The Beach Boys may have made surfing a craze, but all the in-the-know California kids knew that Dennis, the drummer, was the only one who actually ever got in the water. And in the same way, surfing culture in California has always featured a sort of existential division between the people who were dabbling in a hip pastime and those who really lived the life—the kids who obsessed about their boards and risked their neck to find the best surf spots, even when they were technically outside legal bounds.
Years ago, growing up in Northern California, Matthew Korbel-Bowers was one such kid. He and his pals would routinely pass around maps to unofficial surf spots, barebones things scrawled on the backs of napkins and scraps of paper that directed them off-road, down hillsides, and often through private property. Back then they served a simple utilitarian purpose, but today they’ve seen new use as the basis for Korbel-Bowers’s art.
At first glance, the works in his Secret Surf Maps appear to be straightforward, pleasing pieces of graphic design. Lots of bright colors and crisp triangles. Only with a closer look do you see signs that they might be something more—areas labeled with letters and numbers and small snatches of text delivering cryptic instructions to "TRESPASS" and "CLIMB."
The artist says he would "never expressly reveal the surf spot" in the works, though he insists that the pieces are all based on very real places and that his brother would definitely be able to decode them, with a bit of prodding. The maps share many visual elements; Korbel-Bowers says he likes to include a horizon line and a few land forms for reference, directional triangles for indicating waves, and uses letters to denote the best spots for paddling out, "an old convention my brother and I use," he explains.
Though such locations are often fleeting—the product of a temporary sandbar, say, produced by a particularly heavy rain—they’re almost always less than legal. And as much as the Secret Surf Maps are routes to specific geographic locations, they’re also odes to adventures past.
"Back then, nothing was really off-limits," Korbel-Bowers explains. "Once my brother and I went on a surf adventure where we had to trespass through some shady back country—probably past pot farmers—climb down a treacherous hillside with our gear and then paddle down a river on our boards. Secret Surf Map 2 is about that spot. That is why the text on the poster reads, 'TRESPASS, CLIMB, LEFTS AND BARREL, 5 TO 7FT.' The wavy stripes on the bottom of the poster represent the river we had to take to the ocean."
Korbel-Bowers took a renewed interest in his maps as a grad student at the California College of the Art, where he learned about psychogeography and how maps had the power not only to direct people to new places but could in fact offer them new ways of experiencing those spaces altogether. His own maps, he hopes, will "inspire folks to go on alternative adventures," and while the realm of the secret map is continually being encroached upon by technologies like GPS and apps like "Find My Friends," one hopes that we still have a few years left in which there will be places, just out of reach of the nearest cell tower, that are best found with a map sketched on a napkin.
You can buy prints of the Secret Surf Maps here for $20 a pop. More of Matthew Korbel-Bowers’s work can be found on his site.