Cover Version

Iconic artist Brian Bent reimagines classic SURFER magazine covers

For eccentric surfer, artist, musician, board builder and muscle car-tinkerer Brian Bent, the past resonates in actionable ways. Bent builds and rides pre-WWII-style kook boxes. He builds primitive Hot Rods from scratch. He plays reverb-drenched garage rock that would've made the teens at the Rendezvous Ballroom stomp. And his wardrobe consists mostly of blue-collar, Marlon Brando-esque staples (cuffed blue jeans, white T-shirts, leather jackets), personally altered with punk rock aesthetics.

Meanwhile, Bent's artwork has lately veered into nostalgic territory, as well. A fervent consumer of surf publications since childhood, Bent has recently taken to painting SURFER Magazine covers from the mid-60s.

Over the years, Bent--who cut his teeth painting interior displays for Becker Surfboards storefronts-has developed his own idiosyncratic painting style. Working fastidiously and using bold, expressionist strokes, Bent’s paintings evoke an augmented reality that brings to mind the works of Ralph Steadman.

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In reinterpreting SURFER magazine covers, Bent gives viewers a new lens through which to revisit singular moments, fleeting feelings, and defining styles in surf history. As Bent illuminates iconic surf world ephemera, there's a very Warhol-esque, pop art aesthetic at play, too–the covers as surf-world iconography that resonate with, or are at least recognizable to, generations of surfers.

We recently caught up with Bent and asked him about his favorite SURFER magazine covers and the impetus for this new series of paintings.

Were you a consumer of surf publications as a kid? Did you collect them as you were growing up?

Are you kidding me? I still have them all. In the '70s I would paint all the top surfers and characters from the mags. My uncle, Rocky Saibo, was a pro surfer and he would bring me back stickers from trips and contests. I would draw all the logos and stickers. I would get all the mags and see my uncle and all the guys he surfed with. I was always surrounding myself with surf imagery.

Do you have a favorite era of SURFER magazine?

Oh, definitely the 1960s. I was a longboarder at an early age. I sent in a letter that got printed in '85 that was under the header "Long Shot." I was kind of punk back then and I wrote about how no longboarders wanted to see how high Martin "Plotter" or Mark "Acapulco" can go out of a wave. I thought it was funny at the time. I still have that issue. It's hilarious.

But the early ’60s is what I got into. I would go to the record store and buy back issues [of SURFER magazine]. Before the Internet, I would read all those issues and I was more into the ’60s style and the black and white pictures of guys riding longboards than I was the contemporary stuff going on in the ’80s.

Bent’s homespun surfmobile.

How and when did you decide to start painting old SURFER covers?

Two summers ago I started. I just finished an entire volume of covers from ’66. We were going to have a show at the Severson's house. The '66 series is cool because it's right when Dora started coming out with Da Cat ads and Endless Summer was going on. It was the height of longboarding. I painted sporadic ones before that, but I honed in on '66 after talking to Aaron Hennings [Creative Director] at Stance, and he suggested I do a whole series and that we could maybe do a show at the Severson's. The show never materialized, but its been really fun.

When you first started doing the covers and you were randomly picking ones to paint, did you recognize specific things that drew you to particular covers?

Generally people like sunsets and they like blues and greens. So if the covers had those things, I was drawn to them. I haven't done any art covers. I’ve stuck to the photo covers. When I first started I was also doing Surf Guide and Surfing and even the Surfing Illustrated with the beautiful, Leroy Grannis covers. I was doing all of them, but I really honed in on SURFER this year.

You typically work pretty fast, right? How long does it typically take you to knock out one cover?

I typically can do one in two or three hours. I have perfect lighting in my studio starting right after I get home from a morning surf. Pretty much five days a week, I'll surf and get stoked. Then I'll go to coffee, then I'll go to lunch, then I have all day to paint. I'll put on jazz--like Lionel Hampton jazz--and by the time the sun is settling over the hills in Capistrano, I have the perfect lighting to take a photo of the painting [laughs].

Do you work that quickly on your other paintings?

Well, I've always kind of had to. I started out painting interiors for all the Becker Surfboards shops. So, I had to be quick and to the point with a lot of color. I had to make them grandiose so they stuck out. I still don't see myself as an artist as much as a concept person, or somebody trying to get their point across. It's just how I express myself. It's not that I'm even trying to go fast, I'm just really into it and I'm focusing the whole time. I have a formula, in a sense.

Is there a plan for a formal show? Have you been hit up for commissioned covers?

No plan for a show right now. You know, the idea of working up to a show was to get them out there so if people liked them, they might want to buy them. I show them on my Instagram and people contact me there or my website. You know what's funny is Roark just commissioned one of the most recent issue with Parker Coffin on the cover.

These SURFER covers are, to many surfers, highly recognizable and somewhat hallowed images. What kind of feedback have you gotten on the paintings you've done of them? I imagine there are people who have a pretty passionate connection to them?

Oh man, I had John Witzig hit me up! I had Joe Severson and his wife call me. I've been so happy that so many people really seem to love them--all over the world, too. And I've sold a bunch, which is cool.

Bent, holding his artistic rendition of SURFER’s July 1963 cover.

All photos by Grant Ellis