The modern surf scene can be a confusing, chaotic place. Diverse crowds, intimidating localism, headache-inducing beach traffic and encroaching urbanization—these things all blur together, for better or worse, to form the everyday reality that city-dwelling surfers must confront daily. It’s that concept—the urban surf element—that Damian Fulton chooses as the focal point for his surf paintings.
“Today, for most of us the surf experience isn’t a perfect, antiseptic, glassy Hawaiian-print world,” says Fulton. The El Segundo, Calif., painter and artist chooses to portray the surf scene he’s most familiar with—Los Angeles’ South Bay—utilizing a distinct style that sets his work apart from classic idealized beach scenes or airbrushed fantasy surf-scapes. His art is gritty and features a comic book twist that captures the fast-paced and complicated nature of both city surfing and South Bay culture.
“I’m more interested in painting surfing from my personal experience—it’s so much more truthful and honest to present this world as imperfect. It’s cathartic for me to say, ‘No, this is what it’s really about, it’s rough, gruff, and flawed,’” says Fulton.
His artwork represents a blending of his loves and experiences within the art world, as well as his observations as a California surfer. “My earliest perception of what surf culture was supposed to be was based on some perfect ‘Gidgetized’ go-go version of what I saw on TV,” says Fulton. Growing up in Irvine and the decidedly suburban Fountain Valley during the ‘70s, Fulton notes that his first introduction to surfing, in Huntington Beach, was marked by pure culture shock. While it’s more commercialized (or “mall-ized” as Fulton puts it) now, Huntington Beach was a little rougher back then, with bikers, gangs, and surfers coming together into one hodgepodge of disordered counterculture that captivated the young artist.
Fulton later went on to attend Cal State Fullerton, and for years he focused on establishing himself as a working artist and illustrator. From painting murals on vans to designing a poster for the Op Pro Surf Contest, Fulton pursued as much artistic work as he could find—“I’ve done so many T-shirt designs it makes me sick,” he adds. Fulton developed comic strips for BMX Plus Magazine (his strip “Radical Rick” ran for years) and Snowboarder Magazine. He also directed commercials for several advertising agencies and helped develop animation for Marvel Productions. He worked for Disney too, painting commemorative items for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary.
Roughly a decade ago, after years spent creating art for others, Fulton decided to make art for himself. Digging through twenty years of sketchbook doodles he compiled pieces that best represented his new home—Los Angeles’ South Bay—as he saw it.
“What continually came out of these were the pop culture imagery that I’d been seeped in as a kid: Batman, Marvel comics, motorcycles and cars, monster movies, all of these experiences just piled on top of one another,” says Fulton. His experiences as a professional artist and as a California surfer, coupled with his love of beach culture, comics, movies and the works of famous artists such as Howard Pyle and Frank Frazetta, all came together to form his urban surf art.
Fulton’s work centers on his observations of L.A.’s surf culture. “In the beach environment itself [in L.A.], the waves are rough, the surfers are rougher, diverse and complex, and there are so many different types,” says Fulton. The surf scene in Los Angeles can be strange at times, but for Fulton, it’s exciting. It’s part of what he finds so engaging about the South Bay.
“It’s mayhem here,” says Fulton. “And the irony is, is that I love it. I love the diversity and intensity. I love the energy it brings. It’s where I choose to raise my family.”
See more art in Fulton’s online gallery.