Mark Leo


It’s a grind, but not that kind.

by Brett Levine     Photo by Jerry Siegel

“I started skateboarding in 1986, in what was one of the heydays of skateboard magazine culture,” says graphic designer Mark Leo as he speaks of how he became interested in the ideas of branding, marketing and design.  “I was reading magazines like Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding and looking at the graphics being made by people like the conceptual artist Craig Stecyk and the work he did for the Bones Brigade.  I knew I wanted this type of creativity to be a part of my world.”

Switching from a focus on English and history, Leo completed a degree in graphic design at UAB, and he quickly realized that there was room to work with diverse clients meeting their various needs.  “One of the aspects of working in a city like Birmingham is that there are a lot of  financial institutions, hospitals and service organizations that are always thinking very carefully about what sets them apart from their competition,”  he says. This understanding has led Leo to create logos or advertisements for clients including UAB, Jenkins Brick and Tile, and Haskell Slaughter.  One of his most recognizable achievements was his work as an art director for Forte Marketing Group.   Their annual report for the Jimmie Hale Mission won a Gold Addy Award.

But as someone who continues to skate, Leo always wanted to diversify his practice.  He continued to focus on mainstream clients and their needs, but he also began to reach out to professional skateboarders, following them and their companies on Facebook and providing them with links to his work.

Three years ago, he got his “street” break when Steve Steadham, a member of the legendary Bones Brigade, wore one of Leo’s t-shirt designs while competing in the X Games.

This led to a role as art director for Pure Distribution, designing for their Tracker, Blueprint, Orion and Premium brands.  “Funnily enough, I designed my first full-page ad that appeared in Skateboarder magazine later in life,” Leo says.  “It took a lot of networking in a community I’d been a part of for a really long time.”

These days, Leo works with clients to strengthen their emerging brands across a range of product lines.  “I love creating an identity for something like Orion Trucks, something that is seen again and again,” he says. “At the same time, I enjoy working with young companies that are learning how to place their products in the marketplace.  Where a company might have had a t-shirt a decade ago, now we talk about an entire range of streetwear, branded skateboards, trucks and wheels, and a range of other products that really emphasize who the company is and what new innovations they’re bringing to their users.

“One of my main pleasures now is working with companies like Faith Skate Supply in Birmingham, or Relief in Panama City, or Freebird in New Jersey.  All of these companies have a really fascinating sensibility playing with the idea of being Southern and what that culture means in the skateboarding or roller-derby worlds.”

Leo remains committed to Birmingham, to his many friends and connections, and to the opportunities the city provides him.  “For me, my work is basically a case of ‘have laptop, will travel.’  With my laptop and Skype I can meet clients anywhere,” he explains.  “Many of my clients are becoming more comfortable with this approach, whether it is thought of as a more formal videoconference with a large corporate clients or as a simple Skype call with a smaller business.”

Maintaining a balance is important.  Leo teaches graphic design as an adjunct instructor at the Jefferson State Shelby Campus even as he continues his private practice.  “I always think of myself first simply as a professional graphic designer,” Leo says.  “I am excited by the scope and range of work I am invited to do.  Whether it is an annual report, a website redesign, a clothing label or some other branding entirely, I always tailor my approach to the needs of my client.  Really, I simply try to let my works speak for themselves.  With the advances in social media, clients can explore my approach and decide if it seems like it could be a good fit.  After that, it’s all about business.  Well, it’s about business, but business in the way the client feels the most comfortable.”

With that, Leo mentions a new skatepark  slowly emerging on the north side of the viaduct in downtown Birmingham.  Peter Karvonen, owner of Faith Skate Supply, through a set of connections, is trying to create safe spaces for skaters since the demise of the space near Railroad Park.  Leo, committed to the community, does what he can to help create a positive, much- needed space.

“Birmingham is a really positive city.” he says. “We just have to continue to be more creative, to create opportunities when we need them and to remember that our city creates incredible talent every single day.”

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