On Fire with Arson

Behind the Scenes with Santa Barbara’s Most Visible Surfer

Aaron Ernst
Courtesy Photo

If you have chased quality waves around the 805 with even a modest amount of seriousness during the past 20 years, then you have certainly encountered Aaron Ernst. His act in the water is unmistakable — his boards outrageous canvases of colorful and cartoonish artwork; his demeanor quiet, confident, and, to those who don’t know him, intimidating; his approach to wave riding simultaneously violent and fluid and always fast; his frontside tube riding on par with the best; and his wave count — well, lets just say, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the lineup; the man they call Arson gets his fair share. And then some. He is a surfer’s surfer who, whether you love him or hate him, is a critical part of the South Coast’s surfing landscape. Even better, contrary to the rumors, he is actually a pretty nice dude who also happens to be one heck of an artist.

Telling stories at the J7 Surfboards headquarters in the Funk Zone one recent afternoon, Jason Feist, the man behind the surfboards and longtime friend/shaper of Arson’s, recalled a certain winter day at Rincon nearly two decades ago. For Feist, the session came shortly after he had decided to make Santa Barbara his home. The swell was running, and, though he had surfed the Queen a number of times before, it was his first Class A day at the Point. After getting a few in-between and frustrating waves just below the Indicator, Feist finally locked into a good one: a solid overhead set wave that promised to bend and burn deep into the Cove.

Aaron Ernst

“It was a smoker, probably my first real, real good wave that I had caught out there. I’ll never forget it,” said Feist with a laugh. “The thing was just starting to set up at the top of the Cove, and then here comes Arson, dropping straight in, his board all bright and colorful and his long hair flowing behind him. He just stuffed me so hard with his bottom turn … I went straight into the beach and literally never wanted to surf Rincon again. I wanted to move home, I was so mad.” As if on cue, J7 co-owner and one of Arson’s lifelong best friends Tarik Khashoggi walked in just as Feist was finishing up. He heard the punch line about Arson’s drop-in and quickly added with a big smile, “Seriously, I think the two best waves of my life had Arson drop in on them. I’m not even kidding. And he is one of my best friends.” These stories are not isolated incidents.

The oldest of three and the big brother of two little sisters, Ernst was born at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital in the ’70s (his actual birth date is a moving target that he has little interest in helping you pin down). Further investigation reveals a surfing pedigree that puts him a handful of years younger than forty-something underground S.B. standouts Chris Brown and Josh Bradbury — Brown was the man who helped make the nickname Arson stick in high school after a surf contest announcer misread Ernst’s name on a heat sheet one weekend — and a few years older than the soon-to-be-29-year-old Khashoggi.

Such coyness, I have learned, is one of Arson’s many carefully cultivated skills. As is riding waves — and making pictures. “Basically, I have been drawing forever … When I think back to high school and middle school, its like those scenes from Charlie Brown with the teacher just going ‘Wa, wa, wa!’ and me sitting there drawing away on my notebook,” explained Ernst earlier this month during an interview at his lair. It is a modest studio apartment in the hills above the Montecito Country Club that, after some purposeful pruning of trees, offers him a perfect vantage point to check Sandspit, where a mutant wave breaks every so often at the mouth of the Santa Barbara Harbor.

The early-afternoon sun shone brightly into Arson’s bedroom. The walls were covered with large, boldly painted canvases depicting quasi-fantasy surf scenes that smacked of fun and energy and mischief. The corners of the room were stuffed with equally impressive painted-over surfboards and a decent collection of skulls. His hands and black Converse high-tops were smeared with paint, and his neck sported the tell-tale wetsuit tan line of a committed Southern California surfer in winter. It was clear that both surfing and art are fundamental constants for Arson, the two passions often dovetailing nicely with days spent in the ocean and nights spent working away with paint and pens.

As we talked over coffee, it became obvious that, although he is loud and outgoing and brash in the water, he is unassuming and pleasant and shy even on the land. He talked about his love for animals — cats especially    — and lit up about the wonders of surfing while listening to a waterproof iPod stashed beneath his wetsuit. “I never want to surf without my music again,” he said. “It’s like trying to dance without music or something for me now; it’s no fun.” He recounted the various dips and dives in his learning curve, taking his two decades’ worth of experience doing custom paint jobs on surfboards and trying to translate those heady artistic chops to the realm of more traditional, canvas-bound work. “I’m still learning, always learning, and just trying to paint as much as possible,” he said.

Arson cited people like Drew Brophy, Thomas Van Stein, and Jimbo Phillips and the world of Marvel Comics as his artistic inspiration and lit up once again when he told of his growing love for kite surfing, a hobby that is fast replacing his non-surfing-day passion of riding motorcycles. He waxed philosophic about his views on creating art and how your brain is just a “filter” in translating what you see in the world to how you capture it on paper, the end product saying as much or more about the person who created it as it does the actual subject matter. He stressed the importance of creating things you like rather than what you think other people would like or might want to buy. “Worrying about other people will drive you crazy,” Arson said. He is consistently humble, his voice quiet and soft but also always direct. He is not afraid of eye contact and laughed deeply when I ask him if he had some sort of master plan for his art. “Well, I don’t want to get a real job,” he replied.

Aaron Ernst
Paul Wellman

Eventually, the talk turned to surf etiquette, drop-ins, and “taking out the trash” — the latter a phrase Arson uses to describe his handling of people who drop in on him in which he dumps the offenders over the back of the wave without missing a beat. Like Feist and Khashoggi, I, too, have been burned by Arson more than once. But I have also always appreciated how directly he navigates the utter chaos that it is the lineup on any given day at S.B.’s more famed surf spots. Choosing his words carefully, he admitted, “There just aren’t enough waves for all the people who want to surf them these days. The sport has become just too trendy. On a good day at Rincon, there are what — maybe five good waves every 20 minutes with 250 people out? Do the math: Most of those guys are going to surf for a few hours and get maybe only one or two waves.”

Such a wave-starved fate does not sit easy with Arson, and so he acts, sometimes at the expense of the surfer coming down the line toward him. I asked him if he ever feels bad about it, and he laughed, “I don’t know. I mean, sure, yeah, I feel real bad.” His voice was devoid of sarcasm, but the sneaky and slight smile on his face said otherwise, and, for some reason, it made me feel good, real good, about the future of surfing.


To check out Arson’s wild and wacky world of art, visit arsonart.blogspot.com.


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