The Prominent Art Of Collecting Precious History

 Surfboard shaping is an art only handful of people can call a profession. I call it an art because no two surfboard shapes are ever the same. Surfboards bridge the gap between craftsmanship and performance more than any other sports equipment. In every billion dollar sports industries the designer of the tools the best athletes use are well paid and often championed alongside the athlete. Surfboard shapers are at the opposite end of the spectrum. It's the most labor intensive craft and the least paying. It's truly a lifelong passion that evolves into a profession. Lifelong because it's like becoming a sushi chef, it takes a decade or two to become a renowned surfboard shaper. The wave riding vehicles these craftsman create bring more joy to people than anything other sport in the world. 

There's a small group of people in this world that are preserving the classics, scouring the ends of earth to find the pieces that helped shape not just surfing’s history but a generation of beach culture. Amongst some of the most passionate collectors in the world are Jason Cohn and Buggs Arico. Two gents passionate about preserving surfing’s history and making sure these treasures don't just sit in a dark storage room somewhere. While going over some logistics for this Sunday’s event I pulled them aside and dug a bit deeper into how they got to become so entrenched in the world of surfboards. 

GA: Tell me about when you started collecting surfboards and how it started. 

Jason: That's a good question. We've been collecting for 20 years or so now, and what we found was over time we were all people more or less collecting things from surfboards from the early 1900s all the way through the '80s. There was a group of us that were extremely passionate about that period of time. Which was pretty much the era that we grew up in, which was the design era, innovation period. Mid '70s, mid '80s when everything changed.

Shapes changed, they were experimenting with shape, they were experimenting color, with materials and the boards got interesting to us. Not just from an outline standpoint, but from a color standpoint. They were putting different fin setups or they were putting different pieces of art on the board. Then, we found that there was just a handful of us that were really interested in it. We were all chasing the same rainbow, the same unicorn, if you will.

What we would do, is we'd find them, purchase them, and then just swirl them away into dark corners of either storage or garages, or inside homes. They wouldn’t be shared, and one day we just decided as a group to say, "Listen, they can still be the property of each of us, but why wouldn't we use them as a vehicle to inspire others to the stories that they can share and tell?"

GA: Was there any one person, or shaper, or surfer that kicked off your fascination with collecting?

Jason: Yes. I think there was-- For me it was the whole Dogtown stuff. The '70s was alive with color and spray because it was that time period when surfboards were functional art form. They were meant to be surfed, but when you're done with the session, why wouldn’t you put it up on your wall as a piece of artwork that can still get you through the rest of the day.

Dogtown was extremely important, at least to me for that purpose, but then as it progressed into the '70s after single fins and the twin fins with Bertlemann and his innovation style of surfing into the '80s which was all about color, and expression, and twin fin to the tri, to the quad, all the fin setups were interesting. The top of the board was interesting to look at, but you also had something on the bottom to get down on as well.

For me, the colors are what grabbed me first. T&Cs with Minami and the boys were doing back in the day, that stuff, the Local Motion's. That caught my attention into the '80s, then Lightning Bolt was an influence in my life because of an amazing artwork, amazing sprays of art. That stuff was interesting. I was a child of the '70s. OP was interesting to me, I've got a collection of airbrush surfboards with fantasy wave art scenes.

GA: I'd love to see them.

Jason: Those are cool because, again, those were meant to be sprayed on a generic shaped foam blank into a surfboard, and then hung like in retail stores. Not just on the West Coast, but more importantly in the middle of places where they don't surf. All of a sudden, you can have an OP surfboard that came from the hands of someone in California hanging in a retail establishment like the Miller's Outpost in a mall in Minnesota.

It inspired others to see the beauty of the craft, and want to not just explore the art of it, but then explore what it might be like to get on that thing, and get to the coast and surf it. Then finally, the stuff that really got me just over the moon for, was the stuff that was going on down in the Orange County with The Echo Beach Movement from Peter Shroff, and Lance Collins with Wave Tools, and Shawn Stussy. That stuff was so ahead of its time that the art on those boards are inspiring today but the templates are true to the templates that people are copying and shaping today, so that stuff that was literally done 30 years ago holds a test of time visually but functionally works as well as anything that is today. So those are the things that inspired me.

GA: And for you Bugs? 

Buggs: I was born in '65 so I was 15 in 1980, right? My fascination was the late '70s. My biggest idol at that point was  there's a story behind how I got my nickname "Bugs" but I think what inspired me to collect was more so, I think the passion of when I was young. Collecting what inspires me really kind of got me hooked into surfing which was right during that whole shortboard revolution from '75 to '80. Obviously, having disposable income when I got older allowed me to be able to tap into the collecting world. 

GA: This can't be a cheap hobby?

Jason: It's basically buying back what you had.

Buggs: That was a big part of it. Even if you don't have a lot of money still you can collect, but just the passion of collecting what was to what it is today. What really fascinates me more than anything I think is really the story behind a lot of these boards, the provenance. A lot of these boards that I have in my collection are now almost 40-plus years old. Just where they've been, what hands they've been through and where they've been ridden fascinates me.

Then just being the surfer, being able to ride what was relevant then and also being able to ride what is today, and just having fun with it all. The art aspect like Jason was saying back in the '70s, it was all about really building a board around the fin, especially in the single fin days. You go in and pull a fin off the rack and then you would design and build a board around that fin. Color, resin, resin pin-lines, everything. So it was, like you said, a functional art -- vehicles --

Jason: We're calling the show Expression Session One, meaning that the boards expressed something new with each and different sprays in every different template outline and they expressed something when they were created, but they also express something for the owner that owned them at the time. That's what the session is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be a cultural exchange of ideas and design and story.

It isn't about having something; it's about sharing it through communities so that the thing has a story that lives on culturally for a long time to come.

GA: So when one of you find a rare piece these days is there a bit of jealousy or competition? 

Buggs: Yes, the collective space in the world is pretty small. I think there's a handful of us in the industry that are enthusiasts. Where it's expanding and probably getting more competition is on the international front, Japan, Europe. Australia obviously has deep surfing experiences in that. The collective space internationally is especially in Europe where surfing is growing. The overall sport of surfing is growing there. Japan obviously as well, which are young countries that are really involved and got into surfing and the surfing culture.

Jason: We are also seeing to his point about the disposable income. People tend to collect what they had when they were young. When they have a disposable income to buy it back. Where the boards from the early 1900s all the way to the ‘60s are extremely important and beautiful.

The surfers and the folks that are interested in those unfortunately are passing on and the stories may or may not be passing with them. All of a sudden from a time perspective, this stuff from the mid ‘70s to the ‘80s is now coming into view. The law of supply-demand as stuff becomes more popular and there's less of it.

There's going to be more competition for acquiring it. Having said that, we love the fact that people are passionate and interested in it. Our mission is basically to get more enthusiasts involved so the stories live on. Things aren’t just put away, they are shared.

Buggs: It’s interesting, your generation and the younger generation today who grew up maybe in the late ‘80s going into the ‘90s where basically the surf culture and industry at that point is -- a lot of just basic tri fins, high mass, high production boards. No color, no soul, no art.

It would be interesting to see how that collective space from the ‘80s transits to the ‘90s. Will there even be in demand collectables. Unless there's provenance behind certain boards.

GA: Yes, like little Kelly Slaters famous naked girl surfboards from the 90's. 

Buggs: Right. It just seems like a lot of that was blasé, it lost the cool, the artistic side. Everything went just high production overseas and just lost its soul.

GA: True, and unfortunate. 

Buggs: Those boards followed the competition side because it was becoming more of a high performance sport as we went into ‘80s and ‘90s, doing airs and this and that. Whereas back in the ‘70s and even in early ‘80s, it was more about style, flow-

Jason: It was an expression of art.

Buggs: -as far as being scored and judged on back then. It will be interesting what is going to be collectible from ‘90s on. I don’t know. It's so blasé, I don’t actually know.

Jason: They are even taking templates and then shipping them off to china. Having them pop out of malls. There is no soul, there is no handwork on the board. Then, they are stripping all the art off the board as well because it’s an extra step, it’s an extra cost. Now they have to compete on cost.

Can someone say the difference between a $600 or $700 board, they could sell more, they think $600 is the magic number. But again, that's going to be suited for the water and for the garage but will never become lifestyle and suitable for the wall.

GA: Yes, when was the last time you saw a beautiful airbrushed blank surfboard? Like how they airbrushed waves on the boards, or an established artist airbrushing a board?

Jason: Not since the later ‘80s.

Buggs: Some of it has gone full circle now with all the retro you know like Harrison Roach and Tyler Warren. These guys are building some beautiful boards with color and stuff. Again, I'm just reflecting on that transition and more high performance ‘90s. [crosstalk]

 GA: Yes, which is cool. Because it’s a moment in time.

Jason: I think what has to happen and one of the other goals of this would be to bring some younger enthusiasts along like the Tyler Warrens and even younger than that to say, “Hey, we see the value in this, we want to surf these again. It will be perfectly good. We want to template them. We want to recreate these things to keep that craft, that handcraft alive.” That's the stuff that's important, I think.

Buggs: It would be interesting. I think, if anything, the young generation and the stuff that what was the ‘70s and the ‘80s, it could be that more in demand in the collective world from even the younger generation as they get more educated on, again, what was.

Jason: Educated and discretion or income, right?

Buggs: And I just don’t see any, like you said, ‘90s and that on, it’s just so many mass produced-- Yes, like you said, that slater board that was--

GA: You’re going to hate this question, but if the house is burning down, which board would you grab first?

Jason: I would grab two because I have two arms. I'd grab the Mike Hansen’s rainbow.  It's a beautiful Mike Hansen, airbrushed. Late ‘60s, early ‘70s gun with a resin airbrush I’d absolutely grab a Stussy, it's a hand drawn art, Stussy board.

GA: What about you, Bugs?

Buggs: Probably a Lopez that I have because it’s right by my front door. It's probably the most documented board in the ‘70s. It's on the cover shot of Surfer. Gerry Lopez in the barrel. Guys like Jackie Dan, Rory Russell also rode it. It’s all original. 

GA: How many boards do you have? An estimate, around. It’s sort of for reference in the beginning.

Jason: I've got about 200 boards. 

Buggs: I've got about 400 now. 

Jason: You see what that’s interesting about what he collects and what I collect is both perfectly fine. The beauty of collecting and sharing this stuff is that sometimes people are collecting a period, sometimes people are collecting a shape or sometimes people are collecting single fins or twin fins.

Buggs: Yes, I like collecting boards from those particular shapers who were involved in the surfboard evolution in the sense of collecting a board that represents real transition, to see how they transition from old boxy single fins into higher performance tri fins, because it’s been tri fin from late ‘60s to obviously today. So that whole period from ’68 through ’80, ’84, a board that reflects its translation to evolution of its shaping as it progressed. So a board from each period as it progressed is what interests me as well.

GA: From this upcoming show, what’s one thing you’d like people to take away?

Jason: For me, it’s about -- hopefully they understand that-- a lot of people go to surfboard swap meets and it’s all about what board is there and can they buy it. This isn’t about any of that. This is more about a cultural exchange, a social gathering of people that are passionate about what they collect and eager to tell their stories. Our goal, our mission would be to keep that stoke alive and grow the community of surfboard enthusiasts that are interested in the things that we are.

GA: Do you think Venice is the perfect place for the first Expression Session?

Jason: Yes, Venice these days is extremely fitting because -- to Rico’s point about surfboards and skateboards, this is the intersection of surf and skate.

Buggs: Surf to skate thing which we didn’t touch on.

Jason: That's why that is to me is extremely important. Surf to skate, I mean when you saw skateboarding come on and what they were doing was emulating what the other guys were doing in the water and pulling tricks like the bird from Larry Bertlemann. This is where that all happened. There's a lot of influence of surf/skate culture in this area.

What fired me up the most about Dogtown was that moment in the documentary where they were showing the bird and showing the intersection of surf and skate. Expressing themselves on land as they did in the water. It wasn’t about contest much like when the Z-Boys went down and competed in the skate contest, they changed the game through their innovative style.

It was about expressing themselves and that became skateboarding. If it wasn’t for that and for this area, surfing would still be alive. Skateboarding may have fallen by the wayside just like the roller. These guys changed the game. For us to do it here, for us to call Expression Session, to do it here, it just made perfect sense to a point where it's ready.

Buggs It’s really interesting how surfing and skateboarding were basically transitioning at that same period. When I say period, late ‘70s through the ‘80s going from soul and style to more performance and vert skating. All of that transition was going not only on land here with pools and going vert.

Going vert more and more performance on surfing as well. Both cultures or sports were evolving and changing at the same time. You can draw a comparison in a parallel. Which I don’t think a lot of people really compared the two as they were --

Which is interesting. This was probably one of the epicenters, obviously. Venice, the Dogtown movement. Which spread, especially on the skate side, to Middle America.

Jason: It was about what people were seeing here that influenced the rest of the world. Back then there was no internet. What they were seeing here, they were waiting to see come out in pages of magazines.

GA: Then telling their friends, “I saw this.” That's how it kind of spread naturally and organic.

Jason: That's how people learned to do certain tricks in the water and on land by just seeing it there --

Jason: Not to mention that we also get into all the cultural aspects of it. There's all the merchandise along with it, from clothing to accessories, to fins, to media, to trophies. There's so much more that surrounds it but without the board there's no sport and no activity or anything.