, 2021. Unfortunately, the fable people have told themselves repeatedly is that white supremacists and racists were scared to show their faces until Donald Trump became President, but that’s not even slightly true. This lie may make some [white people] feel better, but it doesn’t change the truth or history. Both the Hanging Klansman and Klansman at Washington D.C. images show that white supremacy’s prevalence in American society was so commonplace that conversations about it had seeped into the skateboard community—a society that tends to be made up of young white boys and men, especially in the early ‘90s.

On September 2, 1990, a march from the Washington Monument down Constitution Avenue to Capitol Hill was planned by the Ku Klux Klan. They had obtained the rights to assemble, but when they arrived, they were met by counter-demonstrators, and the march was cancelled. However, believing their constitutional right to demonstrate had been denied, they applied for new permits on September 17th. At 1:30 am on October 28th, they were granted permits by a District Court Judge to march that day between 12:30 pm and 4:30 pm. Due to considerable protests against the march and the fact that the September 2nd rally had been disbanded due to counter-demonstrators, the courts also ruled in favor of granting additional government protection.

That afternoon, more than 3,500 police officers assembled to aid the 27 members of the KKK in their demonstration.

In reaction, Thiebaud created the Hanging Klansman skateboard deck for REAL with original artwork by Natas Kaupas in 1990—of which he stated, “I thought the image of a hanging Klansman was about as powerful as you could get. There was no side-stepping the message.”—and the Klansman at Washington D.C. deck with original art by Jef Whitehead in 1991.

“Reading” the artwork of the Hanging Klansman is straightforward, but the Klansman at Washington D.C. image is far more complex. Printed in six colors, a Klansman stands before the White House, shaking a policeman’s hand. The positioning between the two individuals, as well as their close proximity to the White House—the symbol of American executive power, democracy, and leadership—makes it clear that Thiebaud and Whitehead were making a statement that the Klan is closely tied to both American politics and law enforcement. Beneath their feet, however, lie the cogs of American politics. A featureless white figure stands before a cityscape, surrounded in flames, throwing a wrench towards the cogs.

It needs to be made clear, however, that a featureless white figure standing before a cityscape and flames, throwing a wrench into the cogs is a metaphor for destroying the system that upholds white supremacy, not representative of bad actors destroying Capitol Hill in an attempt to make it look like Trump supporters. (That isn’t a thing that happened, and I’m sure if the Real Skateboards team knew in 1991 that Donald Trump would some day be President, they would have had blatant graphics for that as well.)

The Hanging Klansman board, at least, has become so important to popular culture that a deck currently resides in the Smithsonian.