Something I’ve been dwelling on recently is the change surf culture seems to have undergone in the last few decades, from vibrant, anti-establishment subculture to accepted mainstream “sport,” no different than golf or tennis. Surf culture seems to have lost its edge and gotten a lot softer as the decades have worn on. While surfers today undoubtedly charge bigger, heavier waves and their performance in the water has gone to places on and above the wave that were previously inconceivable, the culture surrounding surfing has lost a lot of the artists and fringe society members that were once drawn to surfing’s bright flame.
This shows up in the boards we choose to put under our feet, or more importantly, what’s not under our feet. We obsess over the latest boards and fins and gear that our favorite surfers are riding, the same way kids dream of the latest basketball shoes. Then after a year, we throw it all away when we’re told there’s something even better out. Why would we bother to demand surfboards be fucking cool when we’re already planning on throwing them away before we’ve even paid for them?
In fact, it’s so noteworthy nowadays when a surfer decides to put anything weird on their boards, that SURFER will run an article in print and online declaring just how exciting it is.
Skateboarding, though, managed to hang on to that idea of art being an important part of great boards. Companies like Toy Machine or Zero or a half dozen others understood that putting something a little weird and offbeat was important to keeping your subculture at least a little bit in the hands of the people you want to be a part of it.
It seems like the disappearance of art from surfboards is a symptom of the gradual bleaching of surf culture, scrubbing the visual traces of weirdness out of the lineup. Surfboards will always be a reflection of the people that ride them, which may explain why skate culture continues to demand that art is a part of what they ride, but your average surfing office dweller doesn’t care what adorns the bottom of his or her ride.
How do we refine that edge that surfing seems to have lost, but skating seems to have worked a little harder to hang on to. I figured the only way to get a better look at this problem was to turn to someone who knows than I do about both art and surfing, and especially where they come together.
Sketchy Tank, a guy whose motto has long been “disturbing the comfortable, comforting the disturbed,” has managed to work with surfers, skaters, and snowboarders, and get his kind of outsider art a place back at the table within all three. Along with Derek Dunfee, he was one of the brains behind the SHVDE videos of the last few years, proving that there is a place for weirdness in surf videos.
So I sat down with the guy I know who can best maybe help me figure out where the place for strange art on surfboards might be found again.
The Flying Peanut: Surfing (and skateboarding and snowboarding) have all featured in your art at various times. What parts of those cultures (surfing especially) do you draw inspiration from? Who in those communities do you see and think, "what that dude is doing is fucking rad"?
Sketchy Tank: I grew up doing all three of those sports and they all carry a certain sense of nostalgia for me. I draw the most inspiration from old skateboard graphics more than anything. Every time I see an old classic Gonz board it makes me feel like a kid again, so I think in a way I'm just trying to relive my youth. As far as inspiration from "surf culture" not so much, but I draw tons of inspiration from actual surfing and the way it makes me feel spiritually when I'm doing it.
TFP: Your slogan is, "Disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed." Do you think that resonates with surfers today, or has surfing become a little too 'comfortable'?
ST: Ha! surfers are definitely not counterculture or pushing the envelope when it comes to art today. Christian Fletcher was the only surfer I would say that was out of step from the norm. Generally the "surf image" isn't really my thing, but I love to surf and I will till I die.
TFP: Can you talk a little bit about making the SHVDE movies with Derek Dunfee and Chippa Wilson? Surfing is the backbone of both films, but they aren't your average 'web clips'. What did you guys want to create with those?
ST: SHVDE was an idea that Derek Dunfee and Erik Derman came to me with. They wanted to make an artsy short film with surfing but ST aesthetic and art direction. We wrote the script together and more or less just wanted to make a disturbing short surf film with a touch of humor. I don't think surfing really has a "dark side" it is all poppy and bright and happy, that's why we did SHVDE to show something opposite.
The original SHVDE video. Or if this one doesn't strike your fancy, then SHVDE II with Chippa Wilson might.
TFP: It seems like skateboarding has held on to its edginess a little more than surfing has. Where do you think the different attitude towards art between the two is?
ST: Skaters and surfers generally are two different breeds, yes there are exceptions but overall skaters are a little more rough around the edges. Let's put it this way, a surfer has never had to fight a security guard for taking his surfboard and trying to kick him out of a surf spot. Skaters had to fight to make their place in society. Again I'm being very broad, but you get what I'm saying. Skaters like saying "fuck you" and don't want to be normal...not so much with surf.
TFP: Surfing's lack of art, whether it's on surfboards or surfers making art, seems to coincide with its growing mainstream acceptance. Is there a way to change that, or are we doomed to a life of boring white surfboards and black wetsuits and minivans? Can we make surfing (and surfers) less boring by demanding more art?
ST: I do think there is a lot more art in surfing right now, more than ever. Pro surfers are turning into "artists" and drawing on boards etc. and the magazines are getting very "hip". Surf industry is safe and I think it will remain that way for a while.
There, in a nutshell, might be the problem. Anyone who has ever hucked themselves over a sizable ledge breaking across shallow reef or rocks knows that our lifestyle isn’t safe, but the way that lifestyle is packaged and sold certainly is. The surf industry is safe, and it doesn’t have much of an impetus to change, not as long as it’s still trying to sell board shorts to middle America.
I think there’s a lot of surfers out there who hate it, who don’t like only having boring board options, who don’t like seeing people who aren’t committed to the lifestyle plaguing surf spots in reckless numbers, who think it’s fucked that surfing is always, “poppy and bright and happy,” and desperately crave something different, whether it’s dark or weird or lo-fi. Just SOMETHING that doesn’t look like it came out of the advertising department at Target. It’s bullshit that the only people in the surf industry that have art on their boards are the pro’s who have the time and money to sit down and scrawl some art in between the stickers of their sponsors.
I don’t think that art on surfboards can drastically change culture, and it certainly won’t make any individual a better surfer (myself especially). I do think, however, that surrounding yourself with things that inspire and excite you can have a whole range of positive effects, both on you and the people around you. And because of that, in what is probably a futile act, I did the only thing I could think of. I shaped myself a new fish, and then Sketchy Tank did this:
Because maybe even one board that isn’t boring can make a difference, and push me to be a little bit less safe myself.