Surfing's 'Scam' and the State of Longboarding

This whimsical surf style has a 'retro' problem

By now, I trust many of you will have seen the video of this year’s Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational. If not, watch it. It showcases a bunch of guys most have never heard of, as well as Alex Knost, doing fantastic things on waist high waves at Noosa Heads. It’s wave riding based on subtlety, poise, and a certain amount of whimsy—in other words, the complete opposite of almost every other surfing clip you are likely to watch today.

It reminded me of an interview that Tudor did earlier this year with Surfer magazine that was candid, funny, bitingly critical, un-apologetically self-aggrandizing, and at times contradictory. From what I have gleaned from stories about Tudor, this basically sums up the nature of his genius. One thing I particularly liked about the article but also found troubling was Tudor’s opinion of the state of longboarding’s art, which he summed up like this:

“You basically want to combine the surfing of Nat Young and David Nuuhiwa and put them both together. Maybe throw me in the mix. And you’ve got a pretty good format. I’m not trying to be egotistical, but that’s just my opinion. That’s the direction that it’s going. When you go to my contests and sit back and watch them, it’s awesome—it’s hilarious, it’s funny, and it makes surfing look fun.”

On one hand, I couldn’t agree more. Though not a longboarder, I watched for years with a mix of bemusement and disgust as one subset of longboarding essentially aped the style of shortboarding in what looked like an inside joke carried on for far too long. If, as Tudor and his devotees proclaim, longboarding is returning to its stylistic roots, I applaud the efforts of all who made it possible.

But it also got me thinking: Is it possible for a living and vibrant culture’s state of the art to be the emulation of two men who shone most brightly in the ’70s? Isn’t that kind of sad? Setting aside the particular state of longboarding at the moment, let me say unequivocally, surfing as a popular culture has ossified into a bad parody of itself circa 1975. We are stuck in an endless loop of culture mining that supposedly unearths “authentic” relics of our benighted past and injects new energy into our jaded, “sold-out” present. Bullshit. Marketing doggerel. What do you get when you copy something that wasn’t all that cool to begin with? Recycled mediocrity. “Retro” is just another word invented to sell you expired goods that you didn’t need in the first place.

But at the heart of surfing is, of course, nature and movement and a unique blending of the two. Although these things never go out of style artistically, we appear to be worryingly stunted in the creation of new styles. Perhaps Tudor and company have develop'ed the most fun and refined way to ride a longboard, but the same certainly cannot be said for riding waves in general. Tudor is, in fact, a savant of all different types of boards (and apparently physical activity in general, most notably jiu jitsu) and can legitimately lay claim to being one of the most talented wave riders of his generation. Ryan Burch, of a younger generation, is another who is making a strong run towards that moniker.

Most professional surfers, though, are hopelessly specialized (read: limited) in their pursuits of surfing. They are like great artists who only ever developed a single style and never progressed any further because they found that they could keep pumping out paintings without challenging them themselves too much. There is no reason that every pro in the world shouldn’t spend large amounts of time on logs, finless boards, boogies boards, surf mats, and just swimming with fins on.

The surfing from the Duct Tape Invitational is indeed inspiring, but it feels wrong to call it the state of the art. Instead, it is the stylistic equivalent of a beautiful museum relic, passed down via the biological memories of men through forty years and preserved by this generation. This is an honorable task, but like all preserved history, it contains a note of atavism that can have a stultifying effect on culture.

Of the entire Surfer Mag interview, there is one quote that has stayed with me because I find it incredibly disquieting:

“We’re all trying to follow in the Dora footsteps of scamming, scamming, scamming, because at the end of the day, we are scamming. If you just go surfing and you collect a check, you’re scamming society.”

I understand the misfit ethos that those words appeal to. But what bothers me is that surfing has built an entire cultural edifice upon the flimsy, dilapidated, and ultimately defective foundations of merry scamming. Now we find ourselves stagnant, reaching back in a vain attempt to move forward because, guess what? Scamming is only really useful for helping number one. Scammers don’t really give a fuck about things like beauty, and art, and nature; really anything much bigger than themselves. The noseriding of Alex Knost is much more than a scam, so is a Jordy Smith cutback or a John John Florence slob air 360, but these things are flashes of light in a largely dark cultural milieu. When I watch much of pro surfing today I sometimes wonder if we are seeing a renaissance, or the prolonged throes of a slow and lingering death.


This story was originally published on The Intertia.


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