The Art of Upcycling

Providence’s Steve Duque makes earrings and many other items from old skateboards. (Tyson Bottenus/ecoRI News photos)

Providence’s Steve Duque makes earrings and many other items from old skateboards. (Tyson Bottenus/ecoRI News photos)

How a banged-up skateboard is turned into coasters

By TYSON BOTTENUS/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — In his apartment at the Mercantile, one of three downtown “live/work” studio buildings owned and operated by AS220, Steve Duque stands by a wall covered in broken skateboards.

At first glance, I can’t help but feel sorry for the abuse these boards have taken. The edges are worn and splintered, and all of the decks are scratched like worn-out records. A few are broken in half. But when you look closer, you notice that someone has scribbled dates and words on them — like a tombstone for each skateboard.

A blackboard has “6.15.06” painted in yellow on it. Another has a list of skate parks in Rhode Island, most of them crossed off. One even says “2005 Ebay $34.98.” As I look around, it begins to dawn on me that this isn’t a depressing graveyard at all. It’s a memorial to Duque’s favorite boards and to his favorite pastime: skateboarding in Rhode Island.

“For the most part it’s all about going outside and having fun,” says the 31-year-old Duque, who has been skateboarding for more than half his life. “It could be downpouring, it could be snowing — all you have to do is bundle up.”

When it is too cold to go skateboarding, Duque has a new venture that’s gaining traction. By taking the remnants of broken skateboards, a few power tools and his artistic imagination, he creates a variety of products — earrings, coasters, key chains, pens — that are finding homes for people interested in skateboarding and, as it has been termed, “upcycled” goods.

It all started last September when Duque started creating a piece of large wall art made exclusively out of scraps from his old decks. In the process, he noticed he had the ability to make a lot more.

“This was the first idea that ever came along,” he says, showing me a napkin holder. Every piece has a cohesive aesthetic and is graced with the “Duque” seal of originality.

“It’s colorful wood so the possibilities are endless and the interpretation can be pretty wild,” says Richer Giasson, a fellow skater/artist. Giasson uses skateboards similarly by cutting the curved parts of the deck down and using them as necks for ukuleles. “One of the most clever parts about it is that (Steve’s materials) are upcycled. That’s the genius of saving the boards from the trash. You can glue them, cut them, shape them into anything. I have seen some amazing things done with skateboards. You just need a vision.”

These carefully cut pieces of scratched-up skateboards will be upcycled into other items.

These carefully cut pieces of scratched-up skateboards will be upcycled into other items.

Upcycling — think of it as a more inspired version of recycling — is ushering in a new wave of artists and entrepreneurs. When something is recycled, it’s deconstructed into the materials from which it first came. Upcycling adds value to a disposable product through transformation. It’s more sustainable and less energy intensive.

“If you just had a pair of old jeans and turned them into a purse, that’s cool,” says Duque, “but this is so much more. A lot of these skateboards are from when I was younger. They were bought with money from my part-time job at McDonalds. From an $80 paycheck, maybe $50 would go to a new board.”

In a way, it’s possible to think of the boards themselves as abstract canvasses. Picking up and admiring the craftsmanship of Duque’s pens, keychains, coasters and iPhone cases, it’s fun to look at the imperfections and think of them as the end byproduct of hours spent learning trick after trick in a deserted parking lot.

“I could cut ten pens out of one skateboard, but each pen is going to be different because of the scratches,” Duque says. “You can’t duplicate this stuff.”

The Japanese have an aesthetic, wabi sabi, which, in its most basic essence, describes the art of finding beauty in the blemishes of nature. Something that is wabi sabi could be a patched backpack or a dented mug — it’s something whose value is manifested through its imperfections. It’s not a couch on the side of the road with a split seam running down the middle, it’s a chair your grandfather made with mismatched whorls.

Duque’s pens exemplify this same sense of craftsmanship. His studio is part apartment, part workspace. Translucent shower curtains separate the two halves of his life, allowing sunlight in and keeping the sawdust out of his living space. Bins are chock full of busted up decks that were donated to him from friends and supporters.

“I’ll ask friends, even random strangers for their old skateboards,” Duque says. “If it’s worn, I’ll take it. I’ll make sure it gets a good home.”

When he’s not making art, he’s promoting himself or other causes. I asked about a slew of pink keychains and pens on the table and was surprised to learn that when Duque made the pens in October, during National Breast Awareness month, he intended a portion of the process to go to the Gloria Gemma Foundation, a nonprofit based out of Pawtucket.

“The idea came to me because I think it’s important for people to get the awareness out about breast cancer,” Duque says. “If I can help out, that’s cool.”

Duque’s operations are based mostly out of flea markets, craft stores and his online Etsy account. But his real gains have been made, he says, when he can explain his art.

“People are more likely to buy your art if you’re there in person,” he says. “If I go into the store and I see something, I might not want to buy it. But if I see the artist and he tells me that he made what I’m looking at? People dig that.”

Fortunately for Duque, in early June 2013, The Providence Flea opened. The outdoor summer/fall flea market featured more than 50 local artists and vendors selling their goods every Sunday along the Providence Greenway.

“The idea is to create an old-style flea market with vintage finds, antiques, furniture, collectibles and curiosities mixed together with upcycled and re-purposed goods and art,” says Maria Tocco, founder of The Providence Flea. “I love the idea that Steve has found a way to extend the life of skateboards by remaking them into everyday items that are anything but ordinary.”

“The Providence Flea is probably the best flea or art market I’ve ever been to,” Duque says. “Not only because I’m a vendor there but because of what they offer and how organized they are. You’re not just another person who’s signing up for a table. They want to know what you do and how they can be into it. These guys are really into it.”

It seems that as far as upcycling goes, people really are into it. According to Etsy, the number of products tagged with the word “upcycled” shot up from 7,900 in 2010 to more than 30,000 in 2011. “Vintage and retro may be trends at the moment,” Tocco says, “but upcycling is more of a movement.”

As for Duque, who now has five Rhode Island shops selling his art, his mission is to just keep working on his craft.

“It’s awesome being able to resurrect these skateboards,” he says. “I hate to see them broken but I love to see you have it as a keychain for the next ten years.”