In the 1990s surfing wasn’t cool. At least, at the time, that's how it seemed to me. It's taken many years to come to terms with why, almost as soon as I had learned to surf, I stopped. What follows is my critical diagnosis...
I moved to the Isle of Wight from a landlocked region in 1994 at the impressionable age of 10. It was here that I was first exposed to actual surfing, outside of the occasional glimpse on MTV or the magazine rack at WHSmiths, a hideous but ubiquitous chain of newsagent cum bookstore. It wasn’t long before I had convinced my parents to invest in a wetsuit and cheapo bodyboard. And after a few family holidays camping above the cliffs at Polzeath, one Christmas I was blessed with a BIC pop-out. A 7 foot something "mini-mal" made by a biro manufacturer.
At the time skateboarding, surfing's wayward mutant offspring, was going through a renaissance. It was amazing in the 90s. For a whole generation of kids who felt weird or different, who didn’t associate with traditional sports and were curious about rebellion, art and music, the raucous world of skateboarding was instantly appealing. And as a middle class kid from a liberal but broken home with an increasing sense of alienation, it found me.
Aside from the summer trips to Cornwall my unwieldy BIC surfboard collected dust in the garage as I became unwilling to plead with my mum to drive me the 5 miles to the Isle of Wight’s most consistent surf break. Instead skateboarding filled my days.
When I was a teenager, surfing felt and looked like a sport. The early days at San Onofre, the Miki Doras and Wayne Lynchs had been forgotten in the 90s. The Kelly Slaters and Andy Irons’ reined supreme. Supermen surfers and slick muscular sportsmen were not something with which I could identify. Skateboarding on the other hand had awkward anarchic misfits and outcasts in abundance. My idols.
[Wayne Lynch shot by Rusty Miller in '71 versus Andy & Kelly at the end of the 90s]
Creativity outside of the actual physical act comes quite organically to the skate world and can be traced back to Venice Beach and Zephyr skates, DogTown. Whilst the revolutionary feats and rockstar attitudes of Z-Boys Tony Alva and Jay Adams may have changed the fundamental act of skateboarding, the grown ups making their boards in the back were simultaneously altering the way it all looked and subsequently turning a hobby into a culture. Wes Humpton was undoubtedly the first skate artist, the first to adorn the underside of the humble skateboard deck with a visual art cum graphic design hybrid. In the 40 plus years since the skateboard has rocketed into the mainstream as a canvas for artwork… Alena recently showed me a website where, for a hefty sum of money, you can buy a Van Gogh painting dissected into a triptych of three skateboards. With no intention of anyone actually skating them, the site unashamedly states "While you could definitely skate on them if you wanted to, these editions of artwork are intended for decorative purposes".
[Wes Humpton's 1978 Graphic for Jim Muir's pro model & Van Gogh's Self Portrait as a triptych of 3 boards strictly for the wall]
Here you have the first instance of the appeal of skateboards over surfboards. The cost of a surfboard and the difficulties in actually making the thing make it pretty inaccessible. Especially to teenage boys, who in this particular anecdote are the arbiters of cool. Skateboards on the other hand were relatively cheap, easy to get hold of and disposable, especially as, if you were doing anything remotely challenging on them, they would snap all the fucking time. Most of us skaterats collected a stash of trashed, snapped boards in our bedrooms.
Personally, my thing was buying blank skateboard decks. For one they were significantly cheaper, so you could use the leftover change to buy a t-shirt or video, but most importantly you could then create your own graphics. I would happily do so with stencils, spraypaint, stickers… whatever. And, unlike most artwork, you could be completely un-precious about it, safe in the knowledge that a handful of noselides and generally slamming the thing into concrete and curbs would erase your work anyway. Even though I wasn’t personally investing in boards with graphics I would spend hours studying the shop mail order ads in Sidewalk Surfer, the predominant UK skate rag of the time. At first my favourites were the typical 12 year old boy fare, at the time World Industries did a great line in devils and violence, Hook-Ups was all Manga boobs and Blind had a cute grim reaper character. However as I got older my tastes evolved and I started to understand the subtle humour of Spike Jonze’s Girl and Chocolate skateboards, the painterly Americana of Jason Lee and Chris Pastras’ Stereo and the strict graphic styles of British stalwarts Panic and Blueprint.
When you start talking about the art of the skateboard deck it would be unthinkable to leave out three of the biggest personalities in the sport. Whilst Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist and Danny Way may have infiltrated the mainstream with their aerial acrobatics on unimaginably large half pipes, the culture’s creative core is traced through a lineage that links Neil Blender, Mark Gonzales and Ed Templeton. Not only were they the most gift era-defining skaters of their respective generations but they also insisted on creating the graphics for their pro board themselves. And the art they produced refused to be clean, typical and an easy sell… it was creative, idiosyncratic and at odds with any mainstream ideas of art and design, let alone commerciality.
[My personal favourites from Neil Blender's graphics for his own G&S pro deck & Mark Gonzales' for Vision]
The other thing of note about Templeton, Blender and the Gonz was that if you saw them in a magazine or video, they looked cool. They dressed so differently from anyone wandering down a British high street that they became instantly fascinating. And if you were wandering the high streets of Britain in the mid-90s you could instantly recognise a fellow skateboarder by how they dressed. I can remember, so distinctly, the older skaters in my home town of Freshwater, Isle of Wight. As a lost 12 year old I always noticed this particular group in their late teens or early twenties, I can still vividly remember how they dressed and looked now, and I knew instantly that once I had grown some facial hair, I wanted to be like them.
[An early Ed Templeton ad for Thunder Trucks & San Francisco's Pier 7 locals photographed by Tobin Yelland circa 1996]
In comparison, someone thrashing a wave dresses simply in a wetsuit or board shorts with skin tight rash vest couldn't compete. Despite the surf industry's attempts to give fashion zeal to the wetsuit with patterns, garish colours and big logos, in appealing to teenage boys they lost that battle. And in the 90s everything aesthetically associated with surfing had the definite feel of big business trying to look like a counter culture. And for those growing up increasingly associating as outsiders, punks or stoners, it wasn’t going to fly. Reef tried with those horrible adverts in surf mags of women’s butts but that was clearly a misguided and desperate attempt to compete with a photo of Tom Penny frontside flipping high over an upsided bin. No chance.
[These Reef adverts were usually the first double spread when opening a 90s surf rag & Dorchester's finest Tom Penny mid flight]
The other issue with surfing as a teenager is accessibility. Unless you’re lucky enough to live within walking distance of the beach, then you’re going to spend a lot of time convincing adults to drive you places. Personally, my mum was at work. Occasionally on a Sunday, her only day off, her desire to take our dogs on a long walk would coincide with swell and my eagerness to surf. But it was rare. The car park 500 metres from my house, on the other hand, was always there. This shouldn’t be understated. Growing up is largely about developing independence from the parental cocoon and the hunt for spots to skate is a really useful tool in that quest. You start by practising humble ollies, kickflips and shuv-its on any piece of concrete you find near your home. Then you have to travel a little further in search of curbs to learn grinds. A little further to find some stairs to ollie and eventually kickflip down. Then you find out there’s an actual skatepark in a town half an hours bus ride from you. And so on and so forth until you’re saving up all month so that you and your grungy little skaterat buddies can take the train, including a ferry for us Islanders, up to London Waterloo to skate the hallowed grounds of the Shell Centre and Southbank.
(Some friends and I, did, once, attempt a surf trip to Cornwall. It took a lot of coaches, trains and hitchhiking to get us to Polzeath. And we spent the entire time getting stoned in the caravan of some girls we had met. I don’t think we even went to the beach once, let alone surfed. But I may be wrong, the whole episode is a chaotic and slightly stressful blur.)
Hanging out, one of the most important pastimes of any youth, is an essential part of skateboarding. Between practising the actual manoeuvres of the act, sitting on your board, listening to music, relentlessly taking the piss out of your friends and smoking weed are much easier to do in an empty floodlit car park than out in the line up with waves incoming. This is especially true on the south coast of the UK, where any decent surf happens in the depths of winter and the last thing you’re doing in the line up is sitting around chatting. Skateboarding therefore allows the wayward teen, again the gatekeepers of culture in this particular context, to simultaneously partake in all the other pastimes which they hold dear. Surfing didn’t.
Another important player when talking about the "hanging out" aspect of skateboarding was the skateshop. On the Isle of Wight, we did have a surf shop, for a long time also the only place to buy a decent skateboard before Colin opened Revolver. But it also sold mountain bikes and windsurfs and the middle aged men who ran it were not open to shooting the breeze with urchins who were definitely not in the market for their big ticket items. Skateshops on the other hand were almost the exact opposite. They seemed to exist solely for that purpose, commerce a long forgotten sideline. A place to sit around, watch the videos, connect older generations of skaters with the new kids and allow the culture's germination.
The UK’s most iconic store is probably Slam City Skates, originally located down a side alley in London’s Covent Garden. On one trip there around the tender age of 15, I asked if they had the new video from a fledgeling British company called Heroin Skateboards. They didn’t but whoever I had asked shouted over to Foz, the owner of Heroin Skateboards, who just happened to be lurking in one of the shop's dark corners, to check if there were more copies in existence. Foz came over, we discussed his videos and I left with a stack of Heroin Skateboards stickers. I’ve yet to leave a surf shop with a free sticker, let alone having met one of the country’s most influential brand owners and video makers. That stuff just doesn’t happen in surf shops but is pretty typical of what might go down in any skateshop throughout Britain and I've had similar experiences in Sheffield’s Sumo, Southampton’s Off-Beat Sports and Leicester’s Casino, to name a few.
[Slam City Skates in 2015 with Phil Frost's mural work, originally painted in 1996, still in tact]
My experience with Foz and Heroin and Slam City leads neatly onto my next point. The skateboard video vs. The surf film. At the age of 13 I was a skate video aficionado and could happily reel off who did which tricks in which video filmed by whom. Through their amalgamation of skateboarding, music, skits and art, usually all put together in a haphazard DIY manner, the skate videos of the 90s idiosyncratically documented the pockets of skateboard culture which they represented. Whilst on the surface they were promotional videos for brands and showcases of what their sponsored athletes could achieve, just below that surface they were amazing cultural documents, each brand introducing its own aesthetic through soundtrack selection, skaters, filmers and locations. Zoo York’s Mixtape for instance was gritty New York skating, mostly at night in dense urbanity interspersed with footage of rap freestyles from a legendary New York radio show. Whilst the early work of Spike Jonze, later to be nominated for an Oscar for his film work, video’s like Mouse and Video Days, is all bright California sunshine, breezy soul and humorous cinematic interludes. By maintaining a DIY ethic, everything shot low to the ground of handy-cams, filmed by a group of friends roaming the streets, skateboard videos were relatable, aspirational and fun. In fact they were so accessible that my friends and I even made several of our own. Complete with personalised music choices, skits and effects to portray the aesthetics and feel of our own little scene.
Before the days of the Go-Pro the idea of a teenager making a surf film was unimaginable. Access to water proof camera housings and telephoto lenses was so beyond a dream that it didn’t enter my mind, even as a prolific video maker and photographer of almost anything. The very nature of the equipment needed in those days, not to mention the travel required, required a much bigger budget. The films I did catch, Rip Curl’s Feral Kingdom was the only one I actually owned on VHS, reeked in the same way as the surf industries attempts at print media and fashion, successful athletes masquerading as edgy. And whilst beautiful locations were stunning day dream fodder, they were far from accessible and so removed from my own experiences of riding waves that they lacked the immediate inspiration of a cheaply produced skate video.
[A typical scene from Rip Curl's Feral Kingdom, which whilst rad felt like little more than eye candy]
Once the 90s petered into the 21st Century something changed. Cultural shifts often, in hindsight, appear to happen as the result of one precise moment, object or person. In reality however things tend to change gradually and involve many bit-part players each nudging new eras and movements into being. To those in the place and time of the shift, things seemed to have happened gradually and organically. To outsiders either geographically or temporally or both, a momentous turning point can appear to happen as the result of one singular moment.
For me this moment was Thomas Campbell’s The Seedling, a documentary of sorts about logging, surfing traditional single fin longboards in well under head high waves. Originally completed and released in 1999, I didn’t see it until well into the 2000s but it completely changed how I felt about surfing. Surfing was cool again. There were weirdos in abundance, endless nods to surfing’s rich cultural past, amazing music and just a blast of creativity and DIY aesthetics; from the hand-painted lettering of the title to use of antiquated 16mm and 8mm film complete with lens flares, scratches and dust. It was so far from the athletic macho waaaay overhead ESPN image that I had of contemporary surfing. Instead it was creative, beautiful, fun and concerned mostly with the simple sensations of trim on waves that I could perfectly imagine riding.
Whether inadvertently or not, Thomas Campbell had single handed brought the exact recipe that had made skate culture way more interesting through the 90s and transplanted it onto surfing.
[Selected screen grabs from a dodgy YouTube rip of The Seedling]
Around the time he made The Seedling, Thomas Campbell was a man with his fingers in many many pies. Simultaneously a painter, photographer, visual artist, film maker, sculptor and record label owner. I believe he consider himself a maker of things first and foremost. Despite projects being defined by a particular medium, in this instance film-making, they are all part of the same creative practise. Also worth taking note that he prides himself in being self-taught.
[Thomas Campbell at home in Bonny Doon Northern California around 2010]
Like many Californian kids growing up near the beach in the 1970s Thomas was exposed to surfing and skateboarding at roughly the same time. I guess in a similar way that I was, as he got older he was drawn more into the skate world. Skateboarding was much better affiliated with the DIY punk culture that blossomed in Southern California in the 80s and that connection gelled with him. His self-taught all encompassing creative practise very quickly morphed into two simultaneous careers as a skate photographer and artist.
[Harold Hunter, Sean Sheffey and Karma Tsocheff all shot by Thomas Campbell in 1993]
Whilst becoming the photo editor for SkateBoarder, he was also exhibiting in group and solo shows at Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery in New York, becoming part of the Beautiful Losers school of artists in the process. A group that includes street art luminaries like ESPO and Shepard Fairey, San Francisco painters Barry McGee and Chris Johansson and ubiquitous graphic designers like Mike Mills and Geoff McFetridge. The work for which Thomas Campbell became most well known was pretty far removed from 90s surf culture, it was the language of the city streets and spoke in the languages of skateboarding, graffiti and punk.
[Other "Beautiful Losers" Stephen Powers, Margaret Kilgallen & Barry McGee]
Bringing all these chops into the fold when making The Seedling, meant that it didn’t feel like the corporate competition oriented surf world which had evolved since the shortboard revolution of the late 60s and early 70s. It was much more idiosyncratic… and fun. This felt like that eureka moment that surf culture changed for the better, at least to me. And to the outsider looking back on 1999 from ten years in the future this was the moment surfing learnt from its own wayward offspring, skateboarding.
Weirdness, creativity, exploring history, beauty and art are fun! More engaging and waaay more interesting than aggressively pumping down the line to cash a cheque of funds generated by men sitting round some corporate board room table who have never cleaned wax off their hands by rubbing it on their jeans, let alone got naked in a public car park.
In the following decades, the surfers who starred in Thomas’ first excursion into surf-films have become the new champions. Devon Howard, Joel Tudor, Kassia Meador, Dane Peterson et al have ushered in a new anything goes era of surfing by championing classic Californian styles of surfing where resurrecting long forgotten board shapes and goofing about in waist high surf are the norm. Demonstrating how riding all manner of boards, however archaic, antiquated or bizarre they may be, in all sorts of waves, could take surfing back to its essence. About trim and having fun playing in the ocean. Reclaiming surf culture from the corporate media circus of competitive sports and athletes and giving it back to the weirdos, outsiders and freaks.
[Joel, Kassia & Devon, the stars of The Seedling ushering a new era of accessibility, individuality and cultural credibility]
This new age of surfing, which I’m hereby attributing to Thomas Campbell’s The Seedling, has been the perfect refresher which has once again made surfing interesting, accessible and anarchic. In the best way possible. The willingness to ride a variety of shapes, especially bigger and thicker, has opened surfing up to places where the waves are far from perfect and people who aren’t muscle bound fitness fanatics. The days of the thruster seem well and truly dusted as the surfing masses follow the example set by the cast of The Seedling, recognising that an alternative shape might make surfing more stylish, less aggressive and primarily fun. And that’s what it should be right? Fun. First and foremost with escapism from the mundanity of everyday life coming close in second.