This thesis will examine the relationship of board-riders to niche media produced by and for the subcultures of surfers, skaters, and snow-boarders. This thesis will also look at the how boarder subcultural scenes are positioned as distinct from mainstream culture. This thesis will also examine why boarders represent themselves in the ways that they do and are as a group comfortable with the representations crafted in the genre of board sports niche media as iterations of their identity. This thesis is primarily concerned with aspects of the board-riding community that relate to the experience of subcultural lifestyles and niche media representations. This thesis is finally an addition to research on these subcultures and the methodologies by which media mediates the social worlds of participants and functions as a mechanism of dispersal, collection, and reaffirmation of individual and community cultural capital.
“Frame Lines”: Introduction 3
1- the board-sports story 8
past and present
2- how to study boarders and their media 9
3- linking content to other contexts 15
“Being a Boarder”: Part One 19
4- using tools 20
flow, embodying culture, they are technicians
5- knowing people 30
in the lineup, board-riders’ club
6- having (or not) things 38
growing up groms, the search
“Reel Life”: Part Two 45
7- sessions, sections, and xtras 46
8- scenes and being seen 48
in still frames, documenting life.
“Framelines”: Conclusions 52
10- intersection at folklore and life 53
11- fluid exchanges of cultural capital 56
niche media of the board-riding community
12- thanks for reading 57
glossary, works cited
It’s not even six o’clock in the morning. It’s the type of humid cold that makes you feel refrigerated, despite being in Polynesia. In my sandals and light long-sleeves, I am vaguely subdued and quiet like an ectotherm would be. It was an insomniatic Hawaiian night on the lanai (porch); it was hard just to shut my eyes after arriving well after dark the night before. Sometime, well before dawn, the monstrousness of the rumbling ocean sounds filtered through to my consciousness and I was awake. In this winter season on the North Shore, the waves were counted as sizeable. I just remember getting up, and going down to the bay there, to Waimea. The sky was just white, sun shining through the fog. The wind was offshore and there was a moment when the few people on the beach, the assembling lifeguard force, the general citizenry of that beach park at that time became like a congregation. There was very little talking and the only gestures you really saw were private and muted. The only thing to look at then was the paradoxically careening and molasses-like waves. It took up so much sensory space just to observe the cylinders explode in sequence towards you and the bay literally overflow with ocean that you barely noticed the ant-like surfers make the paddle out. Soon there were a few surfers out, indiscriminately old and young, female and male, amateur and pro. I stood silent, said little, and kept my ideas to myself. That was when I knew that I would definitely be surfing forever.
In surfing, like in life as according to a lot of boarders, understatement is crucial. Styles come and go (like pastels and neon, twice in my lifetime) and grommets become the old guys, but reacting to the bare minimum of stimuli gives board-riders their casual cool. Before that winter when I was in Hawaii during some contest days in the Eddie Aikau memorial big wave contest wait period, I had been around other board-sports on the east coast, the west coast, the Caribbean, lovely Australia, and other mountainous regions in between. Growing up with the son of a Portuguese waterman as my father, and the daughter of a tropical beach-loving man as my mother, I was fated to aligning my emotions with the ocean and being just as excitable as a fast, clean, day at a favorite break. Over three years of college, I spent months in Central America, weeks in California, Florida, and Puerto Rico. I begged to go to the UC at Santa Barbara to study film, didn’t get to go, but have made a few experimental projects and spent a lot of celluloid mimicking the community who captures board-riding on film anyway.
I need to surf to push the reset button, and the urge to do so will grab me sometimes with such a power that giving in is really transcending something. Then, sometimes I won’t surf for weeks. To get away and be exactly where you want to be is difficult. To find that solitude, because we get so addicted to being around people and things and so confined by, as World Champion surfer Rob Machado puts it, “rules, numbers, jerseys and things (Johnson 1999),” is truly more necessary than ever now. If you think about it, board-riding is really about living in the moment. Some people stick to what they are comfortable with and what they know best, but if you are willing to look there is a beautiful, big world out there full of open barrels, perfect half-pipes, and feet upon feet of fresh powder.
Author at 19, with Costa Rican locals and fellow grom surfers (from left to right) Jenny, 15, Debbie, 14, and Juan Carlos, 15.
I named this thesis “Frame Lines” because I’ve seen into the world of boarders and, using a metaphor, seen the particular style within which its representations are crafted. If a way of life could be described by the camera lens that makes pictures of it, board-riding is with out a doubt one of them. This text is divided into two parts, the first which is my attempt at a rich ethnography of boarder subcultures; the latter is an analysis of the media that lies at the heart of board-riding social worlds. If part one is likened to being on the world tour in board-riding, with diversity but commonalities nevertheless, then part two is a crafted symbolic representation of board-riders’ culture that will address the concentrated meanings that characterize boarders’ self-perpetuated narrative—one epic trip.
The sheer volume of information that was collected in order to write this thesis was the hardest aspect to deal with in order to clearly examine what lies beneath the trappings of boarder subcultures. In order to do so, I separated out my analysis into a few main sections. It was important to recognize how the board sports coalesced into one social world. It was also important to track themes in the theoretical discourse of boarders. I chose main anchor posts on which to hang my ethnographic research such as: experience (flow), bodies (embodiment), technicians (utility), lineup (positioning), club (social sports) groms (new generation), and the search (thrill-seeking). I then attempted to research the content in niche media of boarder subcultures. I also dissected the great pool of possible informing variables in order to focus on a few thematic points. This paper being bounded by the process by which I arrived at my conclusions, the ways that I looked at real life and then life represented were kept on the same scale so to speak. Therefore, for the niche content, I looked at the aesthetics (mechanisms), frames (imagery), and documentarianism (image-making). It was useful to triangulate my methods for content in order to find the peak themes in the vast body of material produced by and for boarder subcultures.
Moving beyond analysis to draw conclusions, my thesis reaffirms the answer to simple questions: why board-riders participate in the media making/consuming process, how the media works within social worlds, and where the cultural origins are located that delineate these subcultures as sub-Culture. In this way, I wanted to delve into the peculiarities of this topic which has captured the imagination of a lot of people, especially lately with the amount of mass media coverage these groups of participants are also getting in the greater social arena. There are links conceptually to other extreme sports such as rock climbing, mountain biking and free-diving and other lifestyle sports such as sailing, running, and hiking. There are social links to other groups such as a wide variety of youth subcultures.
The Board Sports Story
Whether on water, pavement, or fluffy white powder, the history of surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding is a landscape filled with rugged personalities, exotic locales, wild innovation, and most of all the united dream of becoming one with the oceans, streets, and mountains. (Brisick, Preface)
Surfing has Polynesian origins. The watermen and women of Tahiti and the Marquesas migrated to Hawaii and there surfing remained a custom. We know that people have been surfing since pre-contact in Polynesia; some believe it began perhaps in the Society Islands (Brisick 2004). In the Polynesian Islands, surfboard riding or He’e nalu (to ride the waves), was a leisure pursuit of kings in the Hawaiian culture since at least one thousand years ago (Brisick 2004). Californian surfers from a hundred years ago, who couldn’t surf when the waves were flat, developed “sidewalk surfing,” or skateboarding. For the past fifty years (Brisick 2004), skateboarding and surfing have intermingled and traded styles consistently. Skateboarding continued in the direction of being an independent pursuit entirely inspired by surfboard-riding. Around the same time, the first snowboard was crafted in 1965 and named, for the combination of the words snow and surfing, the Snurfer (Howe 1998). In the past forty years, snowboarding and skateboarding have grown massively as board-sports. Board-riding subculture is far from being a fad although it was coalesced together relatively recently. The momentum with which these pursuits have become located on streets, mountains, and beaches has integrated them into a niche within mainstream culture. They attract the adventurous, the alternative, and the athletic. Closely following the cultural, technical, and social progressions of board-riding has been the development the sharing of aesthetic experience of board-riders. In the minds of many board-riders, the creativity of the ride and the expression of their sport is a mirror that reflects their identity, lifestyle experience, and social worlds.
The board-sports story has included many heroes from Jake Burton, who capitulated snowboarding from his garage workshop to a vanguard activity, to Al Merrick who has been shaping the evolving surfboard for close to fifty years. The boarders I talked to were quick to mention these mythical characters, visionaries of style and substance who have altered the board sports as they have been known. I argue that the perception of the history of these free-flowing sports for board-riders is that it is legendary. There are best-loved characters too, people like Jack Johnson, ex-professional surfer/surf filmmaker/folk musician who was born on the North Shore and Tony Hawk, video game star/professional skateboarder/industry-creating mogul.
With perhaps the most varied and largest legend-making board-riding culture of any American state, Hawaii withstanding, I noticed the Californians cross-pollinate their boarding tendencies with a prowess challenged by no one else. To ride skateboards during flat spells, surf snow waves during the winter, and be one of the many California surfers who can bust airs, make turns, and catch big ones is nothing out of the ordinary. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Californians have any more or less ambiguity in their identity formation in terms of loyalty to singular b0ard-sport. As twenty-year old Kyle puts it “You know man, I just do what I feel. If it’s a good day to go out to ‘Sen Clemany’ (San Clemente), then we’ll go catch waves, you know but if it’s raining we might just watch videos, and pretty much every other day of the week we ride our skateboards…for transportation.” It seems that the adage environment influences attitude is the bottom line for the West Coasters, who have the luxury of Lake Tahoe and other snow resorts within a half-day’s drive as well as some of the most consistent surf breaks and prolific skate parks in the country and the world. I noted many times that people who had been boarding a long time avoided generalizing the three separate sports. It is more convenient for boarders to simplify and streamline aspects of subculture that do not directly correlate with the tropes to which they are accustomed. If you take a closer look at the three, they have very different personalities, although many people participate in more than one.
I would argue that today, the three modes of surfing: sea, land, and snow, are grouped together in the parlance of mainstream culture in order to resolve discrepancies of relationships between them. Although surfers have been traditionally regarded as laid-back, skaters as punk, and snowboarders as technologically hip, these perceptions are stereotypical and unrepresentative of actual realities under the trappings of the separate industries that have come to define each sport. In the age of extreme sports, lifestyle choices, leisure society, and the board-sports craze, it is useful to mainstream media to make the connection of the common use of the board as implement of recreation. All three are related to riding and performing tricks on boards. However, in the minds of the boarders, board-sports remain separate but related, much like nuclear and extended families typically function as such. In research, I found no problems grouping surfing, skating, and snowboarding together for the purpose of this topic because throughout the history of the board-sports, extending commonalities of style, technical and otherwise, have been a functional aspect of board-riders’ cross-subcultural interchange.
How to Study Board-Riders and their Media
Like all good anthropologists, I used varied methodologies to assess the relationship between board-riders and their media. I triangulated content, participation, and interviews to accrue the amount of experiences with core boarders that ultimately gave me many breakthrough moments of synthesis. Throughout this project I was a little belabored by the idea that I was institutionalizing media in board-rider culture; what I aesthetically admired in their highly creative and exhilarating expressions privy to being a surfer, skater, or snowboarder was not supposed to be made familiar to those outside, or made strange to those who were already familiar. My apprehensions were well-grounded in legitimate fears of misrepresentation. I have learned from board-riding that in life in general, relying on my gut as a good place to be starting from is the second best to certainty.
To illustrate this point, in my third year of college I had a major long-boarding accident. It was a wet day, and just getting out of a frustrating class I grabbed my long-board as usual for, as a freshman here will put it to his RA when caught in the hallways, a “cruise sesh (session).” My record on skateboards that had been so far unscathed was completely turned around when dropped into a familiar hill. I caught an edge, wiped out, and was knocked out. I just remember sitting on a gurney in the hospital and hearing a nurse say I must have fallen because I didn’t know how to skate. One of my tried and true girl friends gave me a look of horror and immediately retorted to the nurse that I was the best long-boarder in North Carolina. Twenty staples and twenty stitches later, I had lost a little bit more than blood and scalp. There was something unnerving about messing up the magic touch with my board that I had learned over the years to manipulate so well. When speaking about working with gut feelings, intuition is most talked about as the safety valve in boarding life. Man, tool, and environment coexisting peacefully so that it the resulting proceedings are ‘sick, gnarly, and rad, brah.’ Had it been surfboard-riding, there are marine conditions that need to be managed. In snowboarding, there are the mechanics of gravity to contend with. In skateboarding however, there are deceivingly fewer variables between body and pavement which I had felt that I had full safety in reigning over, the rain notwithstanding. It took me a few months of strumming the guitar on the porch to even consider skating after the accident. Back to my usual ways, I think there’s a new educated grace in my sessions which are now less like dropping in at the second reef at Big Pipe (in my dreams: Pipeline, Oahu, Hawaii), and more like an easy descent on a snowboard on a soft, powdery mountain.
Working from the assumptions that there are unifying trends that connect the board-sports to each other, I pursued what they had in common. Taking for granted that boarders have access to a media connecting them to other boarders all over the planet, I argue that niche media is highly influential in coalescing the board-riding scenes into an intelligible narrative. This story, continuing to be developed as a text in the form of people’s habitudes, aesthetics, and beliefs is at the core of board-riding subcultures. In observing the scenic culture of board-riders, I looked for material markers, social patterns, and expressionistic content. In interviews I asked boarders everything from their reasons behind board-riding, to their descriptions of physically boarding, to their opinion of “mags and vids,” to their most used jargon words, to how boarding looks to them as a scene. I also gazed at the aestheticism of board-riding and tried to see the architecture behind the content, and why the subcultural landscape is shaped as it is.
I continue to feel that board-rider’s lives, much like their media, are grounded in day-to-day embodied experiences that will probably continue to evade the researcher. Evasion, especially if the researcher is a board-rider herself.
However, to really study board-riders, one needs to relate to them--to laugh at their jokes, to follow their trains of thought, and to understand fault lines of respect and accrued status. To gain entry to their social worlds is luckily a transparent process; however there is a significant hierarchy that guards the upper echelon from the “kooks.” For example, without two years of skating experience with and even extensively photographing the local skater crew, I am not sure that I would have their confidence to banter in the free-flowing manner that gleaned the most thoughtful insights coming from them about how skating fits into their life and then how the niche media connects to their lifestyle. In the boarding world, experience and the ability to slide into the ways of speaking and listening that really communicate the more subtle personal stories are what you need to truly examine board-rider’s experience through their eyes.
Links in Content to Context
The study of surfing includes the three individual board-sports as subjects of examination from various angles. As Thorne (1976:209) notes, “The adventurous nature of the sport of surfing and the conditions of its historical development facilitated the creation and sustenance of an indigenous folklore.” This folklore (Thorne 1976a and Thorne 1976b) can be clearly seen in literature about the board-riding sports, in which there is a focus on the aestheticism of board-riders. Specifically, the diversity of works considered focus on risk (Stranger 1999), embodiment (Evers 2006), identity formation (Light 2006), board-riding lifestyle practice (Brisick 2004 and Howe 1998), social theory (Ford and Brown 2006), and localism vs. globalization in modernity (Daskalos 2007). All of the literature about the surfing of waves, pavement, and snow in the main idea has strength in describing the board-riding aesthetic. My research addresses how such a powerful aestheticism exists for board-riders and functions for individuals in the subcultural arena.
I will also draw from the scholarly study of extreme sports participation, which differs from the study of surfing in that it considers board-riders among other thrill-seeking participants of non-mainstream, individualized, and risky sports (Self et al. 2007). As Boyd and Kim (2007) note, the task-achievement orientation and sensation seeking behavior of extreme sport board-riders are very different in terms of psychological mood states than participants from mainstream, goal-oriented sports. Boyd and Kim (2007) highlight the beneficial nature of board-riding extreme sports, which lead to optimal mood states of lower tension, anxiety, and anger and greater concentration, stamina, and balance. Boyd and Kim (2007) examine data with specificity to skateboard-riding, but they also note that their results should correspond strongly with the kin sports surfboard-riding and snowboard-riding as separate entirely from ego-oriented, mainstream, and team sports. Self et al. (2007:180), also offer that the thrill-seeking personality type of board-riders has mental manifestations in innovative, creative thinking as well as the physical risk-taking of dangerous and speedy pursuits. Self et al. (2007:180-183) situates the personality type of extreme sport board-riders as having strong subcultural distinctions of obsessive devotion to the sport and individual self-expression, with uniquely and highly creative development of jargon, style, and symbolism that is collaborative rather than competitive. Self et al. (2007) mention the “poetic symbols,” in boarder subcultures which serve to cohere the communities around specific markers of significance within the groups. Self et al. (2007), further note that because of the trend-setting and cool nature of extreme board-sports, an “us vs them” mentality is bred between insider and mainstream media. Thorpe (2006) takes a look at board-riding extreme sports from before they were highly visible in mainstream media and after. In her paper, with regard to female board-riders, Thorpe (2006:221) notes how niche media continues to function by “contesting cultural meanings, spaces, and identities.” Furthermore, Thorpe (2007:220) notes how the representation of boarder culture (within niche media) is perhaps an active separator of core boarders and less-committed participants. Humphreys (1997) echoes her idea with research that despite increased exposure and permeability in mainstream marketing, extreme sport board-riders are enabled by the consumption of media to retain their individual philosophies over time. Finally, Hunter and Csikzentmihalyi (2000) have examined the concept of flow in why board-sports might seek to maintain a selective attention on certain aspects of their experience by the use of niche media. Hunter and Csikzentmihalyi (2000) focus on the lived experience of sport, wherein intentionality and interpretive frameworks can have significant effect on lifestyle activities. The importance of niche media that cultivates positive psychological states such as flow, can be understood physiologically with Hunter and Csikzentmihalyi’s (2000) connection of mind and body in dialogue. Strengths of the research done about board-riders within the context of extreme sports is the analysis of the physical embodiment of board-sports, the relationship of the board-sport activities to social realities, and the examination of how niche media functions as part of boarder subcultures. My research draws on the extreme sports context in order to explore the relationship of how the use of niche media is significant to board-riders’ experience of their sport.
In theoretical research about sport subcultures, there is a body of work that examines board-sports from the perspectives of “alternative consumerism” (Donnelly 2006), the distinction between board-riding subcultures and “brand-communities” (de Burgh-Woodman and Brace-Govan 2007), the sport subcultures as scenes (Irwin 1977), ritualistic participation (Birrell 1981), self-immortalization (Schmitt and Leonard II 1986), and social worlds (Unruh 1980). Subculture communitas (Birrell 1981) based around an sport activity and on feelings such as flow is shown to have more priority in the life of a board-rider than any consumption habits of board-riders, “by privileging subject-centered experience and emotional-aesthetic concerns of reason in building self-knowledge, and offering a nonlinear eco-friendly conception of history and action (de Burgh-Woodman and Brace-Govan 2007:202). De Burgh-Woodman and Brace-Govan (2007:204-205) state “Subculture often encroaches on lifestyle and indeed, in the instance of surfing, becomes a lifestyle. These distinctions affect how we must view members of these communities; their values, philosophies, and priorities are manifestly different.” This body of research will offer a strong contribution of insight as to how authenticity is maintained and lived by participants, how social worlds are created and cohered by niche media communication, and how board-riders experience subculture perspectives and use niche media.