Local Color

The late Pacific Beach denizen Bradley Buben was known for his eccentricities, his unique style of surfing, and his revolutionary work in resin tints. Those who knew him recall his life and his impact.

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Pacific Beach, 1984

The sun is out and a light breeze is riffling the ocean a block or two away. Bradley Buben is cruising down my street, head bobbing to a rhythm only he can hear. He’s wearing a T-shirt that, until yesterday, was sitting folded in my laundry room. I have got to get a lock for that door, I say to myself.

Bradley is out there, I also say to myself, above all the day-to-day concerns that trouble everyone he knows. Any long-term anxiety—about the future, money, accomplishments—is way below his radar. His thoughts are repeating with the rhythm of his flip-flops, over and over: Yeah, that’s it. Yeah, cool. Yeah. He possesses a slightly comical aspect. He’s carrying a hot-pink bucket of beach toys in one hand and a single swim fin in the other. As he walks by, I can almost hear the theme from Gilligan’s Island.

Commonly, as Bradley makes his rounds, he’s improvising his approach to the day the way he would improvise one of the spectacular resin layups popular with the locals in PB and La Jolla. Because he’s BB, Bailey, Bradley Buben. One of a kind.

Tres Feltman’s 6’0″ John Belik double-winged fish, glassed in the author’s Pacific Beach garage, circa early 1980s.

He was born in quintessential post-war California in 1954. He grew up on a quiet corner in Clairemont—the blue-collar San Diego suburb immediately east of Mission Bay. Eventually, the family made an upwardly mobile change to Van Nuys in Pacific Beach—a street that virtually straddles the line between the La Jolla and PB ZIP codes, granting automatic entrée to the two essential ecosystems of San Diego surf culture: the La Jolla reefs and the sandbars stretching south of PB Point.

This enchanted stretch of California coast contains some fine waves and has produced some of the most interesting and provocative surfers in history—Mike Hynson, Skip Frye, Hank Warner, and Terry Simms, to name a few. Challenging reefs and sandbars are evenly spaced from Windansea to Mission Beach, and if you lived there but never made the drive to Rincon or Trestles, you’d be absolved: A dozen classic waves sat within a short bike ride from the Buben household.

California beach towns have always collected oddballs and benign eccentrics. You couldn’t drive through Laguna without seeing Eiler Larsen—“The Greeter”—waving to tourists and locals alike. Up in Santa Cruz, you might encounter John Scott, author of epic anti-surf-contest, anti-surf-magazine, anti-surf-photography screeds, which often were written on the side of his van parked at the Lane. Along the bluffs and beaches between PB and La Jolla, there was Bradley, omnipresent day or night, a beachcomber Boo Radley living on the margins, occasionally spouting something utterly surreal, the dots connecting only somewhere in his mind—or manifesting in his spellbinding resin tinting.

Bradley Buben, Mission Bay High School yearbook photo.

Improvising color patterns with polyester resin has been practiced from the beginning of the foam-and-fiberglass era, with varied techniques and mixed results. In the archives of surf history, you can find color swirls on some of Dave Sweet’s longboards from the ’50s. One of these boards resides at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, a gift from CR Stecyk III. On this particular board, Sweet mixed color using five separate containers of catalyzed gloss-coat resin poured lengthwise on top of the sanded hot coat. 

As things loosened up during the shortboard revolution, resin color became a popular form of free expression. Hobie, Rick, Harbour, and Bahne all experimented with abstract, “slob job” color. Editorial photographs of this art form from the late ’60s populate the internet. Excellent examples from that time frame were created by another Santa Monica surfboard builder, Rich Wilken, who coined the term “acid splashes” and who would mix several small color batches of catalyzed laminating resin, pouring the brightest, most predominant colors first, filling in with neutral or clear resin directly on the dry fiberglass, and blending the colors as the resin was squeegeed flat.

Buben practiced this same process with a rare concentration and impeccable technique. As soon as he started mixing color, all the whimsical chatter would subside and he would become placidly industrious—particle mask in place—connecting with the aggressive hues of his pour. He was channeling a kind of visionary spirit, as if taking dictation from some unseen source. Pigmented resin was laid directly on the foam in a series of serpentine longitudinal bands, which were squeegeed to a continuous pattern and left to kick off. No tape-off, no sketches, no plan. Then the blank was glassed normally, with clear laminating resin, preserving the artwork.

Buben mixed color intuitively, with no particular training, no art background, and definitely no college. His formal education consisted only of spotty high-school attendance characterized by frequent school changes and a steady diet of hallucinogens. Still, for some reason, he understood how to mix color with an innate understanding of theory, art, and science.

The only profession Buben ever practiced with any degree of consistency was resin color. He was part of the PB Point crew, an honorary member of the PB Toads, and a functionary of the PB Underground—the hardest of the hardcore, a tight nucleus of dedicated misfits who sacrificed everything for a spot in the lineup. This crew didn’t ride production boards. Their craft instead were garage hand-shapes, glassed in backyards around the foothills of Mount Soledad and in the flats of PB. No logos—just a pencil signature and, of course, Buben color, his trademark “BB” discreetly straddling the stringer under the glass.

BB color could be found on boards shaped by Frye, Bill Minard, Roger Beal, and Bradley’s brother George, to list a few—all shapers who lived within a few minutes of the La Jolla reefs and who made (and still make) a concerted effort to stay out of the mainstream and the theoretical construct we know as day-to-day life in Southern California.

A hand-painted panel that Buben produced for Larry Gordon as the basis for a line of Bradley Buben color-patterned G&S surf trunks, overlaid with the face of Jesus as found on the Shroud of Turin.

Back in 1984, as Buben passes my driveway, I call out, “Hey, Brad.” He freezes. His thoughts perhaps turn to my T-shirt that he’s wearing. Or maybe he’s thinking about the bicycle he’s riding, which also has been missing from my house ever since he’d watched it the year before.

He waits without facing me as I walk down the driveway.

“I’ve got a friend who wants some color on a fish,” I say, and he slowly turns toward me.

Skip Frye/Surfboard Shaper

I don’t think Bradley ever worked. He never worked at a shop or a factory anywhere. It was always in somebody’s garage, or it was all backyard stuff. The only way you could get a color job like that was you’d have to get a hold of him. He didn’t have a phone or anything, so you’d just have to go to the beach or down to the [Tourmaline] Canyon, find Bradley, and pull everything together.

Then, Bradley would do the color work and you’d have to find somebody to glass your board. It was a lot of backyard-type stuff during that particular period. He and his brother George dabbled in the craft of building boards—George more shaping. They were ocean people, you know, surf people, PB locals. I mean, about as local as you could get. We just started doing these abstracts, you know, and he got famous for them. A lot of people wanted the Bradley color job.

Ken Lewis/PB Local

When we were kids, 10 or 11, Bradley was our beloved beach hobo. He was flaky and occasionally whacked-out on drugs, but he would tell stories or show us a few guitar chords. One summer, sitting on the Law Street bluffs, he mentioned the “Great Kelp Fires of 1966.” During the pause that followed, I asked him, “What the hell were the kelp fires?”

Brad smiled. “You don’t know about the kelp fires?” he asked.

Then he proceeded to recount how, in the summer of that year, the kelp was as thick as anyone could remember and there was no kelp-cutter to keep it in check. The oils from the kelp created a huge slick that one day was set ablaze when a fishing boat caught fire and ignited the kelp beds. He went on to tell how the fire raged for weeks.

I was amazed, and soon repeated the story to our local hero, Skip Frye. He just looked at me and laughed. Bradley always saved it for the groms. We were young and dumb. Most people suffered him, but the kids all loved him.

Peter Lochtefeld/Big Rock Local

It must have been 1968 when I met Bradley, who surfed at Law Street. He was a really progressive surfer and [was] riding a board he’d made. He and George glassed it together, and it was a very short board with a concave deck, kind of like a Greenough kneeboard, and it had the words “Classical Gas” written on the deck. So that should date it for you. He was really radical—very good and very animated for that time.

Sergio Damasceno/Law Street Regular

He was sort of the Merlin of Pacific Beach.He was the magician of everything that happened, from gathering things that washed up at high tide to showing up unexpectedly. But he always had good humor. He was always polite. I really enjoyed knowing him. He did some color for me. It was a Skip Frye double-wing pintail that he colored and Mac McIntosh glassed for me when he lived at Windansea. That was before he moved and became my neighbor. It was a mixture of oranges and yellows and red. It was bright and it was beautiful and I completely regret not having it anymore—but then, such is life.

Roger Beal/Surfboard Shaper

Color swirling is a fine art, despite it being as common as a handshake these days. But up until Brad, it was hit and miss. A lot of guys tried to do it and it would just come out like a brown blur. He mastered it.

How did you get hold of Brad? He loved to show up at Windansea for the sunset. So we’d go down to Windansea or Colima Street Park—this was before it was a park, when it was just a dirt lot above Hennemans—and pick him up.

The first time he did color for me, I’d shaped a board for a friend of mine and then

I was like, “Let’s grab some beers. We’ll go to my mom’s house and we’ll add some color.” And it turned into a full-on party. I had about six or eight guys there. It was pretty rad. My mom had a house right on La Jolla Shores Drive, the third house down from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I had this whole shop setup in the garage and I brought everybody from Bird Rock over, so it was Brian Thomas, Dan Blakely, a couple other kids, and Bradley, of course.

We had the doors up and everybody spilled out into the alley. Bradley was doing his thing. He did this resin pull that was just—insane. At that point, I don’t think anyone had thought to use acrylic paint. Now you can go to any art store and buy that crap. But he was using straight resin and pigment. That’s how it was done.

Alaric Valentin/La Jolla Shores

I think I was in 11th grade when Bradley got expelled from Mission Bay High. After he

changed schools, he ended up sitting in front of me in my biology class at La Jolla High. We already knew about him because he was kind of a legend. There were a couple of guys we knew about from the South Bird/PB Point area, like Marty Fitch and Bradley. They were notorious.

He came to school every day completely and utterly high on acid and he didn’t make it through the year. I think he lasted about a month and a half and got expelled again to some continuation school. 

Sometimes we would go down and surf PB Point. Watching Bradley, he would take off, set his line, and just stand there, turned around, watching the trail of his surfboard, looking backwards the whole time. It was his signature move. He barely looked forward.

He was a mess, but everybody emulated those incredible acid splashes that he mastered.

Eric “Bird” Huffman/Surf Historian

The PB Underground was a network of individuals in the Pacific Beach area, or folks

who had ties to the Pacific Beach area. It was made up of surfers in general—mostly guys, of course, but there were also some women. Some folks could infiltrate from Sunset Cliffs, or even guys like myself—I grew up in Mission Hills—could network in. But, generally speaking, it was a very, very tight group of people from PB who had gone through the schools there, all the way up to Mission Bay High. It was also a very tight network of generally pretty damned good surfers. Very territorial—like a lot of areas were at that time.

That was Bradley’s world. It had to be sometime in the 1970s when I recognized that he was the man behind the color I’d been seeing for a few years. I was riding Casters back then, and I didn’t run my boards through the same channels. He worked in a different, pretty much underground, environment. His artwork was almost exclusively a PB deal. So my crew never had a chance to do that. He did make me some true artwork, though.

Joe Roper/San Diego Local

Guys would say, “Wow, you got a Bradley job. How did you get a Bradley job?” He was pretty stoked to do it for whoever wanted it done, but there was a process involved. You had to get a board shaped, get it up to Van Nuys to his dad’s house, figure out when you’re gonna do it.

There was a little shed in the backyard called the Museum, because he had all these little trinkets and treasures that he’d collected—from shells to pieces of resin art and everything else. That was his workshop. When he did surfboard repairs, he always put shells and starfish in the resin.

He did a couple color jobs for me. He did one at Van Nuys, then he did one up at Skip Frye’s dad’s house. It was a pretty heavy commitment to find Bradley, then get the materials delivered, and then set everything up. You’d pretty much have to black out a whole day. And you’d be pretty blacked out too, from all the joints and all the beers and the process of Bradley getting prepared.

He’d say, “Oh, no. No, no. Not prepared yet. No, no, no, no. Just a little more.” A couple of joints later, it would be, “Holy shit, Bradley. Let’s get rolling here.” And so finally he’d start the resin pour, and hopefully he wouldn’t knock the board off the rack and have to catch it.

Bradley was a trip. He’d wander down the beach collecting abandoned toys and junk, and he always had little treasures he’d give the kids—nose guards, fins, always something. And I never realized that he was also into giving all this information to the kids for the junior lifeguards, sharing ocean knowledge. He’d also go to St. Brigid’s Church in Pacific Beach and collect little praying-hands trinkets. And he’d put the praying hands on some of his glass jobs.

He had a different side to him that we didn’t see. When he passed away, there was a group of people that showed up—you would never even know they were friends with him. They told their stories about Bradley and revealed a whole different world he inhabited outside of surfing.

Elizabeth Rotgans/PB Resident

Certainly we were all aware of the demons that haunted Bradley. Sometimes we’d get a

firsthand view. Generally, he would stay away when it was really bad. Anyone else might have succumbed to street life in a different manner, but Bradley chose to embrace the surfing community. He knew everyone and everyone knew Bradley.

It was crystal clear to all who knew him what a childlike, generous, and kindhearted spirit he had. He was the forever child in all of us—and we all tried to take care of him. I was out of town when I heard that Bradley had drowned.

I was stunned and so saddened, as was everyone. Memories of his selfless fondness toward my family rose to the surface of all my thoughts for days. I realized that Bradley was everything I’d been taught to be by the sisters at St. Brigid’s. He was a savior in disguise. 

Whether his demons won out, I will never know. I do know that Bradley was a gift to all of us. He was a constant reminder for us to look at what’s really important in life.

Pacific Beach, present day

On the June 1997 page of Skip Frye’s heavily annotated tide calendar, Tuesday the 17th contains only one entry: Bradley. Buben died that morning in the water at the foot of Thomas Street in Pacific Beach. He was 43 years old, living in a rented studio in PB on a monthly disability payment of $640.40. 

Heart attack, seizure, overdose—no one knows exactly how an experienced surfer and lifetime beach bum could have drowned in the summer shorebreak where he grew up. But it’s poignant and somehow fitting that he lived and died in the narrow stretch of San Diego coast where he was known and loved.

At the foot of Missouri Street is a city bench overlooking the beach. It was installed by the city of San Diego and organized by the PB locals. A small bronze plaque reads, “Keep On Surfing – Bradley Buben – 1954-1997”