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Monday, July 26, 2010
OB's Bum Fight

The sticker that's drawn nationwide attention to the tiny San Diego surf town.

Ocean Beach, San Diego, has a long and interesting surf history. It was the site of the 1966 and 1972 World Surfing Championships. The first of these two events saw Nat Young ride his 9'4" Magic Sam to victory at the O.B. pier and thus introduce "involvement" surfing -- an evolutionary step in the Shortboard Revolution -- to the world. The 1972 contest, however, is most famous for its raucous anarchy. When event favorite David Nuuhiwa showed up with a Fish -- a board design invented in Ocean Beach -- locals balked, stole Nuuhiwa's board, and hung it's broken carcass from the pier with a message reading, "Good Luck David." In the 1980s, the wave at the O.B. pier saw competitive performances by Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupoo. And it was there in Ocean Beach that Occy hooked up with an unknown shaper working out of Canyon Surfboards -- Rusty Preisendorfer -- a collaboration that launched the Rusty brand into '80s dominance.

In the years between, partly due to its urban exposure and party due to its refusal to gentrify, Ocean Beach has earned an alternatively rebellious and tolerant reputation. In an odd cultural tick, these sides of the beach town have historically been expressed on prolific vinyl stickers. One of the oldest reads "U.S. out of O.B." Others read "Ocean Beach, an attitude, not an address," and "O.B., where the debris meets the sea."

Early this summer a three-inch green and gold sticker with the words, "Welcome to Ocean Beach, Please Don't Feed Our Bums," began appearing on the pier and on municipal signs around town. The stickers looked like National Parks signage and portrayed a 1930s "hobo" walking a dog. People immediately took the sticker as a dig against a young, homeless population that had taken up residence near the pier in recent years. They call themselves "travelers" and beg for money on street corners with cardboard signs and, often, puppies. The pier's homeless population became famous when a "bum fight" was caught on video and run repeatedly on TV news. Not long after, a nationally syndicated documentary featuring O.B.'s homeless pushed the movement to further renown. Then came the sticker.

The recent media scrutiny has even managed to fire up the local surfers who are keen to take their town back.

Many in the community were not amused by the "bum sticker" because they felt it eroded O.B.'s "tolerant" reputation. When a blog site called the OB Rag got a hold of the story and ranted against the sticker as "hate speech," attention from both print and TV news outlets was quick to follow. The local story then snowballed into a national conversation on homelessness and was featured on the covers of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune. An Associated Press story ran in newspapers all over the country and dozens of local TV news channels picked up the thread.

At the height of the debate, the OB Rag organized a protest against the one store selling the sticker, an Ocean Beach institution called The Black. The day of the protest drew a grab bag of reporters, those protesting the sticker and supporters citing the 1st Amendment's right of free speech. Others came to mock the whole episode. One protester held a sign that read, "Use Turn Signals," another's read, "Boycott the Trolls."

Interestingly in this saga, those supporting the sticker looked a lot like surfers. Employee Ken Anderson originally ordered the sticker for The Black, and confirmed that surfers in fact produced the "bum sticker." He said that the Point Loma High surf team practices at the pier, and that local surfers were fed up with the debauchery and violence going on there. But Anderson also said the sticker was simply "bad satire," and not intended as a campaign.

The Ocean Beach pier has long been a nexus for expression. As a gathering point, it is high profile, but there is also anonymity in the crowd. Although rumors have circulated about the original actors in the maiming of David Nuuhiwa's Fish, nearly 40 years have passed with out any public claims of responsibility. Likewise, the creators of the Ocean Beach "bum sticker" have yet to be identified.