Culture of Cool

Surfers are sheep. Here are the details.

Luke Davis, all style, no shtick. Photo: Burkard

This article is from our May 2012 issue. Click here to see what else is inside, or click here to purchase a copy.

I'm as guilty as the rest. I have a '70s single-fin in my garage, along with a custom 5'0" Mini-Simmons twin. My glasses are black Ray-Bans. My hair is unkempt, my face is scruffy. I'm wearing Vans, and as for my jeans, yes, they are fairly skinny. I own an iPhone and a Mac. You can follow me on Twitter, see my photos on Instagram, and there's even a film camera on my desk. I've been referred to as a writer, a blogger, a creative type. I want to believe I'm an individual. I want to believe that my life choices add up to something unique. But the evidence sure as hell suggests otherwise. I'm indistinguishable from the rest of the surf-hipster herd. The sad thing is, I don't even feel like part of the tribe. Instead, I am who I hate.

How did this happen? I have my excuses. They mostly boil down to a conceited, dubious defense: my intransient personal brand has come full-circle, from in-style to out-of-style to back in-style again. I stuck with it that long, and finally trends have caught up to me. I can explain almost every last vestige of my shameful surf hipsterdom: The single-fin? It's the board I learned to surf on. The Ray-Bans? My vision actually sucks, and I've been wearing prescription Ray-Bans for almost 20 years. I'll keep defending myself, although it's pointless. I've always hated shaving, I'm naturally hirsute, I've looked like a bum since puberty. The analog camera on my desk? I've had it since 1995, and the Vans I'm wearing are the same style of low-top I rocked in 3rd grade.

My brother, who is less concerned with his individualism than I am, has a more concise, Occam's razor-type answer to this riddle: It's just the Internet. Hive-mind. That super-catchy indie song you downloaded last month? McDonald's used it in their commercial a week later because the guy who made the ad also has an Internet connection, and he heard that song online too. Same goes for that Mini-Simmons. You're not the only guy who dug that picture on Richard Kenvin's blog. It used to take real initiative to separate the cool wheat from the commercial chaff. Now it doesn't. Seventh graders can do it. And they do. Blame Twitter. Blame Facebook. Blame Google Reader. Blame PostSurf, and every other shitty surf blog that's burned bright and burned out since.

The Internet allows us to chart surf trend vectors like CDC officials, tracking the propagation and spread of deadly viruses. Out there in the ether, between the lines of posts, Vimeo shorts, and status updates, a hazy checklist takes shape detailing "How to be Cool" in today's surf world. The Internet allows once regional trends to go global within a matter of weeks. It's easy to see what other cool surfers are doing, and it's hard not to get caught up in it: Be earnest. Grow facial hair. Bodysurf. Or make a handplane! Photograph your homemade handplane with a vintage film camera, or if you're one to cut corners, apply the 1977 Instagram filter to your iPhone photo of your store-bought handplane before you Tweet it. Train jiujitsu, or do yoga, and eat organic, and make sure you let other people know you're doing these things via social media. Ditto for the humanitarian aid work you did on your last surf trip. Stop wearing booties. Stop using a leash. Drive a van. Make art--whether or not you are an artist. Or play guitar, or ukulele. If you surf, deep down inside, you probably are an artist, musician, or writer...or all three. Listen to The Velvet Underground on Spotify. Enthusiastically love your fellow surfer, unless you are commenting anonymously, in which case let the vitriol flow. Track the latest XXL swell while grooving along to The xx, and paddle instead of tow, even if you've never paddled or towed big waves. But that shouldn't stop you from paddling out on Big Wednesday, at a protected spot, on a 9'-plus custom big-wave gun, which you use to take waves from the "unenlightened" jocks riding shortboards in overhead waves. The list goes on.

This photo checks every box for unimpeachable coolness: massive barrel. no sponsors. perfect positioning. Namotu lifeguard Shaun Woolnough. Photo: Glaser

Hypothetically, there's nothing wrong with any of this. Compared to other points in surfing history, the things that are cool now are for the most part, pretty cool. I'd like to think this explains why I'm sorta on-trend. Creativity is good. How can you argue with bodysurfing? Music is subjective, but The Velvet Underground's cooler than the Backstreet Boys, unequivocally. And Bob Simmons was cooler than just about anyone, ever, so it's pretty fucking cool that we're riding miniaturized versions of his half-a-century-old designs. But if Simmons were alive today, how would he be received?

He'd probably be doing just what he did in the 1950s--leveraging military technology to create the most progressive, cutting-edge surfboards imaginable. But it's extremely unlikely he'd be interested in riding decaying relics, or concerned with how trendy his airbrush was. As Simmons' friend and disciple John Elwell wrote in The Surfer's Journal, the Simmons Surfboard was "a radical departure, far ahead of its time, like the designer, and misunderstandings hindered its full acceptance. Bob Simmons disregarded criticism and just went surfing..."

If Simmons walked the Earth again, and he showed up at Windansea with some carbon-fiber, computer-shaped board that was as innovative as his boards were in the 1940s, he'd be ridiculed by surf hipsters for not being cool enough. The jury would pass their verdict with the certainty of those who are on-trend, with their Japanese wetsuits and hand-shaped Mini-Simmons. As for the real Simmons? His pants wouldn't be skinny enough. He might wear booties, or God forbid even a helmet. In fact, a helmet might have saved Simmons' life--he drowned in 1954 after getting hit in the head by his board in 8-foot surf at Windansea. There is rich irony in Simmons' current popularity. Simmons was not particularly well-liked during his lifetime. "He was dunked and beaten up at Malibu," Elwell recalls in The Encyclopedia of Surfing. "He was punched down at San Onofre, and stoned on the trail to Palos Verdes." If there's a modern equivalent, I'm not aware of him.

The Internet brings us global surf culture homogeny, and budding innovators, true Mini-Simmons, are bullied on Facebook long before they're beaten down on the trail to Palos Verdes. Step out of line, and you're gonna hear about it in the comments section. Perhaps this is why the surf world seems increasingly populated by people who look like innovators, instead of people who innovate. Most people who look cool do not look that way by mistake. Their image is the result of countless hours spent worrying about their appearance--they focus on the surface at the expense of substance. Cool people like cool things. Their credibility hinges on an endless stream of purchases--each one a test. You must buy the right boards. Like the right music. Eat the right artisan foods, and buy and wear the right clothes to define your unique personality--even if they're the same clothes everyone else is wearing. For surfers, cool is increasingly defined by purchases instead of performance. That's because some of today's trendy surfboards are literally designed to hinder performance. If you cared about how well you surfed, you wouldn't be riding an alaia or using a handplane. Perhaps some surfers are simply looking to capture a new (or old) feeling. But perhaps an increasing number are hiding their lack of skill behind hip wooden crutches.

Consider the case of George Greenough. Like Simmons, the enigmatic Santa Barbara shaper/designer/kneeboarder is one of surfing's true innovators. He's consistently cared about function while ignoring fashion. His design innovations helped spark the shortboard revolution. But it's only now that some of his other creations--such as sub-5-foot flex spoons--are being truly appreciated. A quick review of the hipster surfing blogosphere reveals a fetishistic appreciation of Greenough's 1970s ethos. But what many devotees fail to realize is that unlike Simmons, Greenough is still alive. And he's not interested in rehashing the past. Instead, he's interested in making surfing safer. What could be more uncool than that?

Ever pragmatic, Greenough, now living in Byron Bay, Australia, recently weighed in on one of the most egregious examples of surfing's obsession with fashion over function: the pointed nose. Because he was instrumental in the shortboard revolution, Greenough remembers that the pointed nose was a completely cosmetic innovation. This vestigial weapon has injured countless surfers of varying skill levels. In the '80s, nose guards were popularized as a reasonable safety measure. But like Gath helmets, nose guards were subsequently stigmatized as surfing returned to its minimalistic roots. Irrational? Yes. But surfers answer to trends, and nose guards fell out of style. More recently, after a young surfer was hurt at his local beach, Greenough wrote a letter to the Byron Bay newspaper, Echo, calling pointed noses a "fashion statement." Greenough advocated a simple solution--he asked surfers to take a jam jar, trace its outline on the nose of their boards, saw off the excess point, and glass it over. But hipster devotees who are willing to earnestly rock Greenough's signature bowl cut are likely not willing to go for the jam jar cut. Some of those boards are collector's items, after all.

Jay Davies, putting function into fashion. Photo: Bosko

Why are concepts from past decades now relevant, while progress is shunned? Why am I falling for it, like all the rest of the posers I love to hate? It's more than just nostalgia--particularly when you consider many surfing hipsters are imitating the style of an era prior to their birth. The kids yearn for a time they never knew, when surfing didn't belong to everyone. It's the sad lament of a generation that wonders if they missed out on surfing's authenticity. Sometimes I wonder too. Even for older surfers, it can feel like the only way to move forward is to look back--sift through the ashes of surfing's history in search of live coals that still burn with some semblance of honest stoke. We look back in search of what is no longer there--those organic moments, lost in the past, when it was not just special to ride waves, it was special to be a surfer.

If there's a lesson here, I can't quite put my finger on it. Sigmund Freud wrote of "the narcissism of small differences"--our need to cling to a conceited sense of our uniqueness, in order to mask the simple truth of our underlying sameness. Not many of us are really unique snowflakes, and that hurts. My distrust of surf hipsters might begin and end right there. I see too much of myself in them, and I'd rather be an individual. But I'd like to believe there's more to it than that. If we follow the DIY trend-vectors to their termination point, we're left sifting through an army of masked followers--people who look creative, but have created nothing more than a convincingly surfy personal brand. Like most hardcore surfers, I spend my idle moments planning my next session, instead of my next outfit. And I've been written off as a kook by surfers who are consciously on-trend, before we even paddled out.

Perhaps that's what bothers me in the end. Looking cool is one thing--actually doing something cool, actually innovating, that's something else entirely. It no longer boils down to who can surf and who cannot. It comes down to having that look, and buying the right props. Consumers find authenticity in products, wisdom in taglines. Posers judge hardcore surfers, and feel justified in doing so if a hardcore surfer happens to be still rocking '90s gear. The ruse used to stop at the water's edge. Now these posers drift by us in crowded lineups, still convinced that their purchases will float them to superiority when the next set comes. They soulfully get pitched over the falls on wooden quads. They commune with Poseidon and Laird as they struggle to keep rails from digging on elephant guns--in slightly overhead surf. They continue to delude themselves, believing that soul can be bought with a MasterCard, that surf enlightenment is one quirky purchase away.