Surf Art and Surfing Culture in Hawaii 2024

Surf art painting on miniature surfboard

Surfing and art have always had a deep connection, and nowhere is this more evident than in Hawaii. From ancient petroglyphs and traditional Polynesian designs to contemporary street art and surfboard art, the islands have a rich and vibrant surf art culture that reflects the spirit of aloha and the thrill of riding the waves. In this blog article, we'll take a closer look at the history and evolution of surf art in Hawaii, the artists who have made it their own, and the many ways in which it continues to inspire and shape the local and global surf community. Whether you're a seasoned surfer, an art lover, or simply a curious traveler, join us as we explore the fascinating world of surf art in Hawaii.

Hawaii's history of surfing and surf art

Surfing boasts a rich heritage in Hawaii, tracing back to its roots as both a cultural and spiritual activity among early Polynesian inhabitants, possibly as far back as the 4th century. Referred to in Hawaiian as he'e nalu, meaning "wave sliding," it served as a means for individuals to engage with the sea and the divine, holding significant importance in community rituals and events. Gradually, surfing evolved into a beloved sport and leisure activity, particularly among the Hawaiian nobility. Esteemed for their prowess in surfing, Hawaiian royals frequently organized competitions and celebrations to exhibit their skills.

In the early 20th century, Hawaii's surf culture began to spread to the mainland United States and beyond, inspiring a global surf movement. 

Surf culture in Hawaii today is a vibrant and dynamic force that continues to evolve and adapt to new trends and challenges. Surfing is still a beloved pastime and competitive sport, with world-class surfers hailing from the islands and events like the Pipeline Masters and the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing drawing crowds and media attention each year.

Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku
Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku​​

At the same time, surf culture in Hawaii encompasses much more than just surfing in Hawaii, with a rich array of art, music, cuisine, and lifestyle elements that celebrate the spirit of aloha and the island way of life. Local surf shops, shapers, and designers create custom surfboards, clothing, and accessories that reflect the unique blend of Hawaiian and global influences that define modern surf culture. Meanwhile, holidays like International Surfing Day and community initiatives like Surfrider Foundation and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii work to protect the environment and promote responsible stewardship of the ocean and its resources. Surf culture in Hawaii today is a diverse and inclusive community that values creativity, connection, and respect for the natural world.

Early Surf Art in Hawaii

Hawaii has produced many influential surf artists over the years, whose work has captured the essence of the sport and the culture that surrounds it. The first surf artists in Hawaii emerged in the early 1960s, as the sport began to gain popularity and visibility both locally and internationally.

John Severson, a California-born surfer and filmmaker, was one of the pioneers of the genre, creating the first issue of Surfer Magazine in 1960 and using his artistic talents to design its iconic covers and layouts. Severson's style was influenced by the bold, graphic aesthetic of commercial art, as well as the free-spirited attitude of surf culture, and his work helped establish the visual language of the sport.

Rick Griffin, another Californian artist, also made a significant contribution to early surfing art, creating psychedelic posters, album covers, and comics that captured the countercultural spirit of the era.

Surf art magazine cover with graphic style art by John Severson
March 1969 cover of Surfer Magazine designed by artist and magazine founder ​​John Severson

In Hawaii, artists like John Kelly, Jock Sutherland, and Jack Sorenson began to incorporate local motifs and landscapes into their surf-themed works, infusing the genre with a distinctly Hawaiian flavor. Their paintings, prints, and illustrations often featured classic surf scenes, like Waikiki Beach or the North Shore, as well as traditional Hawaiian symbols and legends. Together, these artists laid the foundation for surf art as a distinct and influential genre, and helped to shape the cultural identity of surfing in Hawaii and beyond.

Surf art in hawaii today

In later years, artists like Wyland, Heather Brown, and Andy Davis brought a fresh perspective to the genre, incorporating elements of nature, mythology, and pop culture into their works. Contemporary surf artists in Hawaii are a diverse and dynamic group, whose work reflects the complex and ever-evolving nature of surf culture today.

One notable surf artist is Kamea Hadar, whose murals and paintings explore themes of identity, community, and social justice. Hadar's work often incorporates Hawaiian motifs and patterns, as well as portraits of local residents and cultural figures.

Other popular contemporary artists like Christie Shinn, Kris Goto, and Tim Nguyen have made a name for themselves as some of Hawaii's most beloved surf artists.

These and other contemporary surf artists in Hawaii are shaping surf culture in powerful ways, by expanding the scope of the genre, pushing boundaries, and celebrating the unique blend of tradition and innovation that defines Hawaii's surf scene. Through their art, they inspire and challenge viewers to think critically about issues of identity, diversity, and sustainability, and to appreciate the beauty and power of the ocean and its many expressions.

Surf Art Genres

The variety of artistic styles found in Hawaii’s surf art community are a reflection of the diverse interests and influences of the artists who create it. One popular style is traditional surf art, which typically features bright colors, bold lines, and dynamic surf scenes. Artists like Peter Shepard Cole and Susan Wickstrand are known for their iconic depictions of classic surf spots and waves, as well as their use of Hawaiian imagery and symbols.

Another style is contemporary or modern surf art, which incorporates more abstract, experimental, and conceptual elements. Artists like Andy Davis and Heather Brown often mix surf scenes with elements of nature, pop culture, and spirituality, creating works that are both visually striking and thought-provoking.

Street art is also a growing trend in surf art, with artists like Kamea Hadar, Jack Soren and Sean Yoro creating large-scale murals and installations that blur the lines between graffiti and fine art.

Mixed media and digital surf art are also gaining popularity, as artists experiment with new tools and techniques to create immersive and interactive works that engage the senses and the imagination.

The surf art genre often overlaps with other more classical styles of art, such as seascape paintings. The different styles of surf art in Hawaii today reflect the ongoing evolution of the genre, as artists seek to push boundaries and explore new frontiers of creativity and expression.

Where to buy surf art in hawaii

If you're interested in buying surf art in Hawaii, you're in luck, as the islands are home to many surf art galleries and shops that specialize in the genre. Some popular options include the Greenroom Gallery, a surf art gallery in Waikiki that features a wide range of surf-inspired works by local and international artists. 

Another option is the Wyland Gallery, which showcases the marine-inspired paintings and sculptures of renowned artist Wyland, who is known for his intricate and realistic depictions of ocean life. 

In addition to these galleries, many surf shops and boutiques also offer a selection of surf art. Shop Paradise Now is a boutique on Maui featuring art and merchandise from surf artist Jackie Eitel. Finally, if you're looking for something truly unique, many surf artists in Hawaii sell their works directly through their websites or social media accounts, allowing you to connect directly with the artist and purchase a one-of-a-kind piece.

Outside of Hawaii, is a great resource for discovering new surf art and learning more about the artists who create it. The 808Arts Surf Art Collection includes sought after original surf art and surf art prints from popular Hawaii artists. We’ve included some of our favorite pieces below, from surf art paintings for sale to surf art canvas prints to modern surf art prints on metal and more! If you're looking  to start collecting Hawaii art or simply create a collection of surf wall art, we have a great variety to choose from!