It's late on a recent Friday night at Jeffrey Cheung’s studio in an old West Oakland yogurt factory, where the popular painter is putting the finishing touches on a hand-painted skateboard deck. Upon a pink background, two nude figures joyously intertwine their bodies, each with long black hair, breasts hanging freely, and plump lips curving wide across the face. Although skate deck art varies widely these days, Cheung’s boards still stand out for their brilliantly unabashed branding: “Unity Queer Skateboarding,” this one reads, “Like it or Not!”
Cheung is best known for his prolific output of paintings, screen prints, and illustrations often featuring groupings of same-sex or gender-ambiguous figures adoring each other’s — or their own — bodies in utter glee. His paintings manage to feel both queer- and body-positive without appearing polemic. Rather, they affirm in an infectiously matter-of-fact manner that cuts through both the disheartening political climate and the sometimes overwrought realm of identity politics.
That could be said for everything that falls under the Unity moniker — a creative umbrella encompassing several projects produced by Cheung and his core group of friends, all branded with Cheung’s signature illustrations. There’s Unity, the band in which Cheung sings and plays guitar; Unity Press, which publishes zines and sells screen-printed clothing; and now Unity Skateboarding, a company specifically meant to nurture a sense of pride and community for queer skaters in a sport with little queer visibility.
The Unity Skateboarding launch in early February also coincided with the soft opening of Unity Mart, the crew’s new shop in West Oakland. At the event, nearly all of Cheung’s first run of 100 hand-painted decks found new homes.
Cheung, who is in his late twenties, started skating when he was 11 years old. During high school, art helped him come to terms with his body and sexuality, while skateboarding served a more escapist role. “I didn’t really think about too much else when I was skateboarding, and that was liberating,” he says.
Cheung recently got back into skateboarding, and met other queer skaters who inspired him. Meanwhile, pro skater Brian Anderson recently made waves in the national scene by coming out as gay. Cheung began imagining how affirmed he would have felt if there had been a queer skate crew for him to look up to as a kid. So, on New Year’s Day, he made it his mission to start one — and assure all the young queer skaters out there that they’re not alone.
Although Cheung’s recent solo show at San Francisco’s Hashimoto Contemporary featured paintings that sold for multiple thousands, the artist is committed to making his decks accessible to any queer or femme skater that wants one. Before he began selling the decks for $55 each at Unity Mart, he sought out rad queer skateboarders and allies in Oakland to sponsor with customized “professional human being” boards. And very quickly, that crew became international.
After being featured in i-D Magazine in early February, Cheung says he’s been receiving about an email a day from skaters all over the world expressing how much the company means to them. “There are so many queer skaters out there,” says Cheung, “and it’s incredibly gratifying to know that Unity Skateboarding is encouraging and affirming for them.”
“I really wanted to get into skating, but the scene around me in London isn't very open to female skaters,” reads one of the many messages. “Your brand has been a reminder that it's not like that everywhere."
Just before heading to Japan with new boards in hand, Cheung sent out a large batch of customized decks to queer youth and teens who reached out to him from all over the globe. Now, those folks are part of the Unity Skateboarding family.
Cheung says he’ll be hand-painting around 200 more boards, then will possibly begin getting his decks screen-printed. The next batch will be available at Unity Mart and online in late April.
In the future, Cheung hopes “queer kids won’t need to be afraid or ashamed" of who they are.
“The next generation of skaters will be queer and better than ever,” he says.