From That First Wave

Artist DJ Javier infuses the surf with the street.

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“Growing up,” says DJ Javier, “I didn’t think I deserved to be in the ocean. The way I saw it, surfing wasn’t for people who looked like me.” 

It’s a full meal of a statement, and one that cuts quickly to the core of surf culture’s often homogenous and Anglo ways. But it isn’t delivered with edge or outrage. For Javier, it’s simply a matter of fact.

“I never felt like I belonged at the beach,” he continues. “In truth, there are still some days I feel that way. I’ll be sitting in the lineup and it’ll just hit me out of nowhere: Like, ‘What the heck am I doing here? I’m a brown dude from the other side of town. I don’t belong.’”

The last sentence cuts a sharp and telling contrast to his current surroundings. We are less than a block from the beach in Santa Barbara’s so-called Funk Zone, a once rough-around-the-edges, ocean-minded area of creative making and manufacturing that in recent years has increasingly trended toward wine bars, hip eateries, and well-monied tourism. It’s here, just a stone’s throw from the retail headquarters of Channel Islands Surfboards, that Javier has chosen to plant his artistic flag. 

The yellow-gold light of fall floods into his studio from a south-facing window. Other than a dog pile of single-fin mid-lengths and a couple proper logs stacked against the far wall, the space is as immaculate as it is filled with the fruits of a creative and well-designed life of seemingly divergent interests. 

His work ranges from bold-colored and fine-lined paintings to computer screens and spray cans, swim fins and lunch trays turned into canvases, gouache-painted cardboard scraps float-mounted and framed, wood panels in progress, liquid acrylic renderings of skull-faced surfers in hooded wetsuits, a veterano that looks straight out of the T&C Surf Designs video game riding a Greenough Spoon, snarling dog heads with chains, crowns of thorns, and roses weeping blood. It’s an intentional and calculated sort of multicultural chaos that offers lowbrow perspectives of a rich and wildly authentic world. And in the middle of it all stands Javier, corduroy Dodgers cap pulled low, the collar on his denim Ben Davis chore coat popped. Impossibly, the whole feeling is equal parts defiant and gracious.

Twenty-seven years old, Javier is a first-generation American. His parents emigrated from the Philippines in the early 1980s, first to Florida and then to California, where his dad got a job with a telecommunications contracting company in Goleta, Santa Barbara’s markedly more working-class neighbor to the west. A self-described “late adopter” to the surf lifestyle, Javier’s youthful ferment was focused more on the contemporary street arts of Southern California—hip-hop, graffiti, skateboarding—than it was wave riding. In fact, he didn’t even learn how to swim until he was 17.

“I thought surfing was for people who wore sandals and played acoustic guitar,” he recalls of his early years. “From the outside, the exclusiveness of surfing was really hard to get around. I couldn’t see myself in it at all.”

Instead, it was the inclusiveness of his mostly Latino friends and Chicano culture that helped shape him. “From the beginning, I’ve been an honorary Mexican,” says Javier with a smile and a quick laugh, again revealing a difficult truth about coastal California life and the realities of color-based tribalism. Much of the iconography found

in his work owes its roots to this cultural cross-pollination. This is especially true of traditional and Chicano tattoo-style art. He was captivated by the “rebelliousness” of skulls and guard dogs and long-stem roses. A young Javier would draw those images as marker tattoos on himself and friends, sketch them on the back of his homework, and carve them into desktops at school. 

It was also clear early on that he had a mind for art and design. At first, he even fantasized about a future in architecture. Poor grades, a disdain for math, and a certain dream-crushing high school teacher, however, all conspired to mute his self-awareness. Javier had no clue that he had talent, let alone a possible professional calling.

“There is a stereotype about Asian moms needing to brag about their kids,” Javier says. “And it’s true. Let’s just say, for a long time, my mom didn’t have much she could brag about with me. It was like I was a total surf bum, but without the actual surfing part.”

But tagging and doodling were all helping develop his skill set, even if the adults in his life thought it was all just a waste of time. He began to notice other people’s styles: the way they drew letters in a tag, how they dressed, what colors they added to a painting. He started paying attention to what he liked and didn’t like. Without knowing it, he was cultivating a perspective all his own. His fondness for streetwear tuned him into branding and its lifeblood relationship with design. Muralist David Flores became a hero. Javier might have barely made it out of high school with a diploma, but he was unknowingly walking toward his future with more accuracy than most at that age. 

It was right around then—while taking a full dose of graphic-design classes at Santa Barbara City College and beginning to home in on the possibility that his art habits might actually have some commercial viability—that Javier finally found the right side of surfing. Only a year removed from learning to swim, he was dragged by a friend for his first go-out, on soft tops at a mellow pointbreak near the school. It was thigh-high and endlessly humbling for Javier as he thrashed and flailed on that fateful first day, but it was also immediately obvious that he had found something new that could feed him—something to add to his personal creative brew.

“It was that first wave,” he says with an air of romance, his eyes briefly going distant as the memory possesses him, “that feeling of moving fast and weightless on the water. I knew I wanted more of it. Now I’m in the water four or five days a week. It’s become a primary part of my life. I love being in the pocket and trying to ride as fast as I can.” 

After a couple of years at City College, Javier transferred to Azusa Pacific University, where he formalized his pursuit of graphic design. His barely passing grades in high school gave way to regular stints on the dean’s list as he settled into his calling as a creative. The work ethic that so often characterizes the children of immigrants kicked into overdrive.

“I started going hard at the commercial thing,” says Javier. “I mean, my parents didn’t leave everything behind and move across the world just to have me screw around.” 

Upon graduation, armed with a bootlegged version of Design Suite and buoyed by a raging love affair with surfing, Javier set out to find work by making a list of all the brands and companies he was interested in working with, then began courting their creative directors with unsolicited emails. 

The results have been impressive. Less than a decade into his career, Bayan Surf Club—the official name of Javier’s commercial art and design business—has a client list that includes Patagonia, Teva, Sanuk, Simms Fishing, Adidas, Iron and Resin, and Vissla, as well as his current gig as the creative director for California shoe company SeaVees. Ever seen a bag of Ruffles Flamin’ Hot Potato Chips with the animated red pepper and flaming chips on the front? That’s Javier’s handiwork too. All told, it’s a diverse résumé that spans custom murals, commercial illustrations, graphic design, brand strategy, and clothing. And that’s exactly how Javier likes it.

(Top left) TOO STEEP, 2020, digital artwork. (Top right) ABSOLUTELY SCRAMBLED, 2020, digital artwork. (Bottom) Javier, applying his work to a lunch tray/alt surf craft. Photograph by Morgan Maassen.

“I never want to be one thing,” he says. “I love doing fine art one day, branding and strategy work the next, and then a big mural a few days later. It keeps things fresh and keeps me motivated.”

Javier is, right now, an artist on the brink. Parenthood is imminent for him and his wife, and a motivating factor in his progression. When I visited his studio, he was prepping for a massive “geo-spacial” mural job at one of Amazon’s newest offices, a commission he scored after doing a large Un Mar De Colores mural on Patagonia’s storefront in Cardiff last summer. His recent collaboration with Surfrider Foundation, for their “The Beach Is Yours” social justice campaign, is further evidence of both his rising star and his commitment to issues bigger than just riding waves or making art. In fact, it’s the latter that perhaps most directly reveals the young artist’s guiding ethos. 

“I want to build a bridge with my art,” he says. “I’m a Filipino kid from Southern California who grew up with Mexican friends and Chicano culture. I was into hip-hop and punk and street style. And then I found surfing. I try and meld all these perspectives into one thing. Dump it all into a vat, mix it up, and see what comes out…I’m still thinking about that younger version of me out there. I want to show him that the ocean is for everybody.”