What is Surf Culture?

Culture -: the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.


The Foundations of Surf Culture

It is astonishing to think that many cultures, firmly embedded into our modern lifestyles, didn’t exist but a lifetime ago.

The elder statesmen of planet earth can remember no rap music culture, no electronic dance music culture, and indeed, the more senior can remember a time before surf culture existed.

Although surfing’s roots can be traced back to ancient Polynesia, modern-day surf culture is a relatively young phenomenon.


The Greatest Generation


In order to understand the dynamics of early surf culture we need to take a look at the socio-economics associate with the time that surfing became truly popular.

When World War II ended in 1945, the focus of Americans, Europeans, and residents of allied countries were firmly on physical and economic rebuilding.

The work ethic of the “greatest generation” cannot be questioned. Many of these people had started work in their early teenage years or before. Hard, manual labor was the norm, and even very young children undertook jobs that would shock the hardiest of today’s manual workers.

Hardship was a part of life, having already lived through World War I (1914-1918), the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918), and the great depression of the 1930s. The arrival of World War II in 1939 was another, albeit significant, bump in the road for the hardiest of generations.

They worked through it, with straight backs and stiff upper lips, firmly shifting their post-war focus to the demands of getting life back on track.


The Growth of Surfing


The legendary George Freeth was integral to the growth of surfing in California. The skilled surfer, who rode waves with Olympic swimming champion, and patriarch of surfing Duke Kahanamoku, drove the popularity of wave riding to the point where surfing contests were seen along the southern coastline in the mid-1920s.

It was around this time that surfing started gaining domestic popularity. The sport had been introduced to America and Australia several years prior by traveling Hawaiians. By the mid-to-late 1930s, many American citizens had experienced “riding the wild surf” during holidays to the Hawaiian Islands.

However, at this time, the guys and girls participating in the sport were simply people who enjoyed a few waves between work, school, military obligations, or other hobbies. Although they were a part of a small surf culture, it was yet to explode.

It wasn’t until the war and recession-induced fog of the first half of the 20th century cleared, that surfing became a bona fide recreational pursuit. It was at this point in time that we saw the foundations on which modern surf culture would be built.


Surf Bums – The Emergence of the Surfing Counterculture

The post-war era is perhaps the most significant point on the timeline of surf culture. I cannot think of many situations in sporting history where a recreational activity influenced a generation to the level that surfing has. Football players don’t hang out on the football field between matches and practices. Tennis players don’t chill out on the court when they aren’t playing. Yet surfers live a beach life, a surfing life, even when the waves are flat.

As sublime as the act of physically riding on top of moving water is, the peripheral elements were perhaps even more embraced, particularly in the epicenter of early surf culture, California.

The image of bronzed bodies lying on the sand, soaking up the sun, transistor radio blaring out the modern tunes, is synonymous with early surf culture. Young men with bare torso’s, tight-fitting shorts, Brylcream styled hair, and bikini-clad beauties, sitting on the bonnets of “Woodies,” with single fin boards strapped to the roof, is another iconic image of the day.

In other words, the pre/post surf time was just as important as the hour or so in the ocean. Chilling on the beach or in the parking lot, looking good, and speaking the proper lingo was as much being a surfer as was riding the surf.

I believe this element of early surf culture firmly shaped the future of surfing and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Can you imagine the horror of the “Greatest Generation” when they witnessed what the youth were up to?
Leisure was not something that those who had lived through the atrocities of the past four decades could comprehend.

Leisure was the anthesis of hard work. While they could understand the athletic pursuit of surfing for a couple of hours after working hard all day, the thought of compromising your productivity by lying on a beach towel between the hours of 8 and 6 was considered slovenly, lazy, and disrespectful.

Australian academic and subculture specialist Jon Stratton described the post-war emergence of surf culture perfectly as being.

“Rearticulated as the living of a myth of leisure.”

An entire generation, and the generation before them, had been convinced that leisure was a myth for their demographic. Only the wealthiest and most successful could afford the opportunity to bathe in the ocean, lounge on the sand, and choose not to work.

The new generation of Californian surfers was tipping an entire ideology upside down! The “Surf Bums” had arrived and the 1960’s were a heady time.

Surfers vs Society

Western society has been meticulously built around a capitalist consumer culture. Market prices for goods are set in a way that seemingly benefits the community. However, the primary interest is clearly making a profit. The same markets dictate the relationship between product and consumer, essentially programming people’s minds as to what they want and what they need. Add elements like “planned obsolescence” into the mix and the result, according to neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar, is:

All humans consume varieties of products, many of which beyond actual necessity because it activates the brain’s reward center.

Work hard five to six days a week. Pay your taxes, your rent, your mortgage. Pay your insurance, your medical bills. Buy your food and clothing at elevated market prices. Whatever is left at the end of the month can be spent on products and services that we tell you are desirable.

Surfers defied this system with vigor. Once the traditional consumerist purchase of a surfboard and a pair of board shorts or bikini had been completed, they were free of capitalist shackles. The beach was the place to be. The waves were captivating and fun. Both were free!

You were surrounded by like-minded people. You could listen to the music you enjoyed and dress the way you wanted to. It was only when you went home that evening or back to school that senior figures might bemoan your choices.

Surfers rebelled against societal pre-sets. During this time, surfers realized their chosen path was less of a sport and more of a spiritual, symbiotic pursuit.

This mindset and culture soon crossed continents, most noticeably to Australia and Europe.

Early Surf Fashion

The 1960’s witnessed the birth of highly recognisable surfing fashion. Surf fashion is a hugely important part of surf culture to this day.

We need to remember that “uniforms” were an integral part of everyday life for post war generations. School uniforms, military uniforms, work uniforms, and the staid, formal fashion of their parents “greatest generation” were drab affairs.

Surf fashion was an opportunity to be colourful, expressive, and show the world that you were part of something other than the rat race.

Cottage brands such as Katins, Sundek and Hang Ten were manufacturing clothing exclusively for surfers, however non-surfers soon joined the lengthening queues.

Early Surf Music

While many still considered surf culture to be a fringe element that would soon disappear forever, along with the lazy ne’er-do-wells with their silly haircuts, the music industry had different ideas.

Jan and Dean, The Surfaris, and The Ventures came onto the scene with surfing influenced songs, directed at the new generation of Californian “surf bum.”

The most famous surf group, The Beach Boys produced songs and albums which are still recognisable today. Surfing Safari, Surfer Girl, and most famously, Surfin USA are world famous, multi selling tracks. If you need an example of just how keen the music industry was to exploit this new “surf culture”, consider that only one of the five band member (Dennis Wilson) actually surfed.

The 1970s to Present Day

Surfing literally swept the globe. The late 1960s and early 70s birthed the phenomenon of surf travel and exploration, resulting in thousands of miles of coastlines being searched, and surfing communities popping up around the globe.

Surfers were nomadic by design. The likes of Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth had traveled to spread the joy of surfing, and the early generation of surfers had packed up their woodies and explored the Californian coastline for the mythical secret spots. Surfers from America, Australia, and Europe were continuing the path set by early pioneers.

It is fascinating to explore the development of surf culture over the coming decades. Many of the early cultural seeds sown in the 1950s and 60s have grown through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s into the modern surf culture that we know and love.

Lets take a look at some of the fundamentals:

Sprituality

Brad recently wrote an article on Surfd where he opined Why Surfing Should be Classified as a Religion.

There is no doubt in my mind that surfers have a spiritual connection to their chosen pursuit, which has become a strong part of modern surf culture.

The earliest recorded surfers, the ancient Polynesians, appear to have included wave riding as part of their religious practice and I believe the ritualistic processes that surfers share are a modern variation of those ancient ways.

Who consistently wakes up at 4.30am every morning and does the same thing year after year, decade after decade? The answer: monks and surfers. 

Fr Donald Calloway

We base our days, our weeks, months, years, and entire lives, around the relationship we share with the ocean and her changing moods and states. We feel joy and belonging in the oceans embrace. When we are away from surfing, we anticipate our return with excitement.

Water has been a part of spiritual tradition for centuries. There is undoubtedly scientific proof that salt water immersion is good for us on so many levels, but while the scientists can offer explanations as to why our muscles and organs respond so well to the sea, they cannot explain why our life-force, the energy that propels us is boosted every time we surf.

A contemplative, mindful practice within a healing entity… Sounds spiritual to me.

Community

Surfers are part of a local, regional, national, and global community.

We generally have our favourite local breaks, where we tend to do a lot of our surfing. However, we also travel to different breaks under different conditions, as well as traveling internationally to experience foreign waves.

Next time you’re down the beach on a nice day, take a look at how surfers congregate, just like they did in the 1950s and 60s. Groups of guys and girls kicking back, often guitars and coffees (or beers) in hand, talking about surfing, surfboards, who’s ripping and who’s not.

Now, we could formulate an argument for surfers defying the sense of community with the practice of localism, making other surfers unwelcome. However, I have to say that having travelled pretty extensively, surfers are friendly and hospitable at more spots than they are hostile and aggressive.

Theres a standard practice, a few select words that tend to initiate communication.

Hey, you getting a few good ones?

For me, the sense of community is an integral part of surf culture.

Tribalism

As much as surfers belong to the wider community, I believe there is also a strong sense of tribalism embedded in surf culture.

We are surfers amongst the overall community of surfers on a macro level, however we can further break that down to a micro level and see the smaller groups that exist within the community.

Longboarders, alternative board-riders, shortboarders, big-wave surfers to name but a few. Guys and girls who wait patiently for a particularly fickle point break to light up, surfing it every time it breaks. They tend to align with the others in their group.

As much as you can spot a surfer from the way they dress, you can also spot which sub-set, or tribe, they belong to by the subtle differences in their fashion and the logos on their clothing.

Why do I consider this tribal?

I might be reaching a bit here, and I’m sure I may get some pushback from the readership but here’s why.

Each “tribe” associates with a pursuit and the place they practice it. They are tuned into the ecology and meteorology of that place, and spend years learning and developing the pursuit. Generally this wisdom is past down generationally.

There is an age related hierarchy to their tribes, with surfing elders garnering respect both in the lineup and on the beach. Young, hungry whippersnappers generally have to endure a rite of passage before they are entitled to set waves.

There is a sense of belonging that we as humans crave so strongly.

The tribes have a awareness of the “others”. Longboarders surfing the inside river mouth know full well that a crew of shortboard rippers are just around the corner at the beach break wedge. They co-exist in the parking lot, not quite understanding the others choices of wave riding, but respecting them. They even share a beer later that evening.

That all sounds pretty tribal to me and I believe it forms a pretty substantial part of surf culture.

Environmentalism

I made the point in a recent article that “Surfers are environmentalists by design; however, we practice a unique level of hypocrisy.”

I stand by that comment, but if we take away the hypocrisy of the mass production processes of Big Surf, surfers as a community, and as part of smaller tribes, tend to share a love for their coastal environment.

The connection to the ocean, the beach and the surrounding environment again create a connection to the people who share that passion. When a group of people unite with a common goal, any differences they may have in other aspects of life are put to one side and that unity becomes the denominator.

Just look at the Beach Cleans that happen at surf spots across the globe, or the level of support shown for The Surfrider Foundation. Surfers from all walks of life, from all different “tribes” congregate for a common goal. The goal of improving the environment they love for present and future generations.

Surfers have historically practised several of the processes heralded as the future of sustainability. Wetsuits, surfboards, and accessories are naturally “handed down” through the generations. Up-cycling and re-using are things that surfers were doing, before they became a thing.

Rebellion / Counterculture

This has been a part of surfing since those early Californian days and, although not quite as potent, remains true today.

As much as we love being a part of our community and tribe, I believe we equally love NOT being a part of wider society. Not totally adhering to “The Rat Race.”

Although surfing is now way more mainstream than a lot of care to admit, and our beloved sport/art/lifestyle/spiritual pursuit has become more industrialised than we have ever seen, we staunchly maintain a stance against consumer-culture and the grinding cogs of capitalism.

I accept that the WSL has grown into a worldwide phenomenon and surfing making the Olympics has attracted a wider and more mainstream audience and corporate sponsorship opportunities, but take a minute to consider this.

The overwhelming majority of surfers do not compete, at any level. They have limited interest in competition and couldn’t care less if a WSL event is on, or if there is an Olympic gold medal heat happening. They might watch it if the surfs flat, but if there’s waves see ya later!

There are potentially 1,000,000 surfers around the world for each individual on the WSL championship tour.

We surf because surfing feels incredible. Ok we have our heroes, the guys and girls we admire, and we’d love to surf like. But for every Kelly Slater… There’s a Christian Fletcher…. For every Tommy Curren…. There’s a Matt Archbold…

For every kid taking up surfing with aspirations of athletic excellence, there are thousandss who are doing it because its so freaking cool!

We love it when a surfer rebels against what surfing has become. We loved it when Bobby Martinez gave his famous tirade, his rage against the surfing machine. Our response based on the fact that no-one should shackle our sport, no one should kill the individualism and maverick personality of surfers through media and PR training.

Language

While we have moved away from a lot of the early 1960s terminology (you don’t hear too many surfers shouting cowabunga nowadays), surfers still have a language unique to the sport.

While the use of correct terminology with immediately identify a person as a surfer with a modicum of knowledge, incorrect language will automatically declare them a “kook” or “barney.”

Fashion

High Street fashion has a vested interest in surf attire. Just like the music industry jumped on surf music in the 60s, a number of companies have become incredibly successful selling surf wear, mainly to people who don’t surf.

As much as these companies might have started out selling hardware and apparel made by surfers, for surfers, they soon realised the opportunity to increase profits by selling the image of surfing.

Surfers tend to wear clothes that identify them as a surfer. However, they tend to wear surf clothes that are different to the surf clothes that a non surfer, or beginner surfer wears. Does that make sense?

Geniya recently wrote a fascinating article on Surf Fashion and Style I strongly recommend having a look to see how surf fashion has involved over the years. Her break down of the arrival of niche surf brands really highlights the element of tribalism we discussed earlier.

Surf Culture – The Sum of its Parts

So what is surf culture?

Although surf culture is notoriously hard to define, let’s put everything we have discussed so far into context.

Surf culture is made up of the following parts:

  • A pursuit that transcends just a sport. A pursuit that is metaphysical, healing and liberating. A pursuit that captivates you for a lifetime and enhances your time on the planet like few others.
  • A sense of global and local community.
  • Tribalism within the community.
  • A genuine connection with nature and a deeply embedded sense of environmentalism.
  • A rebellious stance within a counterculture.
  • A language that identifies surfers.
  • Fashion that is unique to the sport and acts as an identifier.

Surfers are a unique and fascinating case study. Our ideas, customs, and social behaviours are based on foundations laid many years ago. Our culture has stood the test of time, yet is evolving and developing.

I believe that surf culture is based on the aforementioned cornerstones. I hope it remains this way forever.