What is the surf culture (the real one)?

What is surf culture exactly? How was it born?
Cesar Alvarez
Cesar Alvarez


Surf nomad

Roaming the globe with a surfboard and a laptop, crafting digital stories that ride the wave of surfing culture.

What is surf culture exactly? How was it born? In this blog post we’ll go back in time to explore the long and compelling origins of this ancient Hawaiian sport.

   In a recent autobiography that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, William Finnegan came back on 50 years of surfing, travels and obsession. “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” is the story of a men who consider surf not only as an extreme sport but as a way of life. He left everything for it and became addicted to waves. More than anyone, William Finnegan knows about the real surf culture and philosophy. You’ll discover how cinema, music or fashion have framed the surf history forever.

A brief history of surf and its origins

   The history of surfing takes its roots from the testimony of a British explorer with a mythical name: James Cook. It was in 1778 in Hawaii – the beginning of a great sportive adventure but also a cultural adventure. His diary tells us that he attended a surfing session and considered it only as a wild game for savages. It was only 100 years later that Jack London and Mark Twain explored the Pacific islands and discovered this incredible sport. They told it in their stories and brought the light on surf.

   Experiencing the authentic surf culture is far from the one we know today! “Surf” didn’t even exist as a word and the locals were calling it “he’e nalu” (which means forming a unit with waves). When the USA invaded the Pacific islands, they encouraged tourism to Hawaii and from 1930 to 1960, the number of surfers has increased from 500 to 150 000! And that’s mainly because of the professional swimmer and surfer <a href=" Kahanamoku</a> who popularized surf in California. The west coast identity was shaped by this surfing craze – specialized magazines were born, surf shops, etc. In the face of this success, Hollywood decided to produce a new genre of film: the “beach movies”.<br />

The emerging Californian surf pop culture in the 60s

   It’s really thanks to the cinema that the popularity of surf considerably took off in the USA. In 1959, the movie “Gidget” came out, a rather soppy film that met a considerable success and launched the wave of beach movies. Gidget was so popular that they created a TV serie based on the film, starring Sally Field as main actress. 

   More than 70 romantic comedies around surf were produced between 1960 and 1966. Even the biggest celebrity like Elvis Presley joined the cast for Blue Hawaii. According to William Finnegan, those movies do not reflect the real surf lifestyle and movie directors only use false clichés that are far from the traditional surf culture. 

   All of a sudden, people were going to the movies, feeling appealed by those pretty blonde girls walking on the beach and those surfers getting out of the water with a big smile. Of course, there was also the surf music – it was the party, it was nice and it created a huge popular movement. Many of those who could afford it were thinking: it's amazing, we absolutely want to see that movie!

   In order to show a more authentic image of surf, movie director Bruce Brown decided to shoot the first surf film made by a surfer and with real surfers as actors: “Endless Summer” (1966) was a little revolution: the guys who enjoyed surfing saw the opportunity to go to other countries – it's a cult film that took a lot of people on a surf trip.

   The sea, the sun, the waves, the muscular bodies – the surf imposes itself as an eminently visual discipline. There is undeniably an aesthetic dimension in surfing. Rick Griffin is one of those American artists who highly influenced the surfing subculture. Hired by Surfer Magazine, Rick was one of the leading designers of psychedelic posters and surf drawings in the 60s, and it changed the face of surf graphic styles. 


The tunes that push surfers adrenaline 

   Before to go riding waves in Cantabria or in Basque Country this summer, you would probably get into the mood with some <em>surf music</em> tracks. You could also watch again one of the classic surf movies such as Point Break (1991), Beyond Blazing Boards (1985), Kelly Slater’s favorite surf movie, or Fluid Drive (1973) with the famous original soundtrack “Voodoo Child” composed by Jimi Hendrix. 

   Inspired by rock and roll and blues, surf music comes from California and started to hit the radio in the late 50s, early 60s. The spring reverb effect used on electric guitars reminds the sound of crashing waves and is associate forever with the surf culture. Before the rise of the Beach Boys, surf music was only instrumental and one major pioneer was dominating the game at this time: the king of surf guitar Dick Dale and his band the Del-Tones. And I’m sure you already listened to the classic “Let’s Go Trippin” (1963) or “Misirlou” (1962) that gained back popularity in the 90s with the movie Pulp Fiction. 

   At the beginning of the 60s, the Beach Boys led by Brian Wilson reached plenty of times the Billboard Hot 100 charts, especially with their first hit “Surfin” (1961), following by “Surfin’ U.S.A” (1963) and “Surfer Girl” (1963). They actively innovated the rock music and became strongly associated with the youth culture of surfing and earned world recognition as symbols of the counterculture era. But the truth is that many surfers considered that this “new” californian surf culture completely misrepresents the traditional hawaiian surf culture and is only a way of selling products. 

   Today, the surf culture is everywhere in California and worldwide – in music, marketing, fashion, arts, style, attitudes and behaviors of the population. The boardshorts for instance directly come from the surf lifestyle. Longer than a standard swim suit, it’s specially designed for the surf practice. Many brands decided to specialize in surf clothes and accessories and managed to have an influence way beyond the surf world, such as Quiksilver, Billabong or Ripcurl.

   From the 1960s, the Volkswagen T2 camper-van became the ideal vehicle to go on a surf trip. It remained forever a symbol of freedom, emancipation and pleasure, and the VW van is undoubtedly a vehicle of legend for surfers searching for the most beautiful spots. 

   The Shaka greeting sign became universally known as the most common greeting in surfer culture. It’s often associated with a “cool” lifestyle. It even has its emoji!

   In Southern California, surfers have developed their own vocabulary to describe all aspects of surfing such as “barrel”, “swell” or “grom”. Even beyond the surf practice, some words like “groovy”, “hella” or “gnarly” gained popularity from the surf culture.

   Not a lot of people know it but skateboarding became famous because of surfing. Initially, skateboarding was referred as “sidewalk surfing” or “roll-surf”. Many other board sports came up after that: snowboarding, kitesurfing, bodyboarding, etc…