The Stoked Sculptures of a Legendary Surf Magnate

Artist and surf magnate Herbie Fletcher has always found an outlet in turning high-performance surfing into artworks.


Text by Christian Cook
Images by Joey Trisolini and courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery and Herbie Fletcher

Herbie Fletcher’s textured sculptures and colorful paintings reflect the viewpoint of a young surfer arriving on O‘ahu’s legendary North Shore for the first time: palm trees framing backlit silhouettes of surfers on waves at Pipeline, Sunset, Waimea, Rockies, always with the backdrop of a deep-orange sunset.

Throughout his career, which has spanned six decades, Fletcher has drawn constant inspiration from the North Shore. Since moving to Hawai‘i in 1964 at age 16, he’s created films, photographs, surf brands, paintings, and surfing technology. Through his art, Fletcher communicates his dreams, memories of tripping on acid, and hazy golden-hour surf sessions in a visceral fashion.

These experiences reemerge in chromatic forms on canvas, colorfully hued and with a sense of depth, pigments imbued within layers of resin. For one of his sculpture series, “Wrecktangle,” Fletcher salvaged graffitied and decal-laden boards from the yard of the notorious Pipeline House. By combining discarded pieces of broken surfcraft he has collected over decades, Fletcher has also created artworks that reference his own influences on the sport.

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Already shaping surfboards as a teenager in California, Fletcher began experimenting with the craft’s component materials in his artwork, creating his first resin-based painting in 1966. A year later, Fletcher befriended a fellow young surfer and artist from Brooklyn, Julian Schnabel, at a contest in Padre Island, Texas.

Schnabel would go on to be a world-famous painter and filmmaker. Neither of them realized it at the time, but their burgeoning friendship would set a life trajectory for both men. Inspired by each other’s attitudes and skills, Fletcher would teach Schnabel how to surf better, and Schnabel in turn would teach Fletcher how to be a better artist.

Fletcher’s technical contributions to surfing culture are paramount. Constantly inspired since moving to O’ahu as a teenager looking for the best surf in the world, his ideas have remained current in the ever evolving sport. He was one of the pioneers of big-wave tow-in surfing, he ushered in a longboard surfing renaissance after the 3-finned “thruster” shortboard became the norm for pros, and he popularized Astrodeck, a poly-urethane foam pad to be glued onto surfboards.

These pads introduced a new level of traction to the sport at a time when surfers could only rely on wax to stick them to their boards. The textured stomp pad sits on the tail of the board, an area where surfers can stomp (hence the name) with force to carve and pump through sections of surf.

The innovation allows surfers to bring skateboarding tricks into wave riding: 360 airs and ollies that would’ve been near impossible without the leverage offered by these surfboard accessories. Astrodeck pads appear in nearly ever surfer’s quiver, and are a hallmark in Fletcher’s “Wrecktangles,” tying this commercial product to its creator’s artistic endeavors.

Fletcher has made works that capture a modern perspective on surfing, relating the past to the present and commenting on the future of surfing culture. Fueled by passion, Fletcher has built a legacy that will live on in the toes that grip tight to stomp pads, in the white-knuckled grips of surfers being towed into impossibly large waves at Pe‘ahi. It will continue in every grom trying their first air at ‘Ehukai, pumping down the line towards the Volcom Pipeline house, where you can still find him and friends watching the surf. In his paintings and sculptures, Fletcher will continue to communicate a hyperkinetic, well-lived life, documented in photographs, movies, in sculptures and in paintings.