Surf Art: A brief history of surfing design & culture

Today there is a whole genre of surf art. It’s usually illustration-based and characterized by a mixture of psychedelic, surrealist, punk and comic book-derived influences. How did we get here?

To understand the development of surf art, you need to understand the development of the surfboard—a paradigmatic design object in itself, with an amazing history in the 20th century.

The guys (mostly denizens of Californian and Hawaiian beaches) who developed the surfboard as we know it were often social outsiders. Behind the clean lines and perfectionism of their boards was a desire to create a lifestyle outside of the normal working man’s routine. So it’s no surprise that surfing design eventually blossomed into the hyper-expressive and offbeat style that we now know.

But let’s start at the beginning to see how this awesome story unfolded.

Surfing origins

surfing design
View of Karakakooa, in Owyee (via printsellers.com)

While today the surfboard is inextricably linked to images of California in the 1960s, it is by no means an American invention. Surf culture originated in Polynesia and came to the US by way of Hawaii. The first ever depiction of surfing is an engraving that appeared in London in 1790: “View of Karakakooa, in Owyee.”

Hawaiian surfboards
Reproductions of ancient Hawaiian surfboards (via shapercloud.com)

Ancient Hawaiian surfboards came in two varieties: a long board measuring up to 25 feet for the nobility, and a more modestly sized version for commoners. Both were typically made of carved and polished redwood, and often weighed upwards of 100 pounds. They had no additional “design” to speak of, apart from the natural wood grain that artisans worked to bring out.

Unfortunately, when European missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they suppressed the activity of surfing, which they saw as uncivilized, and it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that it began to re-emerge. This time it found an eager audience among select Americans, who brought it back to the mainland.

hollow surfboard
Tom Blake building the first hollow board (via surfline.com)

These Americans introduced certain innovations. George Freeth cut the traditional 16 foot board down to a more manageable 6-10 feet, Tom Blake introduced the first ever hollow surfboard, which was much lighter and faster, in 1926, and in the 1930s a nascent surfboard industry began using South American balsa wood instead of redwood to further lighten the instrument.

surfers
Surfers with Pacific Systems boards in 1939 (via vintagesurfboardcollectoruk.blogspot.com)

The modern surfboard was in the making, and with it came a new emphasis on design. Generally these boards, such as the ones produced by the Pacific Systems company, are characterized by clean vertical lines created by alternating strips of wood of different tones. They also often had painted crests or carved insignias. Compared to their successors of the 1960s and 70s, however, they were extremely restrained.

The modern surfboard takes form

modern surfboard
A surfboard by Dale Velzy (via megadeluxe.com)

The light, shiny, colorful surfboard that we know today is fundamentally a product of material technologies developed during the years surrounding World War II. Styrofoam and, later, polyurethane foam made for an unprecedentedly light board body, which would be weighted with strips of balsa or redwood. Then, the whole board would be encased in a thin coating of smooth, shiny fiberglass that could be endlessly polished.

While novel, these materials were relatively available in Los Angeles and easier to work with than plain wood. Soon a whole craft surf industry emerged, led by board “shapers” like Pete Peterson, who created the first fiberglass board, Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Bob Simmonds, Dale Velzy and Dick Brewer.

Bing surfboards
A selection of Bing surfboards (via classicbingsurfboards.com)

Technology had a huge impact not only upon surfboards themselves, but their decorative components. Using cutting edge polyester resin pigments, designers completely reinvented the look of the surfboard by introducing bright colors and graphics applied directly to the plastic core and then sealed in beneath the fiberglass.

famous surfboards
Insignias for Hap Jacobs, Gordon and Smith, and Harbour surfboards (via cleanlinesurf.com, surfboardshack.com, and harboursurfboards.com)

Surf companies also began perfecting their insignias, or logos, which became an important aspect of the sufboard’s appearance. Iconic insignias for Hap Jacobs, Gordon and Smith, and Rich Harbour all employ crisp geometric shapes and typefaces reminiscent of mid-century signage, while Town and Country’s use of the Yin and Yang popularized this symbol to the wider culture.

surfer magazine
1960s Surfer Magazines (via surfbooks.com and surfermag.com)

Buoyed by its newfound bright colors and slick designs, surf culture quickly crossed over into the mainstream in a big way, as movies like Gidget (1959) and the early repertoire of the Beach Boys attest. Within the surf subculture, Surfer Magazine, which began in 1960 and runs to this day, became an organ for self-reflection and design dialog, which is reflected in its own innovative layouts and photo manipulations.

The rise of surf art

famous surf art: Endless Summer
Detail of John Van Hammersveld’s “Endless Summer” (via easyreadernews.com)

When we think of surf art of the 1960s, images like John Van Hammersveld’s iconic screen print, Endless Summer, jumps to mind. But in fact, the cross-over was much more extensive and varied.

surf artist Billy Al Bengston
Billy Al Bengston polishing a painting (via blogs.getty.edu)

A group of Los Angeles painters and sculptors represented by the famed Ferus Gallery (among them Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price and Robert Irwin) saw new opportunities for their own art in the space age plastics, resins and other polymers that surf culture—of which they were themselves a part—had embraced. Bengston famously created paintings that he actually polished, like a surfboard or motorcycle, to a state of impeccable shine.

These surf artists showed how surfing design could be transmuted into other spheres, and that the culture and attitude could inform any number of creative activities.

surf artist rick Griffin
Detail of a comic by Rick Griffin (via x-aspirations.com)

Then came along Rick Griffin, a poster designer and comic book artist with a penchant for highly detailed illustration and a somewhat surrealist, warped aesthetic. His main character, Murphy, was a surfer whose interests became increasingly psychedelic as the 60s wore on.

surf artist Ben Brown
Artwork by Ben Brown (via disassociated.com and torasumi.com)

Unlikely though it may have seemed at the time, Griffin is in many ways the father of present day surf art. His detailed illustration style was carried on by future artists like Drew Brophy and Ben Brown, who have kept it current by adding psychedelic, punk and street art inflections.

And as for the most iconic surfing design of all time? We are partial to the evocative simplicity of Hamersveld’s “Endless Summer,” which channels the crisp lines and saturated colors of modern surfboards themselves, while also figuring the duality of dark and light that characterizes the perspective of the social outsider. But others have compellingly made the case for Rick Rietveld’s Surfer Einstein—a tongue-in-cheek reminder that while surfers have been stereotyped as burnouts, many of them are actually intellectuals in disguise.

famous surf art
Rick Rietveld’s Surfer Einstein (via tumblr.com)

What do you think is the most iconic surf art? Share in the comments!

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