Allow me to spare you from the disappointment of hyperbole—there is no surfing in Ohio.
Much like jumbo shrimp, the Hell’s Angels, and Christian Scientists, the popular apparel brand SURF OHIO presents a playful contradiction. What began as an OU grad studiously creating a pastiche design for a bootleg Beach Boys touring tee—then reading “Surf Olentangy”—eventually became one of the most iconic surfing brands out of the Midwest, worn onstage by the likes of The Black Keys, Guided by Voices, and even by members of the surfin’ icons themselves, The Beach Boys. The brand made its way into television shows based in Ohio before product placement even existed, their wall of fame including photos of Michael J. Fox, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ron Howard, among others, proudly sporting SURF OHIO garb.
So how did this happen?
Well, let’s call it a series of fortunate events…
As long as Ron Kaplan can remember, he’s had an obsession with the California Myth—that iconic ’60s zeitgeist sold by the Wilson brothers of West Coast surfing, street rod culture, beach parties, and tiki bars.
“Being born and raised in Columbus, and attending Whetstone High, part of it may have been the allure of something that was out of reach,” Kaplan said. “Given the choice, I was always painting hot rods, beach scenes, surfers in the curl—the things that accompanied the soundtrack of my life at that point in time, the early and mid ’70s. I was likely the only Ohio subscriber to Surfing and Surfer magazines in 1974 and 1975, and couldn’t get enough of the contents, the images, even the advertisements.”
It began with a satirical piece he wrote while attending Whetstone High School in 1976 about a fictitious Hawaiian transfer student, a column that became the genesis of the “Surf Olentangy” idea that struck him as a t-shirt design later that summer.
The next year, Kaplan attended OU as a design major, creating a handful of moderately popular designs, including the infamous DISCO SUCKS tee. He wanted to complete the coastal prophecy by attending UCLA, and planned a move to gain residency before enrolling. His dad, a former OSU fencing coach and then a professor in OSU’s Health Ed Department, not so subtly knocked that idea off its board.
“[He] knew an unfettered year in Southern California might send me on an errant path. Since I had literally grown up on Ohio Se’s campus, he offered to pay for any other state school of my choosing in Ohio.”
He trekked down to Athens to check out the campus, and while there, popped into a concert, too. It was The Beach Boys, of course, which seemed to help seal the deal, even though he had to switch to graphic design from radio/TV when he got there.
“I hadn’t bothered to research and arrived to find that they had no computers!” he laughed.
As he was now miles away from his beloved Olentangy, Kaplan decided to change the name to SURF OHIO, and Kaplan had a hit, selling his design to hundreds of students ready to head out of town for summer break.
After graduation, Kaplan worked out of his parent’s garage, earning a small cult following, working odd jobs and making connections to get his brand to a larger audience. Eventually, his big wave arrived in 1978. After seeing a Dispatch article about a young L.A. musician named Sterling Smith from Gahanna who had become the tour and studio musician for (guess who? The Beach Boys). Kaplan, still, ever the dorm-room hustler, tracked down the phone number for his parents and called his mom. They arranged, ahead of a Beach Boys outdoor show at Edgewater Raceway Park near Cincinnati, for Sterling to get some SURF OHIO shirts and give them to the band. It would take a few years for Kaplan’s connection to complete with the band itself, but Smith came through on his end, sporting the SURF OHIO proudly from behind the keys.
“I still have the photo I took with my Kodak Instamatic,” Kaplan said. “I had no idea that I’d eventually meet them all and often over the next 40 years! But Sterling was the guy, and he soon helped me meet and present SURF OHIO shirts to Jan & Dean, too, when they played the Ohio Theater in 1980. A local kid helping an even younger local kid.”
In 1982, Kaplan opened his own design firm, Kaplan Graphics. By that time, surf culture was creeping into the mainstream, and retailers took notice, including members of the Ohio Film Commission, who were happy to help get his shirts on screen.
After years of commercial success, annual SURF OHIO beach parties, (most famously taking place in the now renamed “Wyandotte Lake”) and producing versions of SURFs for 22 Ohio locales and 15 other states/cities, including SURF AUSTIN, SURF CHICAGO and more, Kaplan found a new viable career in 1996, fulfilling Warbird Aviation Art commissions, writing for Flight Journal magazine. Unable to fulfill both roles, especially when he landed a development director role in 1998, Kaplan simply could not stop to create the new SURF OHIO artwork.
So SURF OHIO lay dormant.
That is, until someone else took notice in 2007.
This time it was an even younger local kid helping out.
With the 30th anniversary approaching, Kaplan realized surfohio.com was available and grabbed it, a motivating factor to bring back the brand. Then his former partner called him about someone who wanted to pay HOMAGE.
“He said some young kid from Bexley named Ryan Vesler was asking if he could do some SURF OHIO shirts for his mail order company. I said, ‘Well, let’s talk…”
That meeting was just as serendipitous and successful as the one 30 years earlier with Smith. Vesler was running HOMAGE from his parents’ basement—something Kaplan could certainly connect to. Not only would he assist Kaplan in reviving the brand, but he’d “supercharge” its return, selling the retro one-color 1980 designs as far away as Japan and Europe, and landing them on the backs of Ohio’s burgeoning rock stars.
“Ryan was certainly key to introducing the concept to a whole new generation,” Kaplan said. “It was fun to get reports and photos from Ryan and fans as various contemporary celebs were seen wearing SURF OHIO—the Black Keys, Guided by Voices, Walk The Moon, and pro surfer Rob Machado among them.”
Now, SURF OHIO is sailing into its 40th year, which, along with any major milestone, means one thing: new merch. Fortune smiled upon this momentous event as the 100-year-old brewing company out of Baja, Pacifico Beer, sent out an email inquiring about a partnership without even knowing that the milestone for the brand was on the horizon.
“The 40th anniversary aspect was icing on the cake, or the head on a beer, so speak. Both are iconic surf brands with legacies going back decades—Pacifico is from Baja and the West Coast surf scene, and SURF OHIO in the Midwest. It was meant to be as our interests are aligned, such as supporting Hero USA and its river cleanup events.”
I guess all that’s left to say is simple: surf’s up Columbus, the old school legends are back.
Visit surfohio.com to find all new SURF Ohio shirts, hats, beach towels, stickers, and more. Oh, and The Beach Boys are playing at the Ohio State Fair, Wednesday July 25.