May 19, 2020by Jon Kramer

Surf Poser | The surfing eyeball is not for sale

Copyright 5-9-20  / 1,052 words by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction.  These events took place 1980s – 1997

 In the ‘80s I was a poser.  There are, to state the obvious, many species of poser – from redneck house painters that fancy themselves racing in NASCAR, to hairstylists that decide they’re going to the Olympics, not as a spectator.  My poser specialty was surfer. Before I actually knew how to surf  – even before I owned a surfboard – I was enraptured with the surfer lifestyle and emulated the persona as much as I could while still presenting a subdued coolness to my friends.   A truly gifted poser can walk the fine line between reality and fakery, appearing genuine, yet not overdoing it.   I wore boardshorts in the summer, surf hoodies in the winter, and read Surfer magazine year-around.  Eventually, in the ‘90s, I did learn to surf and lost the poser innocence.

But before that, as a dedicated surfer poser, I collected tee shirts and apparel that declared to the world my surfer coolness.  Every place I traveled, I would look for a local surf shop to buy their own unique branded apparel.  I even found one in, of all places, Lawrence, Kansas, over 1,000 miles away from any real surf.  Sharks Surf Shop was an institution in downtown Lawrence for over 30 years. (Alas, I think it’s gone the way of the dinosaurs…)  They printed a tee with an altogether Quixotic image of a silhouetted surfer carrying a board through amber waves of grain.  I bought three of them.  Still have one.

Probably the most revered surf artist in the country was Rick Griffin.  He rose to popularity in the Hippie Era, where he was a central figure in the psychedelic art movement.  In the1960s, Griffin and his wife moved to San Francisco where they became common guests at Ken Kesey’s “Acid Test” parties. His first real art exhibition was at the one-year anniversary of the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street.  Griffin also produced a plethora of comics – many of which appeared in Zap Comix and were also featured in Surfer magazine. He was a sought-after album cover artist as well, amassing an impressive clientele of the iconic bands of the day – Jimi Hendricks, Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, and many others.

I loved Griffin’s work and collected several posters and shirts with his art (still do, actually).  My favorite Griffin image is his now-classic “surfing eyeball” first done in 1981, featuring a detached eyeball with flailing arms and legs riding a blazing surfboard through a ring of fire.  (Yeah, OK, I have strange taste…).  The eyeball imagery appeared in Griffin’s art after he was involved in a car wreck in California.  The car he was riding in careened off the road and Griffin was thrown from the vehicle, sustaining serious injury to his head and trauma to one of his eyes.  After he recovered, he grew a beard and periodically wore an eye patch.

Sadly, Rick Griffin died as a result of a motorcycle accident in 1991. He was thrown from his Harley-Davidson motorcycle when he collided with a van that suddenly turned left as he attempted to pass it. He was not wearing a helmet and sustained major head injuries. He was 47.  His death sent a shockwave throughout the alternative art world and was particularly felt in California surf culture.

I scored one of Rick’s surfing eyeball T-shirts shortly after they hit the streets in the early 80s.   I loved that shirt so much that I took special care of it, treating it like a top-shelf formal dress shirt and wearing it only on special occasions.  I learned to surf in ’94 and thereafter traveled regularly to central California for the winter swells.

In October ‘97, I was changing planes in San Francisco, hustling between gates while wearing the worn, but intact, surfing eyeball shirt.  Serendipitously, this was just at the start of the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s annual meeting in town, as evidenced by ads for same throughout the terminals.  Although I have huge respect for the various fields of medicine, that’s not my world and it was mere coincidence that I happened to be wearing the eyeball shirt as I trudged through the ophthalmology-festooned airport. As I walked between flights, I passed a guy going the other way who did a double-take of my shirt.   He quickly reversed course and came running up to me.

Hey, where did you get that shirt? It’s fantastic!  I told him I’d had it for a decade.  It was a classic collector’s item, the artist having died a several years prior.

I gotta have one! he said.  I replied that, as far as I knew, they were no longer available.

Well, how about I buy that one from you right now!  I’ll pay double whatever you paid for it ten years ago.  I didn’t really remember what I’d paid for it – maybe $10? –  but to hedge my bet I said I thought it cost me $20.


OK, then I’ll pay you $50 for it!   I considered it and said, Nah…  Rick Griffin was THE MAN! The top Kahuna. I can’t sell it.   

He then offered $100.  I stopped walking, thought for a bit and then took a line straight out of the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”: Well anyone who’d pay that much for a T-shirt is crazy… and if they ARE crazy, they’d probably pay $250 if they really wanted a classic like this.

To my astonishment he said SOLD!  Show me the money, I said.  And he did, pulling out a wallet and peeling off five $50s.  I set down my bags.  No sweat, I thought to myself, I have another shirt in my carry-on.  So I leaned over and started to pull the tee over my head, being careful not to tug too hard on the threadbare cloth.  But as I was doing so, I noticed, looking through the fabric, the eyeball staring at me.   I paused and looked back at it.   Then I slid the shirt back down.

Sorry, man.  I just can’t do it.  It means too much to me… I picked up my bags and walked on down the hall to my flight.

It was then I realized I was a poser no more.