Not too long ago surfing had a few unique characters floating around. Rebels. Stylers. Fighters. Boozers, etc. A couple of real pricks as well. That lineage can be traced back 50 plus years to people like Trent, Velzy, and Dora. Nat, Baddy, and MP. David, Owl, and Ho. Cairns, Engle, and Hynd. Parmann, Naude, and Rudolph. O’Rourke, Collier, and Llamas. Marvin, Gomes, and Garcia. Wardo, Christian, and Archy, and many others.
A Murderer’s Row of badass if you will.
Rippers yes, but also a very motley crew of personalities that weren’t afraid to hit the gas, speak up or throw down.
All-nighter before the comp? No problem, when’s my heat?
Someone disrespecting the boys? Where da guy?
Drive for 20 hours straight to catch a swell. We’re on it.
It was a rugged, authentic existence being lived by real people with a real desire to not only embrace that lifestyle but to also protect it fiercely. Surfing was defined by this existence in both the personalities it attracted as well as how it was ultimately portrayed in the media. Simply, those who gravitated towards a surf-heavy lifestyle, and in turn that portrayal in the media, was one of a mysterious being who was often at odds with regular social behaviors like a real job, a long-term relationship, etc. For better or worse, surfers were truly unique individuals.
Of late, as we are dragged kicking and scratching in resistance, the “sport” of surfing has cleaned things up a bit. Athletes and competitors have replaced lifestyle and adventure as to how surfing should be portrayed. Make no mistake, the WSL, ISA, the Olympics, etc., are purposely driving the transition to this new and supposedly improved presentation of surfing. A different participant is also being attracted of which are often completely unaware or even uncaring about those who came before them or any of the culturally important historical times and events.
This cultural demise seems to have also coincided with many of the surf brands losing their swagger as well. Corpo-speak started replacing “youth against the establishment”. “If you can’t rock and roll, don’t fucken come” gave way to “buy now” and influencer marketing. Some of the true rebel personalities that founded the industry also got pushed aside. O’Neill, Ganzer, MT, Stussy, Yokoyama, and many others, all eventually being replaced by a revolving door of smiley smart guys whose only real care is their year-end bonus.
How’s that working out?
Thankfully there are a few unique individuals still out there like Knost, Mason, Creed, Crano, Noa, and a few others, that still carry the well-worn flag of surfing’s “no fucks given” past. But for the most part, the powers to be still can’t seem to connect the dots on how, why and when surfers actually created significant cultural influences in the past and how those influences were always an embodiment of the lifestyle, not the sport. Simply, they were just living and breathing it, not trying to win a heat or score a point and in turn that authenticity was reflected in the culture that ultimately created the mystique of the “surfer”. When surfing was seen as more of a creative endeavor, it attracted creative minds and creative thinking. Personal style, individuality, forward-thinking, etc., were commonplace and it was often those things that created interest in a way of life that was truly envious to the outside world. There’s a list a mile long of some incredibly creative people doing bitchen shit, yet what most brands focus on today is all this “sport” BS.
Yes, thankfully, there are a few brands who still understand why surfing is cool and why we drive endless hours, sleep in airports, abandon relationships, etc., in the simple quest for a good surf with the crew. Support those brands, reject the “man” and let’s keep surfing our little secret.
Editors note: We’d be remiss in any discussion about surfing’s unique characters to not include a tip of the hat to the late Andy Irons. One of surfing’s true individuals. A surfer’s surfer to the bone. We miss you Andy, and surfing misses you.