What does it mean or look like to be a surfer today? What does it mean to the non-surfer? What sets us apart from your average Tom and Jerry? Where does the differentiation lie? Bygone are the days when long, blonde 70’s hairstyles and slack-jawed, stoned accents defined us. These days, surfers breed out of all walks of life, coming in all shapes and sizes, ages and genders. Now, as far as the rest of society is concerned; haircuts? skin colour? Anything goes really when/if you’re a surfer.

Surfing today is simultaneously a sport, a lifestyle and an iconic part of Australian culture. It is an ideal lens for analysing a range of contemporary cultural processes associated with globalisation, in relation to surfing in popular culture, tourism and competition. Unlike other recreational activities such as golf and tennis, surfing now has the unique ability to divide its participants into various sub-genres and forms of expression.

The commodification of surfing in recent years has seen surfing careers open up in fields never before thought possible. Leaving us with such a rich diversification of surfers in what I like to call tribes. There are the ‘sero’s’ (competitors) or ‘jocks’, surfers like Mick Fanning and Adriano De Souza who have over a long period of time established themselves as the ‘cream of the crop’ in surfing. Then there are the ‘hipsters’; guys like Al Knost, Ozzie Wright, Harrison Roach and Creed McTaggart, who are more or less on a trip of their own, often symbolising the escapism side to surfing. And of course let’s not forget the gutsy, big-wave surfers like Dorian and Greg Long who are simply untouchable, in a league of their own.

I for one am not a huge fan for categorising surfers to this extent, but am well aware that this has inadvertently opened up and sold the idea of surfing to a whole new audience, wherein lies the notion; there is someone for everyone, creating a somewhat multi-cultural phenomenon in surfing.

With surf brands still out-selling the ‘surfing look’ to generations both young and old all over the world, it should come as no surprise to find a Billabong or Quiksilver tee popping up anywhere and everywhere these days. In far-flung third world countries, miles from the coast, to water-starved suburban ghetto’s in regional NSW, surf fashion is still as popular and appealing as ever. The predicament now being; how to spot the surfers from the pretenders? Just like trying to pick out someone in the Taliban or the Viet Cong in the 1960’s/70’s, it becomes more or less a guessing game. Until of course we arrive at the beach, where the truth more or less speaks for itself.

Views and perceptions of surfing have certainly changed over the years, from the stigmas of no-good, pot-smoking hippies to now respectable, elite athletes representing a global entity. Looking from a glance, today’s non-surfer must be completely in awe. Along with its rise and expansion in style and careers, surfing’s shape shifting ability must seem quite bamboozling to those not in the know. For instance how on earth can surfers be paid just to surf? Sure, if competing is not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to get the most out of your surfing. But to get paid to be a ‘free surfer’ and to make enough to live off! There must be a heap of us turning in our sleep/graves over that one.

However, for most of us, despite withholding the odd niggle of jealously from time to time, surfing is so much more than the fame, fancy accessories and big money that it gets built up to be. For those that get truly hooked, surfing is a personal, unique relationship with the ocean, and a playground that which we indulge in and share with those like-minded around us. That’s what sets us apart, and as cliché as it might sound, surfing has always been about the good times. And when you break it down that’s all it really is; a good time. Some may call it a religious experience, while others shrug this off as surfing mysticism. In the end, that’s what differentiates us into tribes, under one ‘surfing’ banner but with differing ideologies. No one idea can be right or wrong, especially if it appeals to anyone to give it a try.