Surf Art: A Brief History Of Surfing Design & Culture

Endless Summer

Today there is a whole genre of surf art. It’s usually illustration-based and characterized by a mixture of psychedelic, surrealist, punk, and comic book-derived influences. How did we get here?

To understand the development of surf art, you need to understand the development of the surfboard—a paradigmatic design object in itself, with an amazing history in the 20th century.

The guys (mostly denizens of Californian and Hawaiian beaches) who developed the surfboard as we know it were often social outsiders. Behind the clean lines and perfectionism of their boards was a desire to create a lifestyle outside of the normal working man’s routine. So it’s no surprise that surfing design eventually blossomed into the hyper-expressive and offbeat style that we now know. – Alex Bigman

While today the surfboard is inextricably linked to images of California in the 1960s, it is by no means an American invention. Surf culture originated in Polynesia and came to the US by way of Hawaii. The first ever depiction of surfing is an engraving that appeared in London in 1790: “View of Karakakooa, in Owyee.”

Hawaiien surf boards
Reproductions of ancient Hawaiian surfboards (via

Unfortunately, when European missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they suppressed the activity of surfing, which they saw as uncivilized, and it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that it began to re-emerge. This time it found an eager audience among select Americans, who brought it back to the mainland.

Surf board hollow
Tom Blake building the first hollow board (via
Surfers 1930s
Surfers with Pacific Systems boards in 1939 (via

The light, shiny, colorful surfboard that we know today is fundamentally a product of material technologies developed during the years surrounding World War II. Styrofoam and, later, polyurethane foam made for an unprecedentedly light board body, which would be weighted with strips of balsa or redwood. Then, the whole board would be encased in a thin coating of smooth, shiny fiberglass that could be endlessly polished.

Surf boards bing
A selection of Bing surfboards (via

Surfer magazine
1960s Surfer Magazines (via and

Buoyed by its newfound bright colors and slick designs, surf culture quickly crossed over into the mainstream in a big way, as movies like Gidget (1959) and the early repertoire of the Beach Boys attest. Within the surf subculture, Surfer Magazine, which began in 1960 and runs to this day, became an organ for self-reflection and design dialog, which is reflected in its own innovative layouts and photo manipulations.

Surf painting shine

A group of Los Angeles painters and sculptors represented by the famed Ferus Gallery (among them Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, and Robert Irwin) saw new opportunities for their own art in the space age plastics, resins and other polymers that surf culture—of which they were themselves a part—had embraced. Bengston famously created paintings that he actually polished, like a surfboard or motorcycle, to a state of impeccable shine.

Click to read the full Alex Bigman piece: Surf Art: A brief history of surfing design & culture in 99designs

Surfboard Soap Painting

This video is about taking a new surfboard and getting it dressed up for it first surf. Material needed: Painters Tape, construction paper, acrylic paint, and acrylic clear coat.


By Jason Lock – MagicSeaWeed

There’s a Swedish-based artist though who has a very distinct style in that it’s a rendition of the waves we fantasize about. Jonas Claesson comes up with all kinds of unique and amazing artwork related to surfing and if you want to try your hand at just that, we tapped him up for somehow to get started in the realm of surf art.

To get some great tips from Jonas, see some of his amazing art and see the full Q&A chat with Jason, click here…

Surf art - Jonas
Jonas Claesson

Jonas Claesson  Instagram @jonas_draws


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