The Path to Paradise Begins in Hell: Sean Pablo
Sean Pablo, skateboarder, musician, and artist, says that all art is seduction—and skateboarding is art as much as drawings are.
Charred joint in hand, Supreme skater Sean Pablo pauses and pushes his pitch-black shades into his hairline. He is trying to remember an adage he was made to recite daily at physical therapy. This past summer, he broke his tibia in a street-skating outing gone wrong—so wrong, in fact, that he’s suing the city of Atlanta for two million dollars. (It’s a long story that involves undercover cops driving recklessly.) When I first met him at a Manhattan hotel last July, he was sporting crutches and patiently awaiting the opening of his debut solo exhibition, “A Season in Hell,” at an indie gallery called CCProjects. The show featured photos of Sean’s friends, obscure mantras scrawled in spray paint, and stacked televisions blaring VHS footage of frenzied church services. In one dimly lit backroom, a single chair faced an unsettling video of gyrating men, knives, and motorcycles that played on endless repeat.
Long before he was exhibiting in galleries, Sean Pablo manifested his art in the form of his independent fashion brand, post-punk music, Converse sneakers, and cunning skating. For nearly a decade, his cryptic character and invigorating lore have produced a never-ending list of questions: some about his personality, others about his sex life, few that ever see answers. But now, as he recovers from an injury that nearly ended his career, the only question that seems to matter is when he might make his long-awaited comeback—if at all.
The sunglasses come back down from his hairline. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” he says, beaming. “That’s bars!”
SAMUEL HYLAND: Can we do an existential check-in?
SEAN PABLO: Existentially, I feel like I’m just coming online. I just turned 25. I’ve experienced so many crazy things. But I feel like I’ve gotten all the nonsense out of the way. I’ve figured things out, even though I still have so much work to do. Life is weird and complicated, and you kind of just have to figure it out on your own. But it makes you stronger, the more you have to go through. That’s where you get all your experience and wisdom from. You can’t get wisdom from laying around watching Netflix.
I don’t mind chaos. I like when my whole world is turned upside-down. I’m used to doing everything with both hands tied behind my back. I’m an adrenaline junkie. But I’ve learned that it’s okay to make it a little easier for myself and get rid of what’s unnecessary. Now I can focus on what I want to do.
SH: Anything in particular?
SP: I want to make a comeback in the skate world. I got hit by a car and that really messed me up. I became addicted to painkillers and other drugs, which ended up just being kerosene to the fire of my already messed-up life. But it might actually have been a good thing. I went to rehab, thanks to Harmony Korine, got off the drugs, and now I’ve been sober for around nine to ten months.
SH: That reminds me of the quote on your Converse shoe, “THE PATH TO PARADISE BEGINS IN HELL.”
SP: That’s from Dante’s Inferno. The quote is cool because it only really tells you that the path to paradise begins in hell. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get there. It’s just that if you’re willing to go on the path, you must first go through hell. Sure, you can begin on the path but who knows if you’ll make it.
SH: That’s not very optimistic.
SP: It is, though. Once you make it through that hell, nothing compares. To me, hell is like adolescence. Having no control over your life and being at the mercy of anyone who is powerful enough to tell you what to do, which is everyone. I’m so happy that I don’t have to answer to anybody anymore.
SH: Since the injury, you’ve become an artist in a more conventional sense—exhibiting photos, drawings, and videos. How much is your work for you, and how much is it for other people?
SP: I’m always doing it for myself, but I’m also always doing it for other people. That's the definition of art—you're trying to seduce people. But you’re trying to do it fair and square. It’s almost like a game of chess. You’re trying to put somebody in checkmate. There’s a way you can do it. I'm just trying to figure out how.
SH: What do you mean by “seduce”?
SP: I think all art is seduction. It’s all we do as humans. We’re constantly trying to seduce each other, whether it’s by the way we look, the things we know, the way we talk, or the stuff we talk about. For me, there's no real line between where work ends and life begins.
SH: Do you want to be remembered as a skater or an artist?
SP: I want to be known more as an artist because, for me, skating falls into the category of art. If you’re an artist, you can do a million things. If you’re just a skater, you can only do that. Skating is art, but not all of it is art. You have to be thinking about it in that way in order for it to come across as art—or maybe that isn’t necessarily true. Even the best skaters, in my opinion, are the ones who don’t care about any of this stuff. They’re not even cognizant of what I’m talking about. It’s pretty much the “outsider” artist versus the person that went to art school and knows everything.
SH: You seem to stick to a certain character in your skate clips. The crazy hair, the My Bloody Valentine songs, the hunchback ride-up grimace—is all that a performance?
SP: Oh, 100 percent. The way I walk down the street and smoke a cigarette is just as important to me as the way I skate. Even though that sounds kind of vapid. I’ve been a skater my whole life. I’m aware of people looking at me. I’m putting on a show for people all the time. It’s kind of fun.
But in the moments where I’m doing tricks, that’s real emotion. I’m really fighting it. It’s like I’m boxing someone, trying to win this battle. You’re trying to do a trick a million times over, and you can’t do it. So, when you’re riding up to the trick, you’re really angry because you haven’t landed it yet. You’re pissed off. The feeling of relief that overcomes you when you’re riding away from the trick is like none other. But there’s no way to that feeling unless you do it. The path to paradise begins in hell.
SH: What trick is on your bucket list right now?
SP: My biggest inspiration is Dylan Rieder. He was the greatest skater ever. I want to pick up the torch where he left it. He was trying to learn how to do an impossible, catch it mid-air, then turn it so the board does a 540, and then do a back 780. Nobody does that. There’s insane footage of him trying throughout his career. He almost landed it in a number of crazy spots, but he never got to do it because he passed away.
SH: You were talking earlier about dealing with problems. Is the goal to permanently graduate from the problems, though? You did say they made you stronger.
SP: No, because I love the bullshit. I don’t like it per se, but I like the act of controlling it. I like to know that I have control over it because in the past, I had no control over the chaos in my life. I can't deal with that anymore. Now the goal is to have enough bullshit for life to be fun—just not to the point where I'm going to lose money and relationships. I'm done with that.
SH: What problems are you facing now?
SP: I have no problems because my problems are first-world problems. The thing for me right now is getting it out of the mud, making this comeback. Proving that I’m worthy of my name. People say I don’t work for what I have. I don’t think that’s true at all. It makes me furious. It makes me want to prove them wrong. Not in a petty way, more like a chess match—being tactful and making all the right moves. The more resentment you hold on to, the more you’re just making things harder for yourself. It’s clear when you see somebody with a bunch of resentment. They’re so nasty because they’re just rotting in their own shit.
I don’t want to be that. I want to be Zen. I want to accept life with all its flaws.
SH: What does this tactful chess-match victory over your haters look like?
SP: It’s so funny. All I can see is me riding my skateboard away from the crime scene.