The Story Behind the Endless Summer Poster, from The Artist Who Created It

John Van Hamersveld talks surfing and making murals in the Digital Age

It’s mid November and sunny as ever—cool enough that you’re trying to make a sweater happen, warm enough that you’re starting to regret that choice. If anybody is at home in this eternal sunshine, it’s John Van Hamersveld, creator of the iconic poster for the documentary The Endless Summer. The artist lives and works in Palos Verdes, where he runs a gallery with his wife, Alida Post.

Van Hamersveld designed the poster for his friend Bruce Brown, who was directing low-budget surf documentaries, in 1964. At the time, he was a student at Art Center College of Design and the art director for Surfer magazine. He arranged the photo shoot with Brown and the film’s two stars—Mike Hynson and Robert August—at Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point, crafted the image at his kitchen table, screen-printed the poster in a garage, and hand lettered the title to complete the work. The poster, for which Brown paid him $150, would soon become a national phenomenon. Van Hamersveld went on to work at Capitol Records, designing the album cover for the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, the Stones’ Exile on Main St. as well as the now-classic Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane Pinnacle Rock Concert posters. At 74, the artist is still going strong, producing logos, digital drawings, and murals. We asked him about his perennial relevance and current projects.

The Endless Summer
The Endless Summer

Image courtesy John Van Hamersveld

You created the Endless Summer poster a little over 50 years ago. Do you get tired of talking about it?
No, because it’s like a mythical image at this point. It’s become a symbol for surfing. So that’s good. It’s 50 years later, and everyone seems to know it or wants to know it, from the ages of 70 to 13—it has that kind of crossover of culture.

Why do you think it’s had such lasting appeal?
Partially, it’s the words “The Endless Summer,” but essentially, it’s the poster as an icon. It’s that symmetrical sun that draws people in, and then the contrast of the colors in Day-Glo. And then the figures are sort of abstract and it indicates a kind of space of nature, but being that it’s abstract, it’s just so simple and clean and accessible.

As a local artist, do you think the poster has special meaning for L.A.?
The poster celebrates Southern California: the beach and the sunset. Pacific Coast Highway was the main street for surfers up and down the coast. We’d go to Rincon, we’d go to Malibu, we’d go to Huntington Beach, we’d go down to La Jolla, Laguna, all the way to Mexico. It was always this sort of route going back and forth along the coastline.

I understand you were quite the surfer yourself.
Yes, right, absolutely avid. Phil Becker took me surfing when I was probably 12.

Photograph courtesy John Van Hamersveld
From the left, Van Hamersveld’s Pinnacle Jefferson Airplane poster, his Pinnacle Jimi Hendrix poster, his 2005 Cream reunion poster, and his ‘The Next Wave’ poster

Photograph courtesy John Van Hamersveld

What are you up to these days?
I’ve been doing more drawings than anything else. My drawing has been applied to the digital world, so it becomes posters and advertising and murals. These new murals I’m doing are done from my drawings and then blown up and put into these mural-like shapes.

Which murals have you worked on most recently?
[My wife and I] rent this bookstore called Williams’ Bookstore in San Pedro, which is where Bukowski used to hang out. Down the street on West 6th Street is a large building called the Topaz building, and I’ve done a 10 by 20 foot mural in its lobby on canvas—it looks just fantastic. It has a wave in it, as well as being a graphic montage of images.

And then I got pulled into this Hermosa Beach piece, which is like 72 feet by 19 feet. It has to do with the history of surfing in that area. The Hermosa Beach Mural Project gave me the opportunity to do the mural. The nice part is that it’s so high tech—it’s done in vinyl. My drawings go into a computer and then through a printing process. Then they are applied to the wall in these 48 inch strips of 3M vinyl, which have really good color. The mural is color-fast for probably about 10 years. It’s sophisticated.

I’m doing one for the back of an office building, and that will probably be painted by industrial painters; I can’t believe that somebody with a brush can still do that. Most of the time, painters use spray-cans. Or like Shepard Fairey prints everything on paper and then uses wheat paste to paste it to the wall.

Van Hamersveld’s “Hermosa Great Wave” mural in Hermosa Beach

Photograph courtesy John Van Hamersveld

You know Shepard Fairey personally, right?
Oh yeah, he’s my dupe, I guess. He loves what I do. He’s like 40 now, and I’m 74, so there’s like 30 years between us, but he got in on my work a long time ago and has made an homage to it. It’s my famous Pinnacle Hendrix poster that he pays homage to and talks about a lot in the media. Shepard makes his work with an issue in mind. I don’t necessarily see any issues to take on the way he does—and he gets himself in trouble with it.

You don’t get political with your art?
No. It’s poetry. It’s an aesthetic.

What other artists are you interested in right now?
The other day I went to see a younger world of architects who were having an event. There were these two girls and they have a gallery downtown—Jai and Jai Gallery, I think—in which they’re cultivating all these different architects to do art. That gallery has some really fantastic shows.