How surf history inspired Imperial Beach’s public art scene

In the late 1990s, Imperial Beach (IB) turned to public art and its history of surfing as a way to change how outsiders viewed the small coastal community.

“Thirty years ago, IB had a really bad reputation,” said David Frink, the executive director of the Imperial Beach Arts Bureau. “When my wife and I were thinking of moving here, people asked, ’why would you do that?’”

People associated Imperial Beach with drugs and crime instead of public art, he added.

The Port of San Diego commissioned two art installations to change public perceptions. They chose to tap into the city’s rich surf history for inspiration.

Those two pieces are The Spirit of Imperial Beach, on Palm Avenue and Ocean Lane, and Surfhenge, right in front of the pier.

The former was meant to look like a combination of local surfing legend Dempsey Holder and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It depicts a ripped surfer standing heroically next to a massive longboard. The base of the metal sculpture is a sandcastle, and the installation features large fish where children can climb.

The surfer’s face looks like Holder, an Imperial Beach lifeguard and surfer who helped popularize big wave surfing in San Diego in the 1950s. Dempsey would surf 25-foot waves at the mouth of the Tijuana River. Without a leash or a wetsuit. In the winter.

But the sculpture’s body was modeled after Schwarzenegger. Apparently, because a bureaucrat thought surfers were too scrawny.

“The port commissioner said that he didn’t want a wimpy guy,” artist A. Wasil told the Coronado Eagle & Journal in 2008. “So, I used photos of Schwarzenegger in his prime as a model.”

Wasil died before the Spirit of Imperial Beach was installed later that year. He is still remembered as a prolific sculptor who mentored young up-and-coming artists.

“He was a teacher, he was kind of a scholar of sculpture,” said Malcolm Jones, the artist behind Surfhenge, Imperial Beach’s other iconic art installation.

Jones and Wasil worked on their two pieces around the same time. They were excited about the idea of bringing a positive image to Imperial Beach.

“The city was looking for an identity and a way to get people to know them,” Jones said. “They fastened on historic surfing. It was something they had to offer and this is a tribute to the surfers who were down here braving these crazy waves.”

Sculptor Malcolm Jones stands in front of Surfhenge, his iconic public art installation in Imperial Beach in this undated photo.

Charlotte Radulovich



Sculptor Malcolm Jones stands in front of Surfhenge, his iconic public art installation in Imperial Beach in this undated photo.

Surfhenge is loosely modeled after Stonehenge and depicts colorful giant surfboards right in front of the IB pier.

The design was inspired by the way surfers would stick their boards in little holes in the sand, carefully positioning them in a way to keep the sun from melting the wax. Surfers would gather in groups and the boards would be in slightly different positions depending on where the sun was whenever one of them arrived.

Today, Imperial Beach is full of public art. So much so, that the IB Arts Bureau even has a digital map where people can find every single piece, Fink said.

The two sculptures remain the city’s most popular and photographed works of art, Fink said. But they’ve inspired a lot more artwork.

“We’re trying to get more and more of it,” he said. “Sandcastles, street art, murals, everything we can do. Even performance art here on the beach.”

Imperial Beach has hosted several symphonies on the beach right in front of the pier in recent years.

Today, cross-border sewage keeps most surfers away from the mouth of the Tijuana River. San Diego County declared a state of emergency over the pollution. And even though cross-border sewage continues to close the Imperial Beach coastline, the two public art pieces remain a source of inspiration.

Public art is a bit of a gamble, Jones said. The goal is always to beautify an area, but you never really know how it will be received.

Nearly three decades after the two pieces were commissioned, Jones said they hold up pretty well.

“It totally changed the way other people look at the town,” he said.

The Spirit of Imperial Beach pays tribute to Imperial Beach's sandcastle building contest in this undated photo.

Charlotte Radulovich



The Spirit of Imperial Beach pays tribute to Imperial Beach’s sandcastle building contest in this undated photo.

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