Whether the blame lies on the inherent nature of stereotyping or on the media-washed portrayal of subcultures, a closer look at any sub-community reveals deviations within, so great sometimes, that it startles the senses. “How did I ever swallow such a blatantly obvious apocryphal story?” The surfing community with its own set of cultural signs and signals is no different.
The surf community in Southern California has its own unique surf culture that lives and breathes its own unique signs. With the heavy influence of industry mammoths like Rip Curl in San Clemente and Quicksilver in Huntington Beach, the scene is dominated by surf labels. Surfers in these areas adorn themselves in the gear and products marketed in their area. They embrace the attitude and lifestyle of their home. Furthermore, a more unfettered glimpse of Southern California reveals particular deviations. A surfer in Ventura uses specific signs and symbols that deviate from the signs and symbols of a surfer in Encinitas.
Moving north to Santa Cruz, further deviations are present that distinguish its own surf culture. Again, influenced by large surf companies like Santa Cruz Surfboards, O’neill and Hotline, the surfers of this area identify with these local labels. There is an obvious similarity between surfers in So Cal and surfers in Nor Cal, which is differentiated merely by the surf companies in the local area. But uniquely, Santa Cruz has a further derivation: the vato surfer. Usually localized on the Westside of Santa Cruz, these surfing cholo-vatos wear chinos, plaid jackets buttoned to the neck, and straight billed red Santa Cruz Surfboard hats. A twisted blend of narrow-minded protective redneck culture, a sprinkling of drugs and alcohol, topped off with gang-like affiliations and brotherhood.
Even further north in the city by the bay, San Francisco surfers are nondescript. They blend into the social fabric of the city at large. Outliers do exist who embrace the surf products of the industry, but the majority of them are indistinguishable from the North Face fleeced, Patagonia down jacketed, and twirled hipster mustached inhabitants of the metropolis. It requires a strong magnet like the premiere of a surf movie or a large ground swell for these individually dispersed ions to coalesce into a community. Yet, each person, remains somewhat distinct and unique within the ebb and flow of the community.
These are just a few of the many deviations within surf culture. Although contact with some of these sub-genres of surfing remain elusive, they thrive in their own unique way. Surfers in Texas, the wave gliders of Australia’s Gold Coast, dedicated polar bears of the Great Lakes all latch to certain unique signs and symbols to establish a unique character of their own. Continually gazing at surf culture through the narrow keyhole of surf industry marketing, advertising and magazines solidifies the superficial idea of a unified and clearly delineated symbol-adorned “Surfer.” This is a paltry slice of surfing.
Removing the blinders, traveling to new destinations and new waves, actively looking at the surfers around you reveals a much more vivid and rich community. Not doing so will lead to a vapid existence; doing so will expose what really connects the community. It is not the label or logo, but that certain sparkle in an eye or a slight smirk at the knowledge that what we do share is as large as an ocean and as definitive as the sun setting in the west over a blue-green salt water playground.