A deep diving interview with Venice Beach based surfer/shaper and long time friend Justin Swartz.
Wrecked: Tell us a little about yourself – where you’re from and how you got into surfing?
Justin Swartz: I was born at home in Venice Beach, California in 1984. My parents were the kind of teenage hippies who left the valley straight out of high school to the westside. My dad being an avid surfer was also an aspiring musician, and my mom was a beach lover so the transition to the coast was easy. This was before it became a mecca for influencers on social media. It was more suitable and affordable for artist, musicians and hippies allowing them to live more freely which then allowed the creative-types (for lack of a better word) to focus on honing their passions with like minded individuals. It also had crime keeping the rent down and pushing out the people who couldn’t hang. Back in the day the cost of living here was much lower, equal income amongst your neighbors. This made it easier to engage, to get to know people because it was such a small town. People were either moving towards gangbanging or finding passion with their skills in surfing, skating, art, music, picking up chicks on the boardwalk or some sort of talent. These things hardly ever left Venice since there was no outlets like today for the world to see. But no matter what label was hung on you we would all hang at the beach during the day and by night at some sort of party or gathering.
Venice Breakwater especially was our own little heaven. It would allow us to forget about everything in our personal lives and/or what others thought of us. I still love Venice and it has a large part of my soul from growing up there, but it just has become a bit overrun lately. The rich soul of creativity has gathered a moss on top at the moment from all that has come in recently covering up what made it so appealing in the past. Now it has become far too social media conscious, outrageously expensive. Yes, it’s true that Abbott Kinney built Venice as basically a fantasy wonderland by taking aspects of Venice, Italy and joining it with a circus like theme and amusement park fun for entertainment. I guess it’s always been the place to be for a good time, but in more recent times it has definitely transitioned to greed.
It was safe to say I was going to be surfer and eventually indulge in some sort of creative outlet being that my father was a musician and there is something in the soul of Venice that allows the town to produce many inspirational people. I obviously look to my dad as to why I started surfing. My memories go back as far as I can remember with going to the beach and crawling on his boards before I could stand on my own. At two years old I learned to swim since we had a pool in the complex we were living in, so from then on, my parents couldn’t keep me away from any kind of water. For the next few years I was standing on boogie boards or having my dad push me into waves on his boards. When I turned 6 years old my parents decided to get me my own little 4’2″ blue Burke surfboard. After I got that first board, I would never say no to going with my dad, but during the colder winter months I’d find it hard because they didn’t make wetsuits my size back then meanwhile now kids have wetsuit sponsors at that age, haha. For my 10th birthday I finally could fit into a full suit and it was one of those windy Santa Ana days in the fall and I remember going with my dad to Dive N’ Surf (run by the Meistrell family) in Redondo Beach to get a wetsuit and then down to Dockweiler to surf. After that nothing stopped me. By time the following summer came around I had more than just the surf bug, and I started aiming high. I noticed an ad for a contest in Surfer magazine for the end of summer in Huntington Beach, so I ripped out the ad to have my parents sign me up. By time the contest came around I was ready and focused. I ended up making 3 heats on my way to the final where I finished 6th place. From then on the fire was lit and I wanted nothing more than to be a professional surfer. When I went back to surf Venice and Topanga, I thought I was hot shit and the older guys started taking me around when my parents couldn’t and even getting me sponsored by the local shops and shapers.
W: So you were rocking a body glove back then huh? It must of felt pretty good being able to progress at something you really liked, especially at such a young age. Some of those older guys you knew were some pretty heavy surfers, what was it like growing up in Venice with that kind of talent?
JS: Yep, a tiny Bodyglove fullsuit with zippers at the ankles. Before the fullsuit I had a few Bodyglove springs suits as well. The real irony is at 12 years old I got stranded at El Porto and Jamie Meistrell rescued me; his grandfather was the founder of Bodyglove, which was then passed down to his father (Ronnie) and uncles to run. I ended up staying for a whole week with Jamie, his parents kind of had no choice but to take me in as a third son because I would stay at his house almost every weekend after. Since that day to now the Meistrells became family and I still go to all sorts of gatherings with them. It’s cool how life crosses and links together along the way.
It was a cool feeling being so young and finding something to be that passionate about. After my first contest I really felt a drive to go after surfing, and it basically pushed away all other sports or many things kids do. I just wanted to surf and was focused. With that focus it really kept me out of a lot of the trouble that most of those kids in the area fell into from trying to impress the older guys you mentioned and the feeling of support they would get from them. Many of the guys around were extremely talented, but the lifestyle that was so intriguing was also very detrimental and caused many to fall away from their passions and into some dark places. The history of talent in the area goes all the way back to the Dogtown days. They were much before my time but I knew and still know some of them. They really set the path of the extreme lifestyle that made the generation I watched growing up in Venice quite intense. My dad was always on his own program with his focus on finding the biggest and best spots. He was never one to engage into the claims and antics of a certain spot, and would always roll solo, with me, or the family. Don’t get me wrong my dad knew all the surfers, and they knew him. Most of them gave him respect for doing his own thing and never bringing a crowd. They called him WayneDoggie for being that cool down to earth guy who was always at the right spot at the right time. With him being so mellow and not wanting attention made him shy away from the pro guy scene; which when I started competing he knew that for me pushing to the next level I needed to surf closer and watch the hottest surfers around, so he kind of sat back and wanted me to progress to my best ability by letting me go alone or with other surfers. Lucky for me some of the best surfers around would surf spots that were just a bike ride away. I would get to surf with and become friends with guys that were pro or on that level. Rick Massie, Strider, John McClure, Donnie Wilson, Eric Sturm, Reddog, Satch, and a lot of other gnarly guys. Outside the water these guys were like rock stars around town and would make sure to act the part as well. Some were actual rock stars in bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Beowulf, No Mercy, Horny Toads and some would play some of the parties. I can remember so many of the local contest after-parties that these guys would be going off and chicks would be flocking to them, and some brutal brawls. It was a heavy scene from the water to streets to the parties to the bars, and I got to witness I firsthand.
W: You were really in the heart of the LA surfing scene, from Venice to the South Bay.How was competing at that time? Were you traveling a lot, locally and abroad?
JS: Yes, I was definitely competing a lot! After I competed in that first contest my goal was set to do as many comps and surf with the best surfers. At 12 years old until I went after the WQS at eighteen I was surfing in a contest every weekend from USSF, NSSA, local comp or some pro/am events. I would sign up for two contests on the same weekend and hope for my heats to not overlap so I could surf one on Saturday in San Diego and then another sometimes all the way up in Santa Cruz on Sunday. I remember sometimes I would even surf two on the same days if they were close to drive back and forth with enough time between my heats. Once I made two finals, one at Salt Creek, the other at Oceanside or Seaside Reef, and I ran out of the heat straight into the car had my mom race back down to the other, I got out of the car before she even parked and I could hear the horn blow to start that final. It’s crazy how dedicated and supportive my parents were. My final year as an amateur I surfed in 4 different contest series and in each series I surfed both Jr. Mens and Open Mens. Basically, I was surfing around 8 comps a month. It was great times though and I made good friends I still stay in touch with.
I had many fun trips down to Baja and up to Northern California, but my real travels started around 15 years old going to Hawaii. I already knew of Strider Wasilewski him being the local surf star of our area and I always wanted to get his attention. One day I was at a trade show and I saw Strider joking around at the Quiksilver booth so I ran over and asked if I could go to Hawaii with him. He said “For sure grom! call me next week.” wrote his number on a napkin and handed it me. A few weeks later I was on a plane alone in route to HNL airport where Strider picked me up and gave me an experience that truly opened me up to a whole knew world. After that trip I just wanted to travel any chance I could, and I got to, quite a bit. From then on I went to Tavarua, Australia, Costa Rica, Mainland Mexico, Caribbean, the east coast, Europe, and the list goes on. I still can’t get enough of traveling to see new places, cultures and waves.
W: That must have been a trip linking up with Strider like that, what was it like to surf Hawaii back at that time with one of the LA’s most legendary surfers? Also, you hear a lot of stories from these days, before surfers were considered athletes with their diets and training regimes. Was it as full on as the old “…Lost” videos portrayed?
JS: Yeah man, everything was much different back then. Having Strider personally pick me up from the airport was about as cool as it could be for anyone, let alone a grom, and the right guy to introduce me to the North Shore considering he was from LA and made his way up the pecking order over there. I didn’t have to worry about what do when I got to the north shore because Strider had the itinerary set for my stay. We stayed at the old v-land apartments (that were considered the ghetto and are no longer there) for the nights but would be at the Off The Wall house during the days. It had some of the “…lost” video feel for sure considering Strider was a …lost rider, some other riders, and other the standout guys like Wardo, Andy and Bruce Irons, Casey Curtis, Todd Morcom, Nathan Fletcher, Laurent Pujol, etc. were always there. Let me just say the path A.I. went down, and surfing in general ….. well……the number of stories I can go on and on. What really shocked me was the crew of underground hard-core chargers. Some were the hell men that wanted to make a statement in and out of the water and others were these low-pro guys who flew under the radar and didn’t care about the recognition. It was crazy because we would be at the house where all the pros were pumping each other up all day and raging all night, and then Strider would take me over to a friends house for dinner where it would be a mellow couple cooking a healthy meal for us all to relax and enjoy, and I’d realize that this was the guy I saw earlier that day packing the biggest bombs that nobody would even look at. It was the wild west back then where you had these different crews that all got along and did whatever they chose as long as nobody crossed the line. Once the line was crossed there was no hiding on that little stretch of paradise. It was either man up or get off fucking island quick. Since then the whole industry, especially over there, has changed to a more athletic committee as apposed to a way of lifestyle surfing once was. It still of course has the circus aspect of all these surfers coming from all parts of the world to show off, snag a bomb, get the shot, hook the chick, and hopefully make it back home safe, but I just don’t think people are quite on their toes like they once were. Just like everywhere and everything these days gets exposed and evolution continues to evolve from the past to build a more safe and economic future; whether it’s for the good or bad, its not stopping anytime soon. I’m stoked to be able to have watched the progression, have the memories and made it through to enjoy another day.
W: Sounds like you were there for the end of an era.
So bring me up to speed on how you went from charging the contests to shaping boards. What was the transition?
JS: The transition into where I’m at today is quite a story in itself and I’ve gone full circle. In 2008 when the economy took a dive I also had a horrible year on the WQS and was looking to other outlets for pleasure and a career. I decided to go back to school for business and graphic design. I felt let down from surfing, I walked away from competition, and I wasn’t enjoying even my free surfs as much. Fast forward a few years; there I was sitting admiring all the nature at a botanical garden in Madrid when I got a sense of panic that I was about to miss perfect 10 foot Mundaka and it was just a train ride away. I went into full surf junky mode, realizing there was nothing getting in the way of my surfing. Nothing soothes me as mother-ocean does. I could go all spiritual, write a whole story of the next week, but all the signs pointed me back in the direction of the surf lifestyle. The passion I had for surfing as a kid started burning inside me again. After that week of scoring perfect waves my mind was back into surf mode and my imagination of surfboard design and what I should have been riding in those waves. I immediately emailed Scott Anderson asking for my job back at Aquatech Glassing, where since I was 10 years old had a part time job sweeping the floors, doing ding repairs and learning everything about surfboards. The amount of information Scott instilled in me from working on my high performance boards during my WQS years to shaping Logs and all the alterative shapes that he’s great at making, goes way beyond what I could have received on my own. I truly give Scott the utmost respect for the knowledge he passed down to me. Once I got back from my travels I took over the repair side of Aquatech and also started producing a lot of the board designs I had been thinking about. One thing led to the next and here I am today a few years later with a thriving custom surfboard business where I do everything from start to finish, as well as some repairs. I also have other freelance projects from art pieces to furniture and resin work.
W: How much do you rely on yourself as a test pilot? Also what inspires your shaping?
JS: I definitely do rely on myself. It has been nice to have the ability to feel a board and pair it with the experience I have acquired from being in surfboard factories as a grom, annoying the board builders with so many questions. It allows me to feel a lot in a board, which sometimes can cause me to over think the design and feel the need to constantly change something. The feedback from good surfers riding my boards motivates me and inspires me a the most. I can get a little too much on the experimental path with trippy designs and the continuous search to find a different glide and feel in a board. Shaping levels me out as well as tests my ability to develop a design that finds the feeling a customer wants out of a board.