Zahba - Vans Skateboarding Zion Wright

Studio is a skate company from Montreal, Canada. We caught up with the founder Jai Ball, and looked back on the history of the brand that represents urban skating.



Photos_Jacee Juhasz
Special thanks_Yuji Kawamoto

VHSMAG (V): Let's start from the basics. You're from Montreal, Canada?

Jai Ball (J): Yeah, I'm born and raised in Montreal and lived there my whole life until 25. At 26, I moved to Vancouver. I met my wife Laura and over the past 16 years we've split our time between both cities.

V: You started skating in Montreal?

J: Yeah, I started skating in Montreal when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I'm 41 so it would have been like 1990 or 1991. It was after Bones Brigade was done and all the new school stuff was starting so it was an exciting time.

V: What were some of your influences growing up skating in Canada?

J: I was just looking at Thrasher and the Plan B, World, 101 videos and all that stuff, but Montreal had a really good scene too. I started skating downtown Montreal around '92 or '93, and there were a bunch of older guys like Eric Mercier, Phil Beauséjour, Frank St-Pierre, Lic, Kit and so many more. Montreal City Hall was our EMB. They were all friends with vert skaters like PLG and Max Dufour. PLG's dad ran an indoor park in the suburbs, so in the winter we'd go there. So there was always a strong scene of really good skateboarders all year round.

V: I read somewhere that you used to skate for Zoo York?

J: Yeah, exactly. Other than my first sponsor being a shop, I got on DC, when they started a Canadian program in '99. I was super hyped because we never had anything like that in Canada. Pretty much all the nineties it's a shop sponsor and that's it. And there were no board sponsors, no one was going to California, no one was doing anything. So then distributors popped up and they started Canadian programs. I got on DC Canada and then Zoo York Canada. And then not long after that, Studio started with my partner, rest in peace Darrell Smith. It was him and I talking about starting a brand back then that led to what Studio ended up becoming.

V: So that was back in 2008?

J: Studio originally started in 2006 with Darrell Smith as a T-shirt company. Then we got together and were like, "Okay, let's make a board brand." And that really crystallized in 2008 in Montreal.

V: Were there any other skate brands out of Canada back then when you started?

J: There was, we had Premium, which was owned by Max Dufour. It was a wood shop and brand. Then there were a couple of smaller things here and there but for us, we felt like there was nothing that reflected what we were into.

V: How was it like starting your own brand?

J: We had no idea what we were doing in the beginning, it was really small. We both worked other jobs, but we started working on a video and we would try to at least make 2 drops a year. We started with all the shops we knew from skating over the years in Canada and it slowly grew from there. Around 2011, Darrell moved back to Toronto because the business was still so small and he wanted to work on other things, so I took over and kept it going. We put out our first video "Mood Lighting" in the spring of 2012 and that's when things started to pick up. Tragically Darrell was killed after being hit by a car in Toronto in 2017. So it was really... rest in peace Darrell. He was the engine in the beginning. He was really into Super 8 and 16 millimeter, and just an artist in general, and it was some of the things that shaped the beginning of what Studio became visually. There's no Studio without Darrel Smith.

V: How did the name Studio come about?

J: Darrell came up with the name. He was screen printing T-shirts with his buddies in London, Ontario, had a little studio where they would do stuff. So it just emerged out of that.

V: I really like the aesthetic of the brand. Clean and refined. Where do you draw inspiration from?

J: I guess my whole life has bled into it. I did a creative arts college program for a couple years after high school and my grandfather was an art director and a painter. He art directed magazines in the fifties through the seventies. And he did old school layout, like all cut and paste and I'd watch him do that. I think it's just my personal taste over the years. The older I got, the more my tastes went a certain way in the things that I liked and then I just pulled from that. Once I discovered Paul Rand and Saul Bass and all these graphic designers from the forties, fifties, and sixties, that really got me excited because it was a style of design that seemed timeless. And sometimes it's just whatever, like going through my two-year-old's books or old store signage, Laura has great taste, she's always giving me good ideas. I'll just get inspired and go from there. Growing up in the nineties too, like old World Industries and Girl and Chocolate and all that stuff was what I grew up on. So it's just a mishmash of all these different things.

V: I read that your parents were beatniks.

J: I guess hippies, yeah. Well, my grandparents were the original beatniks, my mom's parents. My grandfather is from Leeds, England, and my grandmother is 100% Lebanese from Newfoundland, Canada. They met in the forties. My granddad was right out of the show Mad Men, that type of person. Really creative, really smart, drank all day, smoked cigarettes all day and smoked weed when no one smoked weed and ran a gay magazine in the fifties when that was a really risqué thing to do. So they raised my mother and her two sisters with a ridiculous amount of freedom and creativity. They were really into the arts as well. So yeah, that just bled down into my mother and then my mother became a singer/voice actress and she's still into it. So definitely the arts were encouraged and I was supported in anything I wanted to do.

V: That's interesting. Really forward thinking.

J: Yeah, they're really into movies and music and we grew up like that; really into all the arts. And then going to school, I really focused a lot during my creative arts program on film. I remember when I was in my late teens, I thought I just wanted to make movies. Even though I'd barely done anything but I was so pumped on movies from the sixties and seventies, which all led into skate videos I guess.

V: Do you think running a skate brand in Canada is difficult?

J: I would say it's not as difficult now. But still hard. It still snows half the year, haha. I think the first step was a mental step back when we started, you know what I mean? Especially our generation, you grow up in the early nineties, skateboarding seems so far away. Believe it or not, I remember... let's say in the early nineties, no one went to California from Montreal until my friends Phil and Eric went to SF in '94 or '95. They came back with all these stories of EMB and hanging out with the guys there. In the early 2000's it was actually Darrell Smith, he went to SF in 2002 or 2003 and got on Western Edition. He did a bunch of rad stuff at Pier 7 and they were hyped on him. So he kind of broke the door open a bit for me to be like, "Hey, I want to go to SF." And then I went down there in 2004 or 2005. It was a big deal back then. The more we traveled and met people, the more we thought something from Canada could work. Now skating is totally international with all these amazing brands repping their country, scenes, etc... But hey, we're still tiny and it's still hard, you gotta earn every inch.

V: Now we have the internet and the world has gotten a lot smaller. Do you see Studio growing throughout the years?

J: Everything seems close. It's been almost 12 years now, it was really small growth over time. All the way up to 2015, we were still mostly selling in Canada. We just kept on making videos, meeting new people. So it was a slow progression for sure.

V: What's something that you can never compromise when running your brand?

J: The aesthetic and values that you want to go with. In the beginning, we were just trying so many things out. Both Darrell and I had a ton of ideas, we're trying some things out but it wasn't formulaic. I think you need to stay a little bit organic and move. But I think you just have to do what you like and then hope that it works. Because if not, you don't know what you're doing. If you don't really have a vision for it, then that's tough. So if you do feel like you have a direction you want to go, you just got to fully go with it and embrace it 100%. And I would say that's when you'll do your best work and you'll find a niche of people who like what you're doing, because it's honest.

V: Are the riders all Canadian?

J: We're pretty much all Canadian except for one American, that's Brett Weinstein from Chicago that we met on a trip there back in 2015. And now we have Andrea Dupre from Bordeaux, France. He's our first official European rider. So out of ten guys, eight are Canadian.

The downtown core of Montreal felt overlooked. We want it to be about that.

V: Since the brand is out of Canada, do you have something like a Canadian pride?

J: It's funny because when we started, there was this perception of skateboarding in Canada. It was like hockey, beer drinking, lumberjack, concrete park vibe which we didn't relate to at all at the time. I don't know if it was so much Canadian pride as it was just a pride in our crew and what we were doing, you know what I mean? In the late nineties, early 2000s, we had a little production company and we made the first bigger Montreal skateboard videos. They were VHS tapes. And so it was always a thing to promote Montreal. And we loved New York, Philadelphia and SF, those kinds of scenes growing up, those were the ones that got us really hyped. And so we just wanted to do our own little thing like that. So I guess pride in your city for sure. Because city vibe skating felt overlooked in Canada back then. It was all about the best dudes who were trying to keep up with Zero and the gnarly skating of the time. So the downtown core of Montreal felt overlooked, so we want it to be about that.

V: How do you try to make Studio stand out from all the other brands out there?

J: It's hard to consciously try to stand out. Paul Rand said, "Don't try to be original, just be good." And it's hard to do things on purpose to be different. So I really feel you got to have a vision that's real. You've got to hope that whatever you're doing is authentic enough that people are into it and that it has its own voice.

V: I was going through your Instagram and found you had a cookbook and apron for a collection. That was new.

J: Sick, thank you. We have a little magazine and there was an interview for Brett and I asked, "What are you up to during the first lockdown?" And he's like, "Oh, I'm cooking a lot." And I also love to cook and watch cooking shows like Gordon Ramsey, etc... So I was like, "Shit, let's do something." But I felt bad because I didn't even tell him. I just built the catalog with the board, the apron, the book, and then did all the pre-sales and then said, "Okay, you got to make a cookbook." Thankfully he was into it, haha.

V: Speaking of the print magazine, you make a print magazine, kind of like a lookbook with interviews and stuff.

J: Yeah. I managed a printing store for years while I did Studio, Darrell and I both worked there for a bit. It was this great university printing store, Concordia Copies. That's where I learned so much of my graphic design programs and how to print. I grew up on magazines. For 15 years or so there were like four skate magazines in Canada and they were all really healthy. There's still two left but it's like two issues a year. So anyway, there were so many talented photographers sitting on photos. So I just wanted to do something with all that content and try to make it more like a magazine, less like a lookbook, but there's definitely that aspect in it.

V: Nice. I respect that because I know it's a lot of work.

J: Yeah. But you know what it actually came from? I was waiting in a restaurant and they had all these cool magazines from Hermes and I was going through them. It was all great editorial and cool articles. I was like, "Oh, this is cool." We can just do whatever and you don't have to debate with anybody about the content that you want to do. So yeah, it's been fun but they're super hard to do and I only make a few hundred copies because it's super expensive. But moving forward we're going to try to make more so more of them get out there.

V: What's the best thing about skater owned brands?

J: Well, actually I think it's the only way. Ever since Stacy Peralta, Ed Templeton, Rick Howard and Mike Carroll, to Dill & AVE, skaters ran brands. I was already about 28 when we started Studio, and I remember being like, "Fuck, I'm so old dude." Rick Howard and Mike Carroll were like 20 and 22 when they started Girl. They were the dudes I looked up to. I think if you're not in the streets to a degree you'll start to drift away from what is going on.

V: What keeps you going?

J: I think what keeps me going is just getting out there and skating, and working on a cool project with friends. I have to work anyways and so I might as well just put it all towards this. My family, Laura, my son Rory, creating something we can all enjoy. I still dream of tricks and I obsess over getting clips. At 41, I'm still dreaming about the next video so it still feels like I'm a kid in a lot of ways. That's probably the part I like the most, it's that Peter Pan complex in every skater. Just running after it.

V: Sick. Anything lined up in the near future?

J: Yeah, we have some footage so we're trying to figure out what to do with it. For a while, we were doing a bigger video project a year but I think it's going to be smaller because everyone's going to school and working. That's the reality of the smaller brand, most of the team, they're just working at their jobs and they're skating and we're all battling this thing together. But dudes want to get parts and they want to have a good chunk of footage so I think we'll do smaller things spread out throughout the year.

V: Where do you want to take Studio to?

J: That's a good question. For the longest time, it was just to make a living so I could keep doing it full time. It didn't even seem real for the longest time to be honest and then it became real. And where do we see it? Man, skating is so crazy right now. There's so much going on. It's how to grow but keep the integrity. So I think it would be to continue to grow while maintaining what we want to do and to have it look the way we want it to look. And be able to pay the riders and do more for the filmers and contributors, and make more money for them. Get them more board royalties, help them in their lives because they're helping me. So just to grow it in that way and hopefully, turn it into a full-fledged company where riders are getting steady salaries and are excited to work on stuff and their lives are getting better. I think that's what I want, I want everyone's life to get better with this.


Jai Ball

Born in Montreal, Canada. After getting recognition as a sponsored skater, Jai co-founded Studio, which embodies urban skating. Currently based in Montreal and Vancouver, he's working on various projects.


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