CHIPPA WILSON FINDS HIS FUTURE IN THE PAST
Words by Travis Ferré | Photography by Nick Green
Chippa Wilson looks good inside an old bar. Especially at noon, tucked into a Naugahyde booth that’s a bit sticky from years of booze and salt spilling over it. The dark windows shield us from the bright noonday sun of your average California Wednesday, while Wilson’s thorough and ornate tattoo work proudly signifies his commitment to the art. He even has plastic wrap covering a fresh piece he had done yesterday by Nathan Kostechko in Los Angeles. Wilson’s been in town getting his knee looked at following a recent tweak and couldn’t leave without getting some work done by the acclaimed artist.
We’re at the Reno Room in Long Beach. It’s an old dive, and they say Charles Bukowski frequented it when he was living in nearby San Pedro, playing pool on the notoriously crooked table in the back. He liked the hours (Reno Room famously opens at 6 a.m. and doesn’t shut until 2 a.m.) that cater to the local longshoremen community servicing the port, along with your usual all-hours barflies. And us. We don’t look entirely out of place here.
They recently fused a Mexican food spot called Cocorenos with Reno Room, joining two California institutions into one magical beacon of respite from the workaday world: dive bar and Mexican food, together at last. Wilson is wearing a black T-shirt and white denim with a freshly buzzed head, and he perks up every time a loud bike rips past the busy intersection outside. Because it’s located on the corner of East Broadway and Redondo Ave, it’s not uncommon to hear the rattle of a vintage Harley pulling into the alley out back. Wilson glances outside to get a peek at each one.
“I crave margaritas, man,” he says, looking at the menu. “Where I live you can get beers off tap two minutes down the road, but no margis.” He speaks in a one-of-kind drawl, fusing a subtle lisp with a more “country” Australian accent than his surf pals. His voice comes to you in offbeat rhythms full of kindness.
“The states and California are crazy, man,” he adds. “The amount of culture around here. Motorcycles, surfing, art, music, cars. I love it.” Wilson’s an American-made motor man and just recently sold a signature green 1963 Chevy C10 truck that had become synonymous with him.
Today, we’re not far from Scotty Stopnik’s Cycle Zombies shop in Huntington Beach, a place that’s inspired Wilson for years. He admits to peppering Stopnik with endless questions about bikes and even bought his first one — a ’64 Harley panhead — from Stopnik.
“Thank fuck for social media,” he says. “One good thing about it: I had my blinders on being a surf rat my whole life, and I’ve been playing catchup on hobbies. Scotty has been an inspiration for me for a long time. His lifestyle is sick. Surfs every morning, skates, has his crew and his family all there building old Harleys. I follow him and learn a ton that way.”
The TouchTunes machine — one of the modern updates adopted in the Reno Room — kicks up and Interpol’s “The Rover” comes on. Wilson orders the house margarita with a basket of chips and salsa. Our dark-eyed waitress asks about some of his tattoo work before walking away to get our drinks. He vibes with the music and says, “This song could be a really sick part in a surf video.”
Filmmaker Kai Neville once told me he thought Chippa Wilson was the most recognized surfer he’s ever traveled with. Foreign shores, airports, bars, coffee shops and parking lots, Wilson catches the eye, and surfers all over the world have grown to obsess over his video parts. During filming for Neville’s movie Cluster, kids in the Canary Islands would follow the crew around to spots hoping for glimpses of him. Wilson’s run in Neville’s now-classic surf films — Lost Atlas, Dear Suburbia and Cluster — were an obvious fit and have become the standard to which all progression is held. His surfing was exactly what excited Neville about his generation and what he felt inspired to showcase. “Consistency is the thing with Chippa,” Neville says. “To land things as big and technical as he does with the consistency he has is unreal.”
Wilson’s gold eyes (the late Andy Irons famously called him the Gold Lion) and tattoos do catch the eye, but his surfing is what keeps the jaws on the floor. His creativity and ability to tweak and manipulate his board in ways surfers have only dreamed of while maintaining his signature style has always been his point of differentiation in the water.
“He looks so good on a board,” says filmmaker Michael Cukr, who spent a lot of time following Wilson around before the pandemic, crashing with him for three months straight in Australia to film him surfing. “Nothing looks unnatural. And his whole vibe is a throwback; skaters like him, bikers like him, surfers love him.” But it wasn’t always like that.
Wilson didn’t follow the same path many professional surfers do. He was a late bloomer and remains one of the most refreshing overnight success stories the surf industry has ever produced. In 2009, Wilson was surfing and working construction back home in Cabarita Beach, Australia — a sponsored local pro but not recognized much outside the town limits. Stab Magazine created a contest called “Little Weeds” that Wilson entered. The internet clip competition offered surfers, filmmakers and photographers the chance to submit their work to be voted on in one of the first successful online comps in the surf industry’s rush to figure out the internet. Wilson’s segment, edited by Riley Blakeway, was a tour de force of holy-shit proportions and is probably still one of the greatest discoveries of the internet age. He went from local ripper in Australia to international star with that clip nearly overnight. It led to a signature film in 2010 (Now), new sponsors — including one with Kustom shoes, which put him on the first Kustom Airstrike trip, a contest that put up $50,000 for the best air of the trip. Kai Neville was on that trip and remembers its being the turning point. “I knew after that trip he was one of the best in the world,” says Neville. “His technique was way beyond what I thought, and he stomped everything he tried.”
Surfing had just seen Neville’s debut film Modern Collective shatter the old guard, launching a progression push that would consume the next decade of surfing. Wilson was quickly snatched up and put into the crew thanks to his technical aerial surfing, easygoing demeanor and throwback look of full-body tats, shaggy blonde locks and freckles. He quickly became a crowd favorite.
In the past, most surfers who injected skate tricks into their surfing did so at the expense of style or success rate — often ushering themselves into obscurity or tiny niche pockets of surfing. Wilson shattered that stereotype by doing tricks no one had seen before and did so with a style that was easy on the eyes.
“As a grom, I tried all this stuff and never pulled it much, which is why I did so bad at contests growing up,” he says. “I found doing shuv-its much easier than winning.” But his surfing drastically improved after that and his make-to-attempt ratio skyrocketed, while his aerial surfing became elite, freaking out and inspiring a generation of surfers along the way.
During his first official magazine trip to France, Wilson tagged along with the legendary presence that is Nathan Fletcher — surfer, skater, snowboarder, motocross rider, icon — and the admiration was instantly mutual. Wilson paddled around the French beach breaks on that trip with all the big names of surfing who were in town to compete. And the part that freaked him out the most: They were all in awe of him. The late Andy Irons paddled right up to him on the first day he was there, saying, “Yeah, Chippa! The only dude I know with gold eyes!” The entire lineup, a who’s who of surfers including Irons, Dusty Payne, John John Florence and Jordy Smith all made sure to say what’s up to the most exciting addition to surfing in that time.
A decade later, Wilson has appeared in every surf movie that matters, adding tricks and his approach to the pantheon of surf progression. While rehabbing the tweaked knee and wading his way through the pandemic years, Wilson posted up in Tasmania, the rural, often chilly and isolated Australian territory with his partner Brinkley Davies, a marine biologist and adventurer. They’ve got their dogs and a garage full of toys: Motorcycles, surfboards and all the odds and ends you can think of to keep him busy in the isolated space. “Brinkley keeps me young, man,” he says of his partner. “She’s always swimming with sharks and whales and seals. Always up to something. I just try to keep up now and tinker on the bikes when I can.”
I ask him what got him into motorcycles, and he quickly lights up. “My old man has always been bike-oriented,” he says. “He was always sitting up late at night watching speedways and motocross, and I remember he had photos of himself when he was young on all the enduro trials bikes, ripping around, so that’s always been an interest and inspiration. I would have got into it earlier, but surfing took a pretty good chunk of my hobby life for many years.”
But now, with his home set up in Tasmania, a good decade of game-changing surfing in the can, and plenty of opportunity on the horizon, he’s focusing himself on the garage.
“My mate Coco put me on my first Harley Davidson panhead with a jockey shift,” he says. “He just told me, ‘Go for gold!’!’ and off I went down the road all jenky and all over the place, not skilled at all. It’s the weirdest way to ride, but I came back with the biggest smile on my face and got into building one of those straight away.”
The bike, famously known as “Scorch,” is Wilson’s first moto-child. “It’s a ’54 panhead with a springer front end. It’s super mechanical and old school. The clutch rod is linked by an old rusty chain, it has a crazy sissy bar and looks like it might blow up beneath you, but it’s so sick. It’s my first Harley and definitely the one that got me hooked on riding.”
The Tasmanian landscape is vast and rural and old. It’s full of winding roads, lonely petrol stations and isolated nooks and crannies — the perfect place for riding and exploring. With a garage full of vehicles — from bikes to surfboards to trucks and jeeps — Wilson has plenty to tinker on as he prepares for the world to open back up.
“Anything old, I’m drawn to,” he says, which makes me chuckle. It’s funny that one of the world’s most progressive surfers — a guy who’s spent his life living ahead of his time — has stopped in Tasmania to let us all catch up and dig into his obsessions from the past. He’s like the addition of a TouchTunes machine in an old bar. It doesn’t feel right until you learn how to make it work for you.
Back inside the Reno Room and into our second round of margaritas, Wilson whips out his phone and starts putting music on through the TouchTunes app as he tells me he’s recently bought his first new car.
“I just got a regular car the other day,” he says. “My first new car ever. I got a Jeep Gladiator, American, ‘ute’ type of thing. I can’t even work it yet, it’s too modern.” He smiles and finally makes his musical choice, and the TouchTunes fires up the classic Social Distortion tune called Telling Them. As it kicks in, I look over at the newly updated pool table, hoping to see the ghost of Bukowski stumbling around in the back, but I only see two college girls skipping class to drink margaritas and play pool.
Things have changed here. You can get Mexican food, the pool table isn’t crooked anymore, and it requires quarters; the juke box is connected to the internet but somehow, if you squint your eyes and the song is right, you realize this place hasn’t changed a bit. The rare spot where the past, present and future all mingle together in a swirly modern vintage union that makes perfect sense. Sometimes it happens in a rural Tasmanian garage full of vintage bikes and progressive surfboards, and sometimes it happens on the corner of East Broadway and Redondo when Chippa Wilson is in town.