Posted by: Mark | December 11, 2009

Surf Culture

I have loved surfing for a long time. It’s hard to say for sure, but I guess I started bodysurfing when I was about 8, which means I have over two decades of wave-riding under my belt. My dad pushed me into a wave on a surfboard when I was about 10, and when I got my license at age 16 I got my own board and would drive myself to dawn patrol every morning during the summers.

This sketch was done with colored pencil and is a replica of a piece done by Andy Davis

The thing is, I didn’t necessarily strongly identify myself as a “surfer.” I had a brief stint subscribing to Surfing magazine, but lost the taste for it quickly. I remember reading an “Advice to Surfers” column, which said something akin to:
Rule #whatever: if another surfer asks you the time when out in the water, always add 30min. That way he’ll get out of the water sooner, and you’ll have more waves for yourself.
That was about all I needed of Surfing magazine.

Until I moved to San Francisco 3 1/2 years ago, the closest I lived to the beach was 2hours, except during the glorious summer months when we would head down to the Delaware shore to frolic in playful Atlantic Ocean. I surfed, and loved it, but very few of my real friends, the people I spent real time with, and not just guys I recognized in the water, were surfers. As such, surfing was something very personal to me, but not necessarily something I broadcast. To be honest, I let myself define surfers and surf culture the way that we were stereotyped: a bunch of dumb guys with too much salt water in their heads. Like this guy:

For me, I was a guy who surfed, but not necessarily a surfer.

Since moving to California, I have been slowly embracing the identity of a surfer, and this fall, the pace of acceptance has rapidly increased. A few critical things happened that have left me not only defining myself as a surfer, and quite proudly so, but actively searching out surf culture. They are:

1) Time Off. For all the right and necessary reasons, I took this fall off from work. Everyone told me that it was best for me to take care of myself, given the circumstances that I will not go into here. Being a surfer in San Francisco, the timing couldn’t be better. I had much more time and freedom to hunt down waves when I wanted them, and I spent a lot of time in the water and walking on the sand. In fact, this turned out to be the most concentrated amount of time I’ve spent in the water surfing, probably in my whole life.

2) Danny Hess. One of my friends pulled through in an unparalleled way during this strange patch of time: he rallied my friends and family and they collectively pitched in to purchase me a Danny Hess surfboard. This is a hand-crafted wooden surfboard that I get to help design. It is hard to think of something more graceful and majestic related to surfing than the waves themselves, but a Danny Hess board comes close. Danny is an amazing shaper, and of late has gotten some really impressive press for what he has done. I won’t get the board for a while, because I first have to test designs and then pick the right one for me, after which the board actually has to get made, but this is definitely a gift worth waiting for.

3) Saltwater Buddha. Another friend lent me a book by Jaimal Yogis called Saltwater Buddha. I don’t regularly read surfing-related literature–as I said I have for a long time lumped surfers together as more or less stupid people–and I am really glad I sat down with this book. It’s a relatively simple book, but the beauty lies in the simplicity. It is a thoughtful treatise on zen and surfing, and I loved it. It now has me searching out other books written about surfing, by thoughtful surfers. My next stop is West of Jesus.

Crayon and pen were used to make this sketch based on a piece by John S. Culqui

4) Thomas Campbell. The last surf movie I really liked was Endless Summer 2. I liked Step Into Liquid, but I didn’t really like it–I felt Dana Brown was to similar to his dad Bruce in his storytelling. Most other surf movies are just “surf porn,” to borrow a friend’s phrase. Basically, over-driven punk rock and cutback after cutback, with the occasional g-string shot thrown in. It’s a tired formula. The same friend who lent me Saltwater Buddha lent me two Thomas Campbell surf flicks, and holy crap was I entranced. These movies capture the beauty of surfing in a way I have never seen before. 10 minutes into Sprout I had to shut it down and get up and move about and try to be graceful.

In short, this fall I have immersed myself in surfing, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the most beautiful things that humans can do, and likewise, is one of the most wonderfully harmonious things we can do with nature. Yet for most of my life, I have looked at this beauty as something un-reproduceable; no words, no images, nothing could capture it and explain it to non-surfers. I have finally opened myself up to the amazing world out there of talented people that are quite accomplished at showcasing surfing’s beauty in various mediums. For me, I’ve started toying with my own surf art. The images throughout this part are drawings that I have done. I find beautiful surf art online, pick one piece in particular, and then draw my own version of it, coloring it in with crayons or colored pencils. I plan on moving into painting soon, instead of the grade-school-esque coloring efforts thus far, and my eventual goal is to try and develop my own style f surf art.. We’ll see if I ever get there, as I have historically sucked badly at art. We shall see.

This sketch, my most recent sketch, is done with colored pencil and is based on a piece by David Lloyd.



  1. Oh, man, that surfer interview never gets old.

    Glad your semester off gave you time in the water, Mark. Thanks for the post.

  2. Awesome drawings – I love the color chunks on the last one. Hope you’re doing well.

  3. I like different surfers for different reasons, but I got to thinking that among those I admire there’s a constant: each believes that part of surfing is always seeking to understand what it means to surf, and to be a surfer. I think this post embodies that aspect of surfing with the honesty and warmth I’ve come to enjoy in your writing.

  4. Righteous.

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