Ultimate Renegades | The Christian Fletcher Interview
How a snotty young punk from California changed professional surfing for good.
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. Christian Fletcher is one of the most out there examples in surfing. In the late 80s and early 90s he shook the professional scene to its core with his punk rock attitude and attention-grabbing aerials. Having battled through well-publicised drug and alcohol problems he's still a fixture on the scene, and still playing by his own rules.
“I like speed. All kinds. I just refrain from doing some kinds of it now." Christian Fletcher confronts the camera sunglasses on, cigarette in hand, with the flicker of a smile playing across his face. He’s reined in some of his more self-destructive habits these days, he tells the interviewer, but the footage on screen shows him screaming through tight-packed traffic on his motorbike, weaving in and out of the cars like a testosterone-fuelled teenager. He might be nearing his 50th birthday, but it’s clear that the legendary hell-raiser has no real intention of slowing down any time soon.
In fairness, it’s hardly surprising that Christian Fletcher isn’t your average forty-something-year-old. Christian Fletcher has never been your average anything. In the space of a few short, explosive seasons in the late 80s and early 90s this brash, young upstart shook up the world of professional surfing in such a way that his influence is still felt today.
Born in Hawaii in 1970, Fletcher moved to California with his family at the age of four and started surfing young. The sport was in his blood. His father, Herbie Fletcher, was a legendary longboarder who had met his mother surfing. Her father Walter Hoffman, also a surfer, was the man who made Hawaiian shirts famous after one of his designs cropped up in Magnum P.I. Fletcher’s aunt was the two-time world champion Joyce Hoffman.
Under his father’s tutelage Christian’s talent developed quickly, but it also developed in a different direction. His parents were all about laid-back, longboarding vibes - Herbie counted members of the Grateful Dead among his friends - but Christian, who came of age in the late 1980s, preferred thrash metal, tattoos and skateboarding. These influences fed directly into his surfing as his forged his own path, first as an amateur and then as an increasingly high-profile pro. Rather than cruisey carves Christian was all about aggressive cutbacks and, most importantly, getting airborne.
"The world’s best wave riders wrote to the editors of Surfer demanding that they stop featuring him in their magazine."
Surfers had started experimenting with aerials in the late 70s, but it was Christian and his crew who took it to the next level, boosting higher than anyone previously and taking tricks straight from skateboarding - indy’s, mute grabs and the like. It’s strange to think now, in an era when aerials are an essential part of every competition surfer’s arsenal, but back in the late 80s getting airborne wasn’t just uncommon, it was frowned upon. It was messy and inelegant, more traditional surfers said. It somehow wasn’t ‘real’ surfing.
If Christian’s aerial tricks got people’s backs up, the in-your-face, punk rock attitude (which also came straight from skateboarding) didn’t help matters. Famous for trash-talking other surfers, he also showed scant regard for the etiquette of the line-up. “I was in a heat with Christian Fletcher," Ozzie Wright told Surf Europe magazine recently, “and he dropped in on me and did an air. And then on the next wave, I was paddling out and he did an air straight over the top of me. They were such punks."
Of course a young, brash surfer playing fast and loose with convention was like catnip to the media. Aerials made for great magazine photos, and by the early 90’s Christian had landed on the cover of both Surfer and Surfing. Appalled by the publicity this snotty young upstart was getting, a collection of the world’s best wave riders (including the top 16 on the ASP World Tour) wrote to the editors of Surfer demanding that they stop featuring him in their magazine.
Their sniffy letter makes for entertaining reading today. Even at the time, it only served to burnish Christian’s reputation as the ultimate rebel. As Matt Warshaw, managing editor of Surfer at the time, explained: “Easiest decision of the month was to put [that] letter at the front of the ‘Post’ column, at which point I sat back and waited for readers to slaughter them. Which they did."
But while the surfing public loved him, ASP judges hated him as much as the world tour competitors. “The judges could never do what Christian was doing. He was so far ahead of everyone else," his mother, Dibi told the New York Times recently. She maintains that they didn’t understand his manoeuvres, let alone know how to score them. Which is true up to a point, but Christian was certainly capable of winning contests.
In 1989 he took home the biggest prize purse ever awarded in surfing at that stage in the Body Glove Bout. More often than not, it was just that he wasn’t bothered. “I couldn’t give a f*ck about being world champion," he once told Surfing magazine. On at least one occasion he rode a wave into the beach with two middle fingers up, aimed squarely at at the judges’ booth.
Off the water Fletcher was, if anything, even more uncompromising. He was photographed for Juice magazine wearing a gimp suit. He played in LA metal bands with names like Axefukk and Mutilage. At one stage he counted an Orange County porn store called Spankys among his sponsors. He fell in with the Hell’s Angels and found himself on the wrong side of the law on more than one occasion. In a hard partying industry, Christian gained a reputation for partying particularly hard.
As the 90s wore on all the excess began to catch up with him. He went through prolonged periods of heroin addiction and the punky-looking surfboard and apparel brand he’d founded in 1991 failed. Even as his influence on surfing became more and more obvious, with aerials becoming de rigueur in both contests and videos, Christian himself was fading. At one stage he gave up surfing altogether.
“When you’re cautious, you end up going over the falls in life in general. Cautious means you hesitate. The way I look at it is, you commit or you don’t – and I commit."
In many ways it’s surprising that Christian has made it through to the age of 46. But with the help of his supportive family (including his son Greyson Fletcher, himself a talented skater) he’s pulled it around in recent years. As he tells the filmmakers behind the What Youth profile, he still loves to surf - preferably “really fast, shallow, hollow reefs". And as their footage shows, he still loves “riding street bikes" and heavy metal. But his mantra these days is ‘live fast, die last.’ It’s a motto that suggests he’s learned from his long experience, and (dare I say it) become not just older, but wiser.
That’s not to say the legendary troublemaker has been tamed. “I’m not cautious," he tells What Youth. “When you’re cautious, you end up going over the falls in life in general. Cautious means you hesitate. The way I look at it is, you commit or you don’t – and I commit." And that’s Fletcher in a nutshell. Still brash, bold, uncompromising and 100 percent committed to doing things his way.
The Jeep Ultimate Renegades
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.