By Sara Ann Hutto ’17
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98

Have you ever opened a pack of Pokémon cards and delighted in the discovery that you just scored a holographic Charizard to add to your collection? Or did you ever wake up early on a Saturday morning when you were a kid just to catch your favorite superhero TV show?

Bear Walker has set out to recapture those feelings — not with cards or characters, but with skateboards.

Owner and operator of Bear Walker Industries, Walker is a custom skateboard maker based in the coastal town of Daphne, Alabama. His unique grip and detailed designs have boosted his skateboards into national prominence, not only as a way to get from here to there but also as pieces of pop-culture art, featuring the likes of Pikachu, Pennywise and Spider-Man.

But every superhero has a backstory. And Bear Walker and his skateboards are no different.

SURFING AND SKATING

Bear Walker grew up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where he spent many afternoons hitting the surf.

“I learned to surf in Hurricane Floyd, and after that, I was hooked on it,” Walker says. “My best friend and I would go surfing before school, then go to school and, a lot of times, go surfing afterward.”

Growing up, he spent a lot of time working with his dad, who ran a construction company that specialized in custom homes. Walker says he got his foundation for woodworking doing the framing for the large homes and developed his early craftsmanship, detailing and finishing, by making cabinetry for projects like outdoor kitchens.

When it was time for college, Walker already had Clemson down as his dream school. His sister had gone to Clemson, so he was already familiar with the campus. “Most of my friends were [U of SC] fans, so I guess that’s probably what made me a Clemson fan,” he adds with a chuckle.

Closing his eyes and putting a finger down on a list of majors — that’s how Walker ended up in the graphic communications program. He says, “I ended up falling in love with it.”

For his senior design project, Walker was tasked with creating an innovative printing technique. Walker and his partner decided on applying a holographic film with a print overlay to a skateboard — the origin story of his first custom skateboard. With the project idea in hand, Walker spent a whole night designing, and the next morning, he had almost 40 designs, despite only needing one. He had stumbled upon a passion.

The final design sported a honeycomb pattern and was complete with a bear jaw, an ode to Walker’s nickname. “It’s a really hard thing to do, printing colors on top of holographic film,” he explains. But the pair pulled it off.

The finished effect: “Imagine like a holographic Pokémon card, yeah?”

“Most of my friends were [U of SC] fans, so I guess that’s probably what made me a Clemson fan,” he adds with a chuckle.

FAILING TO LAUNCH

After graduating from Clemson in 2011, Walker bounced around a lot.

He moved to Charleston and became a warehouse manager for a special events company, making custom props, and, later, a custom sign maker for a local sign company, which was where Walker first had the idea for his unique skateboard grip. “I was working on these wooden, carved-out signs every day, and they would just tear up my hands,” he says. “It kind of just clicked one day how grippy that was and how good that would work for a skateboard.”

Walker made the first board a day later and started riding it around town. When people started asking him where he got it, he started taking his first orders.

After finding a small warehouse in Charleston and “renting it out for like 300 bucks a month, which was a lot for [him] at the time,” Walker bought a machine and started making boards. But without much business savvy, things started to fall apart, especially after a botched business partnership.

“After that, I was a little bit broken,” he says. Time to start over.

Walker left Charleston and moved to Fairhope, Alabama, to live with his parents, where they had previously relocated. Remodeling once again with his dad, Walker started to save money and bided his time. A year and a half later, he started up the company for the second time.

“I set up a little shop in the corner of my family’s barn and would usually be there until 1 or 2 in the morning,” he remembers. “I’m not sure if it was the fire underneath me after all that failure or if it was because I’d been able to create some space and have better concepts for what the boards should be, but it went way better the second time.”

TURNING IT AROUND

Walker’s first big break came about from a commission from a friend, a comic book store owner in town who was wanting a collection of Justice League decks for his shop. “They just turned out amazing,” Walker says. “I posted them on Instagram, and Jason Momoa and Grant Gustin commented on their respective boards. I think I gained like 6,000 followers that week.”

Momoa, who played Aquaman in the 2018 film, and Gustin, who plays the Flash in the CW series, commissioned their own boards from Walker. “The Flash was my favorite TV show at the time, so I geeked out for a solid week,” Walker laughs.

When Walker released the Flash board, known as the Limited Edition 2088 Gustin Cruiser, it sold out in two hours. Gustin was quoted in Forbes: “This dude has created an awesome business and he loves what he does. I’m pumped to be a part of it. … What a beauty, (I’m) so stoked on it. It’s so sick.”

Now, Walker’s superstar clients include the likes of pop artist Billie Eilish, rapper Killer Mike, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and actor Zachary Levi.

FLESHING OUT THE PROCESS

“When I first started, it was probably equal parts conceptualizing and building,” says Walker, “but we’ve gotten pretty damn good at building [skateboards].”

Conceptualizing and design work are the most time-consuming parts of the custom skateboard-making process for Walker. Brainstorming, trying out different board shapes, sketching rough mockups and using Illustrator to create the artwork all go into it. After drafting the art, Walker turns to the functionality of the board.

“For example, the face or the character looks great here, but that’s going to be a slick spot where a foot would usually go,” Walker says, pointing out a spot on the board. “This is one of the more fun parts of the whole thing, making it look great while making it function really well.”

Next is cutting. Walker uses a computer numerical control (CNC) machine to carve the board, fine-tuning the angles, the bit type and the depth of the cut: “I program where I want there to be heavier areas, lighter areas, where I want there to be heavy detail. I get it all mapped out, and then it actually goes into production.”

After the board is cut, Walker takes to it with files and sanders, sanding the surface to make it smooth and using the file to clean out every line and groove. The board is then branded with Walker’s logo, and the bottom of the board is chamfered, “which basically means we just carve an angle on the entire bottom of the board so you have a good hand feel.”

Painting comes next. Each board is individually airbrushed and then sent back to the woodshop for a final sanding. “Sometimes, the recessed areas require more detail paint,” Walker says, “so we’ll hand paint those elements. Then, [the board] gets a finishing inspection, where we check everything out, round the edges, make sure everything’s smooth.”

The board is finished off with three layers of clear coat.

“Then it’s assembled and shipped out to the customer. Or put on my wall,” Walker laughs.

KICKING THE HORNET’S NEST

Surfing, pop culture, nostalgia, the ’90s — all are inspiration for Walker’s designs, the fuel for his work. So, when Pokémon Center approached him for a special collaboration, he felt like he’d just been gifted the holy grail. The five-board collection, featuring the Pokémon Umbreon, Toxtricity, Rayquaza, Togepi and Mew, sports bright colors and carved out elements.

“Pokémon kicked the hornet’s nest,” Walker says. “Basically now, because of that project, I can make meetings with whoever I want to make meetings with.”

Soon after, Walker was hearing from the NBA and launching his NBA Collectors Series. “The NBA is still in the pop-culture realm,” he says, “but it’s on the other end of the spectrum.” Walker is also making plans to expand his workspace along with his brand through more online merchandise. He’s taken on some special projects as well, like helping build a custom Porsche for a cast member from the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

“Two years ago, I made about 600 boards a year,” he says. “As of 2021, we’ll be doing between 30 and 50,000.”

The cherry on top has been Walker’s most recent deal — something of a bucket list item, he says.

Following the success of the Pokémon Center collaboration, Walker thought it would be a good time to reach out to Marvel and see if he could snag a job with one of his favorite franchises. They said yes.

As an avid Marvel comics reader, Walker has had a pretty significant creative foundation to work with in creating the new collaboration. The plan is to launch a series of small capsule collections over the next year, featuring the likes of the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.

“Iron Man is going to be awesome, and I’m really looking forward to the Punisher,” he says. “Spider-Man is a huge one, too.”

HITTING HIS STRIDE

Walker’s personal motto is “Create space for opportunity”— something he continues to do not only on the business side of Bear Walker Industries but also in his board designs; he’s constantly innovating and applying new techniques. When an idea comes to him, he doesn’t wait to get after it, often spending all-nighters to make the idea come to life.

Brad Lambert, Walker’s manager, says Walker’s work ethic is unmatched: “He swings to the fence. There really is no in between. … He’s gotten to the point where he’s really hit his stride; it’s self-sustaining now. We’ve had a few big deals, and he just continues to build upon that.”

“One thing I respect about Bear,” Lambert adds, “is that he’s not out there money grabbing. If he genuinely doesn’t like a project, he won’t do it. The detail in the designs, the color and shading. Everything is just pristine, top of the line, top notch.”

Above all, Walker hopes to open the door for more skaters with his work.

“Skateboarding has always been aggressive. It’s super energetic and destructive and rebellious, which I still like,” he says. “But people who just want to cruise and enjoy themselves or commute to work can maybe feel more comfortable getting a board like mine — or feel a little less intimidated by skate culture and become part of the skate community.”