Transplanting the Legend of the Santa Cruz Surf
Bobby Vaughn is from Santa Cruz, legendary in California for its renegade surf culture and rebel wave riders.
Mr. Vaughn says that the Rockaways in Queens have all the ingredients to be the next Santa Cruz: good waves, public housing projects and a growing surf culture. His main problem with the Rockaway surf scene is that it has not embraced its inner gangster.
Enter FTW, the surf shop he opened on Saturday on Beach 116th Street, a half-block from the ocean. Its name is an abbreviation for a vulgar expression used by convicts and bikers. It is also the name of Mr. Vaughn’s clothing line and philosophy of life. He has the letters tattooed on his right cheek and inside his lower lip.
Mr. Vaughn, 34, is undeterred by the recession or by the two other surf shops in the area, including the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop, several doors down. These are mere details in Mr. Vaughn’s business plan, which he says is born of a life of daring and hardship.
Mr. Vaughn’s ideal surfer is fearless, tattooed and rides an expensive top-of-the-line surfboard decorated with gang tags. His shop exudes tough-surfer chic, from its graffiti-covered surfboards and skateboards to the wall murals in urban spray-can style. Mr. Vaughn believes that this West Coast feel will catch on here.
“Rockaway is ready for a surf scene, and this store has the edge that the hard-core surfers here are looking for,” he said in the store on Friday, as a group of young local surfers helped him with the finishing touches.
The shop has already created a buzz, partly because of Mr. Vaughn’s history — he helped start the Von Dutch clothing line and has had some serious brushes with the law — and because the store is the latest sign that Rockaway has arrived as a surf spot.
New York City has designated a section of the beach, near Beach 90th Street, for surfing only. Many houses nearby are rented by groups of surfers seeking a waterfront outpost, and surfboards on the A train are a common sight. With the rise of the urban surfer here, Mr. Vaughn sees a niche in which surfing, fashion and bad-boy street culture converge.
Mr. Vaughn grew up in Santa Cruz with surfing legends like Darryl Virostko, known as Flea, and was part of the so-called Westsiders surf crew, which claimed the famous Steamers Lane as its home surf break.
Mr. Vaughn said that as a teenager he was a competitive surfer endorsed by equipment companies but that he became friendly with gang members. He said he saw his closest friend commit a murder.
Mr. Vaughn went on to prosper, as the Von Dutch line of expensive hats and apparel soared in popularity, gaining favor with the likes of Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. Mr. Vaughn, who became a regular on the celebrity circuit in Los Angeles, wound up splitting with his Von Dutch partners and settled for an amount he recalled on Friday as paltry.
One night in 2005, Mr. Vaughn said, he was with his friend, who had just been released from prison. The friend, Mr. Vaughn said, attacked him with a broken bottle. Mr. Vaughn shot him, fatally, and claimed self-defense. He was found not guilty of first-degree murder.
He came to New York City to start a new life, he said, but was arrested and charged with carrying an unregistered handgun. He pleaded guilty to a felony gun charge and was sentenced to five years probation, which he is still serving. With no job, he risked violating probation and being sent to jail. Then he discovered the waves at Rockaway.
“I gave up on life, and then I came out here and saw the surf here,” he said. “I never knew they had surfing in New York City. I got a board and jumped in the water and I just felt reborn.”
The young locals were immediately impressed by Mr. Vaughn’s surfing and his past. One surfer’s father agreed to invest in the store, in a space that was formerly a shoe store.
“People get intimidated by the gangster look, but I just want to turn my life around, and to show the street kids here — whether they’re surfers or kids from the projects — that they can do it too,” he said, detailing his plan to conduct anti-gang initiatives through surfing and skateboarding.
Not everyone is enamored of Mr. Vaughn. His background troubles some residents, and local merchants worry that his store will only add to a seedy side of Beach 116th Street.
But Mr. Vaughn said, “This is gangster image — the tattoos, the graffiti — this is what appeals to street kids, but we’re strictly positive.”
Ricky Reyes, 38, a friend from Santa Cruz was visiting on Friday. Mr. Vaughn asked him to open his shirt to show the letters FTW tattooed across his chest.
“My brand is a way of life,” he said. “You won’t see people tattooing other surf brands on themselves.”
Matt Alessi, 17, a local surfer who works for Mr. Vaughn, nodded and pointed to the retail rack of high-performance surfboards made in Australia.
“You don’t see these types of board in Rockaway,” he said. “We need someone like this to help put Rockaway on the map as a surf spot.”
By COREY KILGANNON, Ben Chapman contributed reporting
New York Times