The Danny Fuller Interview
Interview by Eric Greene
Opening portrait by Robyn Penn. All other images by Zak Noyle.
Danny Fuller is a professional at every level. He takes shit seriously. He’s the kind of guy who you email about something and he phones you five minutes later to discuss. He gets things done. Born and raised in Hawaii and now based in Los Angeles, Danny has lived the largest life of a pro surfer, and several other lives outside of it. His social and professional networks are immense—a pure reflection of his character as a cool person and good human. Now a family man, he splits his time chasing big swells to the world’s heaviest breaks with logging long hours in his art studio, working on creations for upcoming exhibits. After hitting it big in the fashion industry as a model, his hands are now filthy in the insular and prestigious world of fine art. This is a retrospect of Danny Fuller, from past to present.
Were you born and raised on Kauai?
Yeah, I grew up in Hanalei and moved to Oahu when I was 15 to chase the dream of becoming a professional surfer. I was in the tenth grade when I told my mom I wanted to do homeschooling. She said I needed to get a job if I was going to do that, so I told her that my job would be professional surfing. That was the beginning of it all [laughs].
Did you first get into surfing through your friends? Wasn’t your dad a lifeguard?
No. I don’t know where that statement first got misunderstood, but my dad lived on Maui and was never really a part of my life. My sister and I were raised by my mother and my uncles on Kauai. My uncles were all surfers and would always take us to the beach growing up when my mom was working and raising two kids as a single parent.
How did you first break into the fashion world with your modeling career?
It was quite random. I was living on the North Shore at the time and people were always coming there for shoots. I was asked a few times to stand in on editorials or in backgrounds and whatnot, and then did a show called “The Boarding House” that aired on WB. After that, I was returning home from the best surf experience of my life in Tahiti when my friend, Joel Tudor, convinced me to come visit him in New York first. I ended up staying there for a while and got connected with an agent. That was the start of the modeling.
Did you move to New York as soon as you got an agent?
Well, I got a girlfriend on that first trip there and a few weeks went by, where I was oblivious and didn’t really know what was happening. It was the partying time of my life [laughs]. There was a lot of back and forth, doing trips for work, and by the time I was 25 I was fully bicoastal between New York and LA. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife [Tori Praver], needed to be in New York fulltime for her work as a model and I wanted to pursue my work as an artist, so we moved there for two years. It seemed like the most ridiculous decision to chase a pipe dream, but looking back on it now, I don’t think there was another option for us at the time.
So in the prime of your professional career as a big wave surfer, you were living in New York fulltime?
Yeah. I was very fortunate to stay relevant in the surfing world while living there. I had just starting working for RVCA and I told the founder, Pat Tenore, that I was moving to New York to work in art and fashion. He was like, “That’s fantastic!”
Did you grind for waves on the East Coast or only do destination trips for big swells?
I told myself that I needed to become a winter warrior, so I brought a bunch of boards and wetsuits out with me. I found myself on the A train out to Rockaway one morning, where the waves do get really good, but this particular morning was fuck-you freezing and the waves were so bad. After that, I started to really monitor swells and would go weeks or even months without surfing. I made sure that I was on top of it for south swells hitting Tahiti because I needed those opportunities. It was a fine contrast of the Concrete Jungle and Mother Nature when I’d bounce between New York and doing surf trips.
How did the mainstream city life change you as a person?
There is no other place like New York City. The pulse of the city and its energy infected me the first day I was there. Being there had such a significant impact on my life as a person and as an artist. I definitely look back on the two years I spent there fulltime, where I was young and so driven to further my interests and experiences. I was so vetted in having a better understanding of art and theory, and everything is so accessible for that. It was home for a time and I took something from there that will always be with me. But looking back on it now, I think, “How the fuck did I live there for two years?”
Did you catch heat from your surfing peers when you first moved to New York to pursue modeling?
Not really, because I was still able to maintain the lifestyle of a big wave pro surfer. Juggling the two careers has been challenging at times, but people seem to be supportive and inspired by it. The people I’ve known my whole life know that I’ve always been interested in art and they’ve seen me take the risks to make it happen. I wouldn’t say I’m successful in any way, but I’ve put myself out of my comfort zone and done what it takes in the art world, just like I’ve always done in big wave surfing.
The macho Hawaiian surf culture seems so opposite from the fashion world. Did you have any reservations or weird experiences when you started pursuing two contrasting careers?
Oh my god. Coming from Hawaii to the fashion world was so foreign to me. The first editorial shoot I did, they put me in a Speedo, rubbed a tanning agent on my legs, and put extensions in my hair. I had a fucking meltdown. I called my agent and was like, “What the fuck is this? I have an image I need to maintain and this is fucking bullshit.” I learned quickly that the fashion world is what it is [laughs]. It’s the polar opposite of where I came from and I really didn’t enjoy being a model, but I met some incredible friends and had great experiences through it. I also worked with the most amazing photographers, who were so open to my curiosity about photography and really helped me by sharing their techniques. That was always what got me through the day doing that job. I would try to absorb everything that was happening around me.
You worked on a Chanel campaign with Kathryn Bigelow [Academy Award winner for The Hurt Locker and Director of Point Break]. How did you get that role?
That’s a funny story. It originally came together through my agent, but they were holding castings all over the globe. I went to one in Santa Monica and they were casting for a guy who looked like a model, but was a semi-professional surfer. I showed up and there were all these dudes oiled up and doing pushups with their boards they probably picked up at a garage sale on the way there. I isolated myself as soon as I got there because I knew I couldn’t associate myself with the other guys. They told us to go down to the beach, catch a wave, and come back up to look in the camera and tell them about ourselves. The waves were totally shitty, but I rode one, came up to the camera and said, “My name is Danny Fuller and I’m a professional big wave surfer, unlike the rest of these fucking guys.” It sounds cocky, but I needed to set myself apart. My agent called me a few hours later and said that Kathryn wanted to meet me.
Did your career in fashion first get your interested in the art world?
Tori and I are both from Hawaii, but we met in New York City. At that time, I was doing fashion stuff and slowly pushing forward with my photography. Spending time in that environment for my work and relationship led to developing more interest in art and filling the void of my day-to-day routine with photography being my creative practice.
As a surfer, your double life is an anomaly. Does it add balance to escape the surfing scene sometimes?
Surfing has ultimately given me everything I have in life. All my experiences in having a relationship with the ocean and Mother Nature have taught me how to make sacrifices for my future and my family’s future. I live in the city by choice. I’d love to be in Hawaii just chilling on the beach every day, but I can’t turn my back on everything I’ve worked towards. My wife and I both work really hard for the opportunities we have.
You’re friends with Julian Schnabel. How did you meet him?
I’m really good friends with Julian. We met in Hawaii years ago when I really knew nothing about art or who he was. At the time, I didn’t know much of anything, but he came to the North Shore with Herbie Fletcher and I was so drawn to his presence. We had great conversations and got along really well as soon as we met, and we surfed together a bunch at Pipeline and Ehukai Beach.
Julian Schnabel surfs Pipeline?
Well, when it’s small [laughs]. He’s a good surfer, but when you live in a city, you don’t find yourself in the water as much as you’d like and you can experience the term of being “rusty” [laughs]. I can relate. It’s funny because when I later moved to New York, his name would come up sometimes in various settings and I’d say, “Oh, that guy is actually a good friend of mine,” and people would not take me seriously. I’ve been very fortunate to have a relationship with him. He’s been an encouraging and inspiring friend from early on when I first wanted to share my work.
That must have been a major confidence boost to have someone like him to confide in when you first decided to pursue art.
Absolutely. When you put yourself out of your comfort zone, there will always be moments of defeat or thoughts on giving up, but that’s what good friends are for—to push you and pick you back up. I hold Julian highly as a friend and a mentor.
When did you first start showing your artistic side to the public?
I believe it was in 2007. It was so bizarre and seems absolutely crazy looking back on it now. When I put my mind to something, I won’t stop until I achieve the final goal that I first visualized. So when I started working on my first series of Moonscapes, I knew I wouldn’t settle for anything less than having a solo show in New York City. I first shared the work with mentors and influential people I knew, and was encouraged to push forward with it. I went on a surf trip to Tavarua, Fiji, where I met a guy named Scott Murphy. We hit it off on a big night of debauchery and the following morning I showed him my work. He offered to connect me with some gallerists in New York. He believed in me more than I believed in myself and ended up financing my first show at a time when I could barely afford to produce one final print. I can’t thank him enough for doing that and he’s become one of my best friends who has been along for the ride since Day One.
Was the debut show a success?
Yeah, it was. I sold enough to pay Scott back and break even. From there, I was able to sell some more work directly and have three more solo shows. I eventually got to the point of being able to finance my own shows and not worry about the money behind production. The last show I had was Meditation on Blue, which was on Long Island with Adam Lindemann and we sold it out.
What are the differences in character between Danny Fuller the surfer and Daniel Fuller the artist?
When I first approached art in a public capacity, I felt like “Daniel” sounded more professional, but I also wanted to separate my practice as an artist from the surfer Danny Fuller. I didn’t want to be categorized as a “surf artist” in any way or form. I realized over time and through a text that Adam Lindemann put together that my relationship with the ocean as a surfer truly goes hand in hand with how I approach my practice as an artist.
Do you categorize your art as photography?
It’s interesting because I’ve been doing it for quite a few years now and your work and vision constantly evolve. The medium is photography, but I look at it like an alternative practice to painting, where I document a painterly performance with my camera. Like, the natural elements and movements of the ocean and the wind are my key subject matters. I feel like I’m capable of trying to evoke the emotion and force of the ocean through the photos I create.
Considering the photographer as an artist, what are your thoughts on the technical aspects of photography and quality of camera equipment vs. the pure artistic eye?
I guess there’s a lot more time and thought process that goes into my work than just taking a photo of something. I’m aiming to capture a moment of time that offers a feeling or emotion. I mean, these days, who the fuck isn’t a photographer? Look at how good our iPhones are and how many cameras are available and how much amazing imagery is already out there. I definitely think about wanting to be a fine art photographer and questioning how realistic that is, but I feel like there’s a lot more depth to my work than it just being a snapshot.
What about presentation? Like, size and print material of the end product?
Over time, I’ve realized the largest scale possible is what provides the best experience. I went from 30X30 to 40X60 and now 70X70, where I feel like it offers something physical to the viewer.
You’re working on an upcoming show now and recently opened a new studio?
I’m working on a big show right now for late summer or early fall here in LA. I moved into a new studio last October, which is my first proper creative workspace, and wow, what a game changer. It’s been so good to have my own spot to spend time with the work and I have several printers to do proper physical viewing. Looking at a JPEG is just not the same experience [laughs]. I’m spending a lot of time there right now, trying to put all the work in context for this upcoming show.
Has becoming a father made you focus more on art over big wave surfing?
Being a father has been the best chapter of my life and I feel like everything I experienced in life before this prepared me for it. It’s a lot of work, but at the same time it pushes you to make the best of every day and feed your full potential—whatever it is you’re doing. It’s inspiring, but I don’t think it’s really changed my priorities with art or surfing. I wish I still had the freethinking of a child.
So being a family man hasn’t altered your mindset on surfing waves of consequence?
I’ve experienced some very tragic events that have happened before my eyes as a big wave surfer—things that have put a lot of things in context for me. I feel comfortable and know that I have no ego or jealousy involved when I’m surfing. I’m doing everything for myself and my own personal experience. Therefore, I have the confidence and judgment in my own abilities. Knowing that calms me down and allows me to make calculated decisions.
Your wife is a successful designer. You two work in different mediums, but do you feel like you collaborate together, creatively?
With the four careers we have going, it can be pretty hectic at times, but we help each other out as much as we can. We have a really full schedule and things are always changing, but we keep it together and find inspiration in each other. To see what she’s achieved with her swimwear line is absolutely incredible.
Outside of your legacy as a big wave surfer, as well as your career in fashion, what do most people not know about you as an artist?
I feel like most people don’t really understand me as an artist or they have preconceived judgments of me trying to do photography. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but I’d really like everyone to physically experience my work firsthand one day. I’m going to continue doing what I do because I love the experience of it and the path it’s taken me on. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I’m going to try to be the best for myself and everyone else.
This article was published in LATER. magazine Issue 7, 2015.