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Surf Culture's Slide to Safety

Not even a few decades ago, surfing was a colorful affair. Both craft and crowd stretched from one end of the visual spectrum to the other, from the barrel-chested man’s men who pioneered big waves in Hawaii, to the long-haired, van-dwelling dropouts that dotted the California coast’s lineups all day, employment be damned. The boards under these surfers wore a vast array of lightning bolts and psychedelia, and an entire pantheon of art sailed across the water’s surface under their footwork. Out of the water, surfers weren’t admired by the mainstream crowd, they were cousins to the motorcycle riders, the communists, the gypsies and beats. These rebels and the vagabonds and the artists wandered through pleasant society entrenched on the beaches, who viewed them as having no purpose other than to drag down upstanding young men and women into their lifestyle of dope and low standards.

Hell, even early surf contests were notoriously lawless, sordid affairs. The Windansea Surf Club was famous for arriving to contests in buses full of beer, barely able to see, and still winning. In the 1972 World Championships in Ocean Beach, San Diego, front runner David Nuuhiwa’s favorite board was hung in effigy from the OB pier on the final day of the contest, apparently because the fish was a San Diego design originally, and locals felt that it shouldn’t be under the feet of a Hawaiian. Misguided logic, perhaps, but proves the point that the contest surfers of that time period weren’t fucking around and playing by any rules other than their own.

"The attitude of Windansea," Hasley said years later, "was, 'We're going to win the contest; we're going to the dance and take all the girls; we're going to out-drink everybody. And if they don't like it, we're going to beat the shit out of them.'"Chuck Hasley of the Windansea Surf Club, via The Encyclopedia of Surfing

What the hell happened to us?

Pull into any parking lot of any major surf break and examine the folks who surround you. I can only speak from experience at a few locales in the continental US, but in talking to more traveled surfers than myself, it seems the scenes are similar, if not exact clones. These parking lots are the opposite of cool, a complete dearth of hip, a miasma of the uninspired. The equipment clenched in the soft hands of these surfers are more likely to be something that was stamped off an assembly line across the Pacific, shipped en masse to these shores for bulk consumption, rather than a well-crafted board emblazoned with one-of-a-kind art.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat. First, and foremost, I’m as guilty as the kinds of people of people I’m describing: a boring, middle-class transplant who’s done next to nothing to solve the problem I’m talking about. My station wagon in the parking lot is indecipherable from the one showing up, ferrying NSP funboards and the accountants that ride them. I’m well aware of just how deep red the “A” on my chest is.

Secondly, there are obviously exceptions to the generalization above, guys who are are weird in and out of the water, whether it comes to what they’re riding or what their landlocked pursuits entail. These guys are the exceptions that prove the rule, and shouldn’t it be them, not the cookie-cutter guys on similar shortboards, that we hold up as the standards of surfing?

Somewhere along the line, surfing took a corner and set a different line, and similar activities like skateboarding and snowboarding, to some degree, followed suit. I grew up immersed in skating and snowboard, and in love with surfing from afar. What changed? How’d we all end up down such a vanilla path from a subculture that prided itself on being different? When did the artists and the weirdos get replaced with such frequency by the jocks and the middle-aged men with 401(k)s?

Rebellion is sexy, and sex sells, and once the American advertising machines sniffs you out, there’s money to be made and they don’t tend to take no for an answer. It was only a few short hops from the lawless contest-as-party days until it was rolled up, packaged, and sold back to the masses, so that every kid who’d never seen the ocean let alone ridden a wave was awash in overpriced, surf-branded clothing. The ASP (now WSL) tied it up in a neat little package, and it’s a lot easier to sell non-threatening surfers-as-athletes as part of the program, riding white-as-snow surfboards with maybe a quick spray paint job, than it is to sell artists, or weirdos, or even people with a point of view (see Bobby Martinez as a recent example). Skateboarding followed suit, to some degree, draggin' the culture out of backyard pools and into the sponsored-by-energy-drink X-Games.

A good friend of mine, and a guy who has been surfing for much longer than I have, pointed out to me, rightly, that all of American culture has gotten safer and more vanilla in the last few decades. Modern surfers exist in the midst of an international culture that loves reality television and holds up talentless “celebrities” as examples to follow. But shouldn’t we, along with skateboarders and snowboarders, hold ourselves more accountable than just to go along the path that mainstream culture has paved for us? Shouldn’t our subcultures be the ones pushing back against the safe, blandness being pushed down upon us?

I don’t have any answers to this question, this idea that our subculture is backing its way into the mainstream. Because that’s what’s happening: instead of surfing exerting its influence on mainstream culture to make it better, mainstream culture has made surf culture more boring, more of a consumer culture than ever before.

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