Retro Surf Art and Design Inspiration

Retro Surf Art and Design Inspiration

Surf culture is packed with inspirational images and ideas you can use as a jumping off point for your design and illustration.

Although we tend to think of surf culture's long term impact of fashion, surf culture has influenced pop culture in nearly every medium.

Why has surf culture been so impactful?

It's a way of life, it's an ethos, it's a form of self-expression. To be able to surf successfully you have to stand for something - whether it be peace or freedom or individuality - and this attitude permeates into other aspects of life.

You see it in the clothes people wear, the music they listen to, their diet... surfing is about more than just riding waves. This blog post will explore some key areas where surf culture has had a major influence on society.

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The surf boom of the mid-century

Fifites and sixties surf culture was an era of counter-culturalism, rebellion against mainstream America. It began with the invention of surfing boards in the late 1950s and ended with the Vietnam war.

Surfing originated in Polynesian cultures, but during the early 20th century it began to gain popularity among Americans. Particularly around the 50s and 60s in California and Hawaii which officially became a state in 1959. Along with its rise in popularity came an entire culture of magazines, music, movies, fashion, and art.

Below you can see some examples of how surf culture was used in magazines from the 1960s.

Selling to Surfers

In the 1960s, surfing was still fairly new. As surfing gained popularity during this decade, advertisers began using surf culture on billboards, magazines, television commercials and consumer products to sell products everything from board shorts to beer with sunny ocean backdrop to surfers and teens all over the United States.

Surf style in art and design was characterized by bright floral prints, Polynesian prints, and bold multi-colored palettes.

A magazine's best friend is its advertisements, and even the free spirited nature of early surf culture was not immune. The Polynesian roots of surfing could be found in the designs of surf wear which heavily featured floral and geometric patterns in bold colors.

Notice the use of Pacific-inspired fonts like our Palm Canyon Drive script font.

Below you can see the eye-catching artwork and layouts from Surf Line and Cortley Sportswear used to sell the surf lifestyle to folks everywhere from California to Minnesota.

Surf Line advertisement with flower patterns, woman in bikini, and halftones.
Cottons California Sportswear advertisement featuring bright surf patterned board shorts and prints.

Surfing on the Silver Screen

The 1960s was a decade of change, and surf movies were no exception. One of the first surf movies ever made, "Surf Crazy," hit theaters in 1964.

It starred Duke Kahanamoku, who is considered to be one of the best swimmers of all time. Surfers like Greg Noll and Mike Hynson followed suit with their own films that year too.

A new era had begun for surfing and these movies helped to shape and sell the aesthetic to teenagers across the United States.

As surf culture gained popularity big business took note and began creating surf themed films across many genres. Musicals were very popular choices, and many names you might recognize such as Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, and Annette Funicello either got their start in these films or were heavily promoted through them.

Similar themes are present in the art and design in surf movies including quirky and energetic typography, minimal color palettes, and use of halftones like the ones found in our DupliTone halftone pack.

Surf movie advertisements including Surf Party.
Poster for Ride the Wild Surf
Advertisement for Horror of Party Beach

Fantastic Fonts To Amaze

There's nothing more iconic and campy than an old surfing movie...except for a schlocky horror surfing movie! Bring your dreams to the big screen with this collection of 7 B-Movie and horror film inspired fonts.

Surfing and Music

In the 1950s and 1960s, surf music was a popular genre of rock 'n' roll.

Surf music is characterized by its use of electric guitars, surfer lyrics, and fast-paced drumming.

Themes in this type of music often include surfing, cars, high-school, and young love. The surf music trend peaked in the early 1960s before declining but leaving a visible impact on other genres like folk and psychedelic rock.

By 1965 surf bands were considered part of pop culture with many musicians being influenced by surf culture such as Dick Dale and The Ventures.

Get the Look

Let your digital workflow be as free as the ink in a classic fountain pen so you can create groovy illustrations like the one below in the advertisement for Smile by The Beach Boys.

As mentioned, there was a lot of money to be made during the surfing boom of the 50s and 60s.

Musicians who were already making music which would be now recognized as "surf music" gained notoriety, and record companies manufactured bands to meet the demand among eager young buyers. The most popular and easily recognizable of these bands is inarguably The Beach Boys who still have a massive following today.

Above we can see fun hand lettering and friendly illustrations used to attract the main demographic of music buyers — teenagers.

art and Counter Culture

In the late 1950s and 1960s, graphic design and illustration underwent a significant change in style.

The modern aesthetic of clean lines and bright colors was replaced with an organic look that was influenced by surfing culture and psychedelic drugs. Surf graphics became one of the most popular themes for posters, album covers, advertisements, and fashion designs during this time period.

Organic looks like those seen in the illustrations below can be captures with tools like our Broken Inker brushes and The Woodcut Brush Kit.

Despite its explosion of popularity, surf culture has always had an aspect of being "outside" the mainstream. This was an area where artists could experiment with the wacky, the zany, and the weird. Such as the below pen and ink illustration by Michael Dormer and an advertisement for Dr. Von Schtick and his puppet Shrimpy.


  • The surf culture movement was born out of rebellion and youthfulness. Keep that in mind, especially when creating a retro-inspired piece.
  • Surfing was originally created by the Polynesians and elements of their cultural designs can be found in everything from the board designs themselves to swimsuits and more.
  • Film and music went hand in hand with surf culture and were often cheap and campy.

Keeping these things in mind you're sure to create a rockin' retro surf aesthetic in your future work.

For more selections from Pop Surf Culture as well as freebies, tutorials, and more visit the RetroSupply Secret Society.

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