As a creative director, fine-art painter, and surfer, Marcello Serpa tracks substance.
Words by Adrian Kojin | Art by Marcello Serpa
Light / Dark
Surfing in Hawaii can be a brutal experience for the visitor. No matter how successful, wealthy, or influential you are on land or in other lineups, in the Islands, surfing and life scores are instantly zeroed. Everything has to be earned. The impact zone will make sure of it. The first set that stacks up, doubly so. And if you swing for a wave that somehow slips past the crowd, you’d better go. If it’s not made, just take the beating and keep that head down. If you do make it, keep that head down anyway. When paddling back out, always remember: Interlopers stick to the end of the line.
Unwelcoming as this environment might sound, it’s precisely what drew Marcello Serpa to pack up shop and move full time to the North Shore seven years ago. The relocation came as a surprise to most people in his life. After all, back home, the Brazilian had spent his career as one of the most respected figures in the highly competitive world of advertising. From the headquarters of his agency, AlmapBBDO, situated in the biggest city in Latin America, the waveless São Paulo, he was in charge of coordinating the campaigns of major international brands. Pepsi, Volkswagen, Audi, Visa, Mars, InBev, Gatorade, Bayer, and Havaianas, among others, all trusted him with the keys. In the process, he became the first Latin American to receive the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award and the Cannes Lion of St. Mark, the two most significant recognitions in his field.
And yet, in changing his scenery, he became just another face on a bustling island, making the daily rounds like everyone else: taking his two kids to school, shopping in Haleiwa with his wife, stopping at the Sunset Beach parking lot for a surf check on the way home—a tall, gray-haired, pleasant-in-demeanor, anonymous surfer-painter on the North Shore.
In many ways, Serpa has come full circle. Born in São Paulo but raised in Rio de Janeiro, he began playing in the ocean at an early age and quickly found surfing in Ipanema. Around the same time, he had his first contact with canvas through his grandfather, an artist who exercised his crafts on rooftops in Copacabana. Both activities would prove decisive in how he would navigate his career and his life.
“Other than my grandfather,” he says, “Gerry Lopez was my first hero. I liked the way he surfed, his simplicity and elegance, and I followed that up in my career. I like the essence, the basics. You take out all the frills and arrive at the core: simplicity, delicacy, and a basic line. It’s difficult to imitate. There’s a lot of art in it. There’s a calm I find admirable. And, to this day, I like to see a beautiful, simple surfing line rather than one where there’s a lot of effort to do something. I prefer it when it seems like it doesn’t take any effort.”
When he was 18, Serpa moved away from the beach and the ocean. He spent seven long years in Germany, studying graphic design and landing his first job at an ad agency. But the pull of home, with its waves and wider cultural resources, proved strong, and at 25 he headed back to Brazil. He lived briefly in Rio before settling down in São Paulo, where the big corporations—all hungry to spend on advertising to try to make their mark in the booming late 1980s and early 90s—had their main offices. Gifted with natural talent, and conscious of how discipline and determination are equally fundamental to putting out work that can move an audience, it didn’t take long for him to rack up clients, stack awards, and make partner at a major agency, AlmapBBDO, which he would soon help turn around and find its footing. (Two decades later, Almap-BBDO has accumulated an astonishing 160 Cannes Lions.)
The high point of his commercial efforts, at least where his two main interests overlapped, was in the work he did for Havaianas, which, in some cosmic coincidence that would prove foretelling, means “Hawaiian” in Portuguese. When his agency landed the account, the brand was a small, regional player, but one with legs rooted in the core of Brazilian surf culture and with lots of room for creative growth. The goal, for Serpa, was to make advertising that was simple and surprising—work that felt close to home. “It has a lot to do with the strong beach culture I experienced growing up in Rio,” he says. “And there’s a definitive surfing component in it. It’s irreverent, it’s happy, it’s carioca [a term that denotes anything culturally related to the city of Rio de Janeiro]. It’s the same style that I paint today—the colorful approach, a fusion of propaganda and art. I did put a lot of my personal experience into that work, and I think that’s visible.”
Through this approach, Serpa helped turn the simple sandal into an identity marker of beach culture on five continents, with more than 5 billion pairs sold worldwide. His career also afforded him plenty of trips to bucket-list surf destinations across the world: Fiji, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, he says, rattling off his favorites. Surfing became his escape from the demanding routine of an existence centered in a big-city, high-rise headquarters.
It was during one end-of-year vacation that Serpa took his family to the North Shore for the first time. They enjoyed their stay so much that he and his wife, Joanna, left under the impression that they’d found a place where they could raise their family and dedicate more time to each other and their personal projects and interests. For Serpa, that meant surfing and art. He had recently clocked his 50th birthday, and it felt like the right time for both of them to drop out of the rat race.
Things happened fast then, as they do when one’s mind is set. Within two years, Serpa had sold his agency and the family had built a comfortable house right on the sand, within walking distance to his favorite wave in the world: Sunset. The new house included a spacious art studio, and Serpa quickly went to task. Without the pressures of corporate boards—and the necessity of garnering their stamp of approval—he was able to explore, mixing approaches and styles. In the wake of this creative rebirth, he says now that he doesn’t see himself as belonging to any particular school or genre.
“I very much disassociate the place I’m in from what I am painting there,” he says. “The place I’m in inspires me to produce; I go into an effortless meditative state in Hawaii. But I don’t want to become a turtle painter. It’s a process. When you are a designer, you are trained to reduce, to simplify, to find a single trace. When I paint, I enjoy that everything in my subconscious—things that I’m living, seeing, reading, following—appears. I sketch intuitively, without much rationale. And then a concept comes up. In some paintings, the Hawaiian sovereignty question may appear. I did one, for example, where I showed a broken lei hanging from King Kalakaua’s neck.”
In 2017, Serpa had his work exhibited at apArt Private Gallery in New York City. Titled Terebintina, Portuguese for “turpentine,” the event was a success, his paintings selling out before the show ended. But Serpa says he has other priorities at present. “It’s all about the pleasure,” he says. “If there are waves, I go surfing. If not, I paint. I’m not in it for the recognition.”
Indeed, as proud as Serpa is about the longstanding reception of his work, both as a creative director and as a fine-artist, he’s put the need to please others behind him—principally the touting that comes with it when things go right. “The worst trap you can fall into is ego,” he says. “It’s even worse when you can’t let go of the past to be provoked by new challenges. I moved to Hawaii to be challenged. I wanted to surf powerful waves with propriety, to be able to go out on a big day at Sunset without shitting my pants. The other thing I wanted to do, since childhood, was to be a painter.”
The main difference in his approach toward these new endeavors is that he has only himself to satisfy—which, in effect, might be the most difficult thing to earn. “I’m acting under what I call the audacity of the unaware,” he says. “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I don’t want to be considered the best surfer in the world, nor the best painter. I just want to feel the incredible sensation of making a wave all the way from the outside to the sand, or finishing a painting. Being simply known as the painter who moved here from Brazil is just fine.”