Deep set laugh lines from squinting against salt water and the Hawaiian sun back up Mark Cunningham’s claims that he couldn’t be happier. The 56-year-old lifeguard lifer and competitive bodysurfer can’t stop explaining how grateful he is to have spent nearly six decades splashing around the North Shore surf. His art tells that story, too.
In the summer of 1975, after a year at UC Santa Barbara, Cunningham came home to Ehukai Beach Park on Oahu’s North Shore and started lifeguarding for the city and country of Honolulu. His perch happened to be the site of the famous Banzai Pipeline, an idyllic plot where dolphins leap beneath rainbows, crystalline water washes onto white sand, and “any surfer worth his salt” comes to play. “You’re gonna pay me to sit here and keep an eye on all of this?” Cunningham recalls thinking. Pre-jet skis, lifeguards depended on “in service training,” for preparedness. It became his business to swim, surf, and splash around all day. His second winter there, the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour was created. He “had a front-row seat for the birth of this crazy, billion-dollar industry.”
It was a classic, 1950s upbringing that preceded Cunningham finding his calling. Dad was an air traffic controller and Mom stayed home, or on the sand of nearby beaches, with Mark and his two older sisters. Mark was a pool rat who knew of everyone’s pool in the new suburb. To this day, flip-flops are his footwear of choice, and he calls them “go-aheads,” in true Hawaiian style.
He became a gangly teenager and spent much of his time swimming after surfboards, and learning to body surf from older locals. At the prestigious Punahou School, the expectation was to “become a banker, or a doctor… or the President of the United States.” (Yes, that President). He stayed on Oahu—happily, he’d add—with direct access to a surf culture gaining steam thanks to the pop-culture boom he calls the Gidget era. “All the surf riders before that were doing it for the love, the thrill and the wonderment. I salute those guys for playing in the ocean for the purest reasons.”
Gear-wise he’s a minimalist, wanting nothing but a Speedo (“it’s just efficient”), a layer of SPF (Vertra, made in Hawaii) and a pair of fins. Philosophically, he’s a purist. “To me, it’s about fun, freedom, exercise, and being intimate with the ocean. A contest format…is sort of foreign to the soul of the sport.” Of course, he’s long been a fixture on the competition circuit, relishing the chance to share usually bodyboard choked waves with his friends. “It’s sort of a gathering of the tribe.” Plus, he often wins.
It wasn’t until as recently as 2010 that he tasted some of the other brines on offer, bodysurfing Tahiti for the first time as a part of the Keith Malloy’s 2011 documentary “Come Hell or High Water.” He also enjoys Puerto Escondido (“the Mexican Pipeline”) and Ireland, which was something new for the Honolulu homebody, “I went to the Mother Land and here were my people. It so connected me to who I am.” He collected thousands of surfboard fins (called “skegs”) on these trips with his girlfriend Katye Killebrew, the two sensing something organic in the modern artifacts. Creating art was a natural next step.
His exhibition at New York’s Partners and Spade last June included a barnacle and coral encrusted pile of watches and 1,000 skegs that appear to be eroding into coral themselves. “They symbolize a passing of time. A sort of dust-to-dust, ashes-to-ashes thing,” he says. And maybe there’s something aspirational for Cunningham about the weathered, old surfing relics he saves. “The bar is set so high in our culture [to be] bigger, wilder, faster. I’m just happy to still be swimming in the ocean at my age. I’m very happy in my crusty old skin.” His ease goes beyond the surf cliché of hanging loose to a real sense of contentment. “Make sure your suit is tied tight, kick like hell, and come out of the water smiling,” he prescribes. “If you’re not smiling, you aren’t doing it right.”