WELCOME TO THE BEATING HEART OF YOUR ADDICTION
WE ARE THE SPIT
THE TRADE WINDS
THE HOWLING GALE
WE ARE BACKWASH
When I first came to Britain on a youth work visa, I was determined not to fall into the trap of many travelling Australian and Kiwi mates that ended up caught in the London rat race. For me, being near waves was imperative, so with my somewhat limited view of British surfing, ended up in Cornwall because "that's the only place that has something resembling surf in England." A full summer later I left with a totally altered perception of just how much fun surfing here could be. After a few weeks across the Irish sea, I returned on a quiet tip off from a friend and bee-lined it straight for the east coast, running completely on faith. It was through this friend's kindness and a stroke of dumb luck that my van buddy and I blindly stumbled into some of the most beautiful regions of England we'd seen and waves to match. I remember being amazed at not only the waves, but the number of surfers and it was on that first trip that I bumped into Lewis Arnold, swimming in the freezing brown waters with camera in hand. I've since shared a few memorable days with Lewis and have followed his beautiful images capturing the scene in those parts. It's funny to think back to just how ignorant I was to the east coast scene; a place that has a rich history of surfing. Lewis's latest project, "Wavewall" is a celebration of surfing in these parts, past and present at the central point of surfing in the Nor' East, Tynemouth.
So, how was the process of gathering all of those images from the archives?
It took a while to consider who or what needed to be included but once I had a good idea; first off I went through my own archive as I've been shooting surfing in the North East for a while now so I had a lot. The work uses my own surf photography for structure with all the detail and stories overlaid on top.
When I had the funds and permissions in place I told some of the locals about it and they were cool with digging around for old pics and cuttings. One gem that cropped up was probably the first photograph of a reef up here being surfed in the seventies, the peak is being split by two of the pioneer local surfers and although its not technically Tynemouth, it had to be in. Its one of only a couple of shots out of hundreds that aren't taken in Tynemouth.
There were some classic shots and moments of Tynemouth surfers on their travels but the idea of the work is that the images have to be in Tynemouth so I couldn't use them. The artistic idea is that surfing in Tynemouth is made of all the surfers, past and present, stories, successes, problems, history, change to be what it is today.
I shot some new photography in the surf shop and schools and a few portraits which are included and I work as a photojournalist so have access to a huge archive of images documenting life in the North East. Every so often surfing has cropped up in the media so I could source these pictures.
Wavelength and Carve were cool letting me use rag outs from old mags as were Surfers Against Sewage with stuff from campaigns up here. Its something a little different so people have been interested and helpful with contributing.
With iPhones and social media there's loads of recent Tynemouth surfing photos so I could be choosy when editing but there's not too many from the early days. Since the work went up I've been sent some keepers from back in the day so I'll use them to maintain the work when it needs some TLC.
I’ve been on a few trips with Sandy and yourself now, and always found yourselves really open and friendly. It seems that surfing doesn’t come easy over your way and hence the positive attitude. Is that reflective of the general surfing vibe in the Northeast?
A love of surfing can be an instant bond so people can get along from the off and if you score on a trip with someone you've just met, you can be friends for life. Surfing is something we have in common but it' s not always easy in the North East. The inconsistency of swells is frustrating for seasoned surfers here but it makes it harder to learn as well, than in say Cornwall, I'm sure of that. It seems like its flat as a lake for ages then a northerly cranks at six foot for two days then nothing till the next good swell. That's not conducive to a smooth learning curve.
Surfing was a novelty in its early days in Tynemouth. You'd be lucky to walk to Longsands for a surf without copping "Why ya got ya mams ironing board?" type comments. Before the shops and the internet there wasn't many boards or wetsuits around, most kit was brought back from trips away.
We surfed wearing Marigold's for a while in a vain attempt to beat the cold because there were no wettie gloves, hence the rubber gloves in Wavewall. Scotty began a wetsuit brand called C-Dog which locals used, Cookey started shaping his "Natural Classics", Stu "the Bear" was and is, the ding guy of choice, Steve opened a successful shop and surf school. In my formative surfing years, there was a punky DIY ethos and this is something I tried to reflect in Wavewall through it’s grungy, scrapbook aesthetic, plus its on a wall, on a ramp down to a beach on the North Sea so its gonna get grungy no matter what.
Surfing here is in a good place, It's grown a lot but new waves have opened up and there's a variety of surf to cater for the range of ability. The standard in the pack at the best spots is high and the camaraderie remains. The concept has been embraced by the wider North East and the vibe in the North East is positive as I've said, it should be as we've got some amazing waves and obviously waves are the most important thing in surfing.
I know about a few incidents of hostility to visiting surfers from locals, which I don't agree with but that is not typical. When compiling Wavewall, the attitude of the surfing community has been positive and that is the norm, when SAS do a beach clean here, they get a high turn out, when a local gets a shot run in a mag it's cool, when someone get a bomb, we hoot.
How have the local surfers received the installation? I imagine it’s a great talking point and has dragged up some classic memories?
Wavewall doesn't ignore the bad times but there are so many positive memories in there like the biggest swell I have ever seen here. It was in 2006 and I've never seen the like here before or since. It was massive and the angle was perfect for a window of about two hours on Jesse's local reef at first light. Jess got a perfect stand up barrel which made a DPS sequence in Carve. Legend has it, a grom Sandy Kerr thought it was too heavy that day and didn't go out, only to read that Carve a month later and see the possibilities on his doorstep. That day was another little motivator towards a surfing life, which is really, the ethos of Wavewall.
"There is nothing, nothing more sad than a surfer who used to surf."
Almost everything on Wavewall is from Tynemouth although the origin of the above quote, central in the work, is unknown. I hope it reflects both the difficulty and reward, of surfing all your life. It evokes what you lose when you don't surf and reminds you not to quit when the world conspires against your surfing. It's that kind of motivation that Wavewall tries to convey, hinting at the history but accepting growth and change.
Wavewall includes photographs and cuttings of Veitch, who died in such a traumatic way his story still evokes high emotion. Despite the tragedy of the end of his life, Veitch was a big inspiration to my generation, he pioneered new waves, always charged, pushed the limits of what could be achieved on the contest circuit at home and abroad and his influence remains. I didn't want to dwell on the way it unravelled for Veitch but his story is something that had to be hinted at on Wavewall for the work to have any real depth or credibility.
My idea of an “exhibition” generally conjures (potentially stereotyped) ideas of pretentious galleries with an exclusively cool crowd. This seems far more accessible and inclusive than that. And hence seems to be reaching a wider audience. Was it an active goal on your part?
I'd been asked to do a gallery exhibition of my surf photography but I've done that before, of course I like to get my work seen but I wanted to do something different, a work that worked visually but with a bit more depth, more personal and more of a sum of its parts
I'd seen an alley in Melbourne called ACDC lane which was covered in fly posters of the band and was influenced by the public location and DIY ethic and eventually my ideas became Wavewall. The wall makes the work, the idea is that the wall is animated and communicates the changes it has seen and the horizontal structure lends itself to the abstract image of a perfect wave looming out the back
When we were installing the work the local reaction was cool, even non-surfers are interested maybe to see someone they know or check out the old pictures of Longsands before surfing. North Tyneside Council were keen on the location as it is a new and creative use of what is just an old wall. They've been supportive of surfing here over the years, helping the surf schools get established on the beach and backing the contests we've had which always seem to get waves. The Arts Council seemed to think the creation of a new arts space in a busy public place would open the arts to people who don't usually engage with it.
As with most things there are drawbacks to the public art and Wavewall is no exception. The wall directly faces the North Sea and is exposed to brunt of some harsh weather, its just paper stuck to a greasy, rough stone wall so getting some glue strong enough took some doing. After some failed testing I found a recipe for a homemade glue that is used by underground protest groups in Canada to fly post various targets as its hard to tear down and resists "extreme climatic conditions ".
Wavewall could easily be vandalised or damaged by the weather but that is just part of the piece as a public artwork. How people react to it will vary but like I've said so far it's been good and I'll update and maintain it with the new submissions that I've had since it was installed so it will change and it will degrade. The work is installed like a big flyposter advert and will get stronger as more layers are added so although we don't know how long it will be up, it will be there in some form for a long time.
Backwash Issue Two is a surf anthology featuring Japan, the photography of Chris Burkard and Sergio Villalba, Hamish Laing and Woody Gooch. Kalani Lattanzi swims at Nazare, whilst Amy Kotch surfs barrels whilst pregnant and John Peck knee paddles out as he has done since 1958.Purchase