Uncovering Surf Culture – Art, Movies & Music

uncovering surf culture in art, music and movies

Surfing hasn’t always been the glorified sport it is today.

For a long time, it formed the counter-culture, a movement of people who chose a different route in life and turned their back on society’s norms.

So how did this once-demonised sport make its way into our day-to-day lives?

Let’s take a look at the fascinating route surfing has taken through our society to end up where it is today.

The History Of Surf Culture

Surfing has had many faces in many places, and to truly understand its place in society today, we first need to look back.

Let’s start with the magical island that birthed the sport we all love.

Ancient Hawaiian surfing culture

Surfing began in Hawaii a long, long time ago.

It was a crucial part of Hawaiian culture, with the Ancient Hawaiians calling it “He’e Nalu”, meaning “wave sliding”.

They used local timber to carve giant wooden boards they could use to ride the pristine waves that surrounded the island. 

The chiefs or leaders would often have the biggest surfboards as a form of status symbol.

But it wasn’t just for fun; It was a part of their religion, and Hawaiians regularly prayed for good swell.

But when European settlers came to Hawaii in the 1700s, they frowned upon the past-time, leading to a drop in popularity. 

They thought it was not proper. So, surfing became less popular.

But all was not lost. The 1900s came around, and surfing got its second chance.

A Hawaiian named Duke Kahanamoku was instrumental in its resurgence, touring the world to become the first original surfing ambassador.

A growing subculture

The war had ended, and the 50s arrived with a whole generation of young adults looking to escape from the previous way of life.

Many American soldiers had been stationed in the Pacific during the war, and some of them were fascinated by the locals riding waves on what seemed to be carved wooden boards.

At the same time, the movie and music industries were starting to embrace riding waves as a new beach culture.

Movies like “Gidget” and music by the Beach Boys were slowly opening surfing up to the masses.

This created America’s first surf culture. It was about more than just the sport. It was a lifestyle.

People who surfed often had long hair, wore casual clothes, and drove packed with surfboards.

They liked the freedom and the connection to nature that surfing gave them with their own slang and values, seeing themselves as different from mainstream society.

Surfing became a symbol of a carefree and adventurous lifestyle.

 It even had an air of rebellion that was very attractive to the youth of the time who wanted to differentiate themselves from earlier generations.

With surfing and surf culture well and truly on the rise, it wasn’t long before the media took an interest in the sport.

Surfing In Film

Surf films have played an instrumental role in attracting newcomers to the sport. 

From well-thought-out documentaries to action-packed blockbusters, there are hundreds of surf movies. 

But some key moments stand out in surf cinema because they passed the boundaries of the surfing community to reach the larger population.

Let’s take a look at some of surfing’s most notable appearances on the big screen.

  1. “The Surf Riders of Hawaii” (1915): This is one of the first films to capture surfing. It’s a silent black-and-white film showing surfers from Hawaii.
  2. “Gidget” (1959): Detailing a teenage girl who learns to surf. The movie made surfing look fun and exciting, helping start the surfing craze in the USA.
  3. “The Endless Summer” (1966): This documentary by Bruce Brown follows two surfers travelling around the world searching for the perfect wave. It helped popularize the image of surfers as free-spirited adventurers.
  4. “Big Wednesday” (1978): This movie tells the story of three friends who share a love for surfing. It captures the surfing culture in California in the 1960s and 1970s alongside the struggles of its characters.
  5. “Point Break” (1991): This action movie stars Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Reeves plays an FBI agent who goes undercover to bust a group of surfing bank robbers.
  6. “Blue Crush” (2002): Blue Crush give us an insight into the struggles faced by women in a male-dominated sport and how they overcome them.
  7. “Riding Giants” (2004): This documentary about the history of big-wave surfing reached a much wider audience and was being shown on national tv channels.
  8. “Soul Surfer” (2011): Based on a true story, this film tells the tale of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer who returns to the sport after losing an arm in a shark attack. 

Chances are, even if you’ve never surfed before, you’ve probably heard of one of the projects on this list.

The sport of surfing has even made its way into the animated world with the epic feature-length movie Surfs Up. 

Surfing & Music

Now we move on to the music of the ’60s, where surfing started to influence some of the time’s biggest stars.

The sound was fresh, appealed to a younger audience and encapsulated the lifestyle that so many idolised.

  1. “Surfin’ Safari” by The Beach Boys (1962): One of the earliest and most popular surf rock songs. The Beach Boys were instrumental in creating the genre.
  2. “Surf City” by Jan and Dean (1963): This song was co-written by Brian Wilson and was a big hit. It helped popularize Californian surf culture.
  3. “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris (1963): This instrumental surf rock song is famous for its catchy drum solo. It’s been used in lots of movies and TV shows.
  4. “Misirlou” by Dick Dale (1962): Known as the “King of Surf Guitar”, Dick Dale created the driving, fast-paced surf sound. “Misirlou” became even more famous when it was used in the movie “Pulp Fiction”.
  5. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys (1966): Although it’s not directly about surfing, this song is a classic from the biggest surf band of the era. It captures the spirit of the 60s surf culture.
  6. “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures (1960): An instrumental classic; this tune is another iconic surf rock song that helped define the genre.
  7. “Pipeline” by The Chantays (1963): Named after a famous surf spot in Hawaii, it’s another surf rock classic.
  8. “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys (1963): A quintessential surf rock song that lists famous surf spots in the US.

In recent times, surf music has evolved and influenced many genres.

While it’s not as dominant as it was in the 60s, it’s still an essential part of the surfing culture.

It’s hard to pick specific modern songs as surf music today is more about the vibe and can span multiple genres, from rock to reggae to indie and beyond.

Bands like Jack Johnson, Sublime, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have all been associated with modern surf culture.

Surfing & Art

Art is a bit of a catch-all, but hundreds of people devote their lives to depicting surfing through their art.

From photographers who follow every swell to street art inspired by surfing culture.

Surfing also made its mark on fashion, with surfwear becoming incredibly popular through the 90s.

Surf brands like Rip Curl, Billabong and Quicksilver were being worn worldwide, even in landlocked countries.

Surf fashion has struggled in recent years, with many surfers turning their back on larger brands who’ve lost touch with the real surf lifestyle.

But the surf industry isn’t just reserved for global surf brands. Many artists and photographers work independently to produce stunning work and make a full-time living.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, surfing has left a noticeable impression on popular culture, and we don’t see any signs of it slowing down.

With surf media relying increasingly on their online platforms surfing is getting a much wider audience, and the sport’s booming.

We can’t wait to see what the culture becomes, but it’s safe to say that surfing is in a healthy place right now.

Don’t miss our other great reads on the surf lifestyle to learn more about the culture of surfing.