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The Balinese Art of Surfing

April 11, 2012

If you throw a stone in Bali chances are you’ll hit an artist. But amongst the vast sea of talent on this island, there’s one guy who definitely deserves a mention. Not because he’s particularly famous or even widely celebrated – but because he’s an integral part of the Bali surf story. Allow me introduce… Nyoman Wirya Santosa. 

I first met Nyoman at Kim Bradley’s house. He was painting some surfboards in Bradley’s garage/shaping bay. I was immediately struck by the raw vitality of his work – it seemed to jump right out at you. For anyone who’s actually attempted it, they’d know painting on foam isn’t easy. Nyoman is one of the few Balinese (I know of) who’s truly mastered the technique. Since those early days up at Kim’s house, Nyoman’s work has really developed into something interesting – a true contemporary expression of ancient tradition.

When considering Nyoman’s work… one can see this deep-rooted sense of the Balinese spirit, blended with a clear understanding of the ‘now’. While drawing on themes from sacred Balinese myths, Nyoman also mixes it up with common popular culture. Just in the way the Balinese artists of the 1930’s and 1940’s were influenced by the European modernists like Walter Spies… Nyoman’s work also draws on contemporary influence – in this case its from the internet. Nyoman he confessed he develops many ideas from stuff he’s seen on ‘You Tube’.

I’ve always wanted some of Nyoman’s art on a board but unfortunately the timing was never quite right. But recently it all came together; and not only is Nyoman adorning my latest weapon, but it’s also a custom shape by the ‘Captain’ (aka Doris). Surfing this new creation will certainly be a precarious prospect. With such legendary hands having played a part, extreme care will be required traversing all those tropical reefs.

The last week I hung out with Nyoman while he worked on the board. Here’s some of our conversations…

What’s your first memory of drawing?

When I was about 4 years old I remember taking the pencil and drawing all over the walls of my parents house. I think I covered a whole wall with many cartoon characters that I saw on the TV.

You liked cartoons as a kid?

I liked to watch cartoons on TV when I was a kid… like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Popeye. I really like the Heroes in the stories. One day I remember putting some sketches into a small book.. and then my friend saw it. He asked me to make him a comic book. Eventually I started to make comics for my friends at school.

Did you sell any?

Sometimes… I would sell them to buy candy or something. Also I’d just give them for free.. because money is not the reason why I start to draw. If I paint something and somebody likes it… I am happy. I know people need money… but for me… with my art… money is not the first thing. If someone makes art and their first thinking is only money… when its finished… it will be no good.

Why is that?

Because the focus is commercial… not from the heart. If your feeling when making art is -“I must be quick – quick.. I must get the money” – then it won’t be any good. I believe that.

So how did you learn to draw?

I start by myself. Also.. my father could draw… and also my Grandfather. My Grandfather was a traditional artist… painting in the temple and also playing gamelon. I would sometimes watch him and get ideas… but he never teach me. I just do it myself.

It sounds like you come from an artistic family…

Actually… I have an Uncle who is a very famous painter. His name is Nyoman Mandra. He is a painter in the traditional Karmasan style.

Karmasan style? What’s that?

Actually.. Kamasan is a village in Klungkung.. in the north east. Many traditional artist come from there. They have a painting style called the ‘Wayan Kamasan’. ‘Wayan’ is like the puppet. I think this style comes from the old Majapahit kingdom.

So your uncle was pretty famous… How did that come about?

A long time ago…  foreigners come to visit the village in Kamasan.. they come to study the traditional art of the Kamasan. My uncle was a master painter there. After… they take him all around the world… to Europe, Japan and America… they make many exhibitions of his art.

That’s impressive…

Yeah.. (laughs)… actually… if you go to the Arma museum in Ubud.. you can also see my uncles painting there.

So did you ever study art at a school or college?

I went to the Udayana college on the Bukit. I study there for 3 years… drawing, painting… design and sculpture. I also learn many techniques from the ‘You Tube’ (laughs). From the internet I learn many things… I always get new ideas from there.

So how did you start painting on surfboards?

A long time ago I was working in the Bukit Inn painting designs on the bed covers. Then later.. I met Kim Bradley. I couldn’t speak English – only ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – Kim couldn’t really speak Balinese… but he wanted to learn. So we start to teach each other… you know… like the barter system. Later.. Kim asked me to visit his house because he wanted me to paint some surfboards. This is how I start…

Tell me about painting your first board..

It was really different. Normally I was painting on the canvas or on the wall. But with surfboards, I was painting on the foam… you know…before they did the glassing  – very difficult. Kim first gave me a broken blank and said I had to learn on this. He kept telling me to practice – always practice! I say… “okay boss” (laughs). I really had no idea how to draw on a blank in the beginning… my pencil kept going through the foam. I remember the first board I did for Kim – when he put the glass on it – all the paint come off (laughs). But I learned after that… I must put some special ingredient in the paint to stop this happening.

Do you remember the first time you saw surfing?

Yes… it was with Kim Bradley at Ulus.

What was your impression?

I thought ‘wow’… I really like it. It looked to me like the surfers are dancing on the wave. It look a bit like the Balinese dance. Sometimes when I am not busy and want to relax… I go to Ulus… buy one beer… and watch the tourist and the local people surfing. I like it very much.

Have you ever tried surfing?

Yes… one time I try. I borrow the board from my friend in Jimbaran and take it near to the Four Seasons. The wave was not big… maybe 1 meter. When I try to stand… the wave smash me onto the sand. After I feel like I had too much drink. That’s why I cannot surf again… I want… but it’s little bit scary for me.

So can you tell me about the image you’ve painted on my board?

This is Rangda. This character to me is the ‘power’… from the Balinese story of ‘Calon Arang’… it’s the black magic. In the ritual of Balinese life… Rangda is the God. Actually Rangda come from the goddess Dewi Durga… the wife from Siwa. This is also God… this gives life… it support everything in the Balinese life.  It’s a good idea that you ask for the Rangda on your board. Maybe if you make a board again… I can paint the ‘Barong’… because this character is also part of the Calon Arang… and it matches with the Rangda.

You mean like a series?

Yah! (laughs)… that’s right.

So are there any artists that you like or really admire?

I like Salvador Dali… the surrealist painter.

Really… what do you like about his work?

I like his style… it has a kind of mystery and strong colors too. I like how he changes the image… like with the clocks… all melting away. What I like with Salvador Dali’s art… it is real – but not real. I don’t like so much other artists who paint in the reality style… like Leonardo da Vinci – I prefer the fantasy.

So… what do you think about Bali these days? 

I am worried. Not for tourists coming to Bali… but with my Government. They say  things like “‘Green area… no new building in the rice field” but the laws are not consistent. You know those small temples in the rice field… so many are gone now to make place for the new buildings. I worry for that… because this is the culture of the Balinese… that’s why the tourists come to Bali… to see the culture… not to see buildings.

Whats your thoughts about the future of Balinese culture?

I hope that my son… and his son… and all the future generations…will still see the culture of Bali. This is what I hope for. I also hope that not only the Government take care… but also that the people from Bali take care… and people from outside who come.. take care… everyone must take care with the culture in Bali.

Nyoman & Kim in the Bukit studio (photo from the Captain)


14 Comments leave one →
  1. bigjimsydney permalink
    April 11, 2012 8:05 am

    A wonderful story and great photos …. I want one and cool board …… Even Kim is looking good…. I only meet Kim a few times …..On day in a busy shop in Bali having lunch….Two thing about kim ….. He love a beer and had bad skin cancer ….. After a few beers ….. He felt the need to take down his pants and show me his white bum….. Made me smile….. A short life but a good one ……. Life is about quality and not quantity . That was Kim . RIP

  2. April 11, 2012 12:20 pm

    wow ! what a great interview bear!! i hope to see your board in action soon.and i like the swallow tail with “fly” i’m almost sure it must have been a “el capitan” shape,… i hope the board is still in one piece? i would like to see how it turned out? i would be scared to pull in shallow with it being a total work of art. cool posting, thanks, dave

  3. April 11, 2012 2:49 pm

    Great read hope you post up a picture of the finished board, I love custom painted boards that show some of the individuals personality. It is also I believe it is a show of respect to something that you love, to use beautiful things to do it with. Cool surfboards heighten the joy in this world of clear sanded finishes, it like when people go to church or a temple they put on the best clothes out of respect and joy. Surfing all those perfect waves that you do it is great to give back the gods that supply all those wonderful swells for you and amazing shaped reefs.

  4. April 11, 2012 3:32 pm

    that was such a great read…I love how he expresses his feeling about art…can’t wait to see the finished board Bear

  5. April 26, 2012 11:44 pm

    Aaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhh!!! (forehead slap to myself) – Why didn’t I think of having such great Balinese art work added to one of my boards when I was there??!!! FRICK ME! Gorgeous. What talent!

  6. June 7, 2012 3:29 pm

    Great article. Big R.E.S.P.E.C.T to Nyoman Wirya Santosa, an Artist of the highest level

  7. February 22, 2013 3:01 am

    Wonderful story and beautiful painting! Where I can find Nyoman Wirya Santosa? Please give a hint, I would love to have my board painted like that…

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