‘Cardiff Kook’ Guerrilla Art Celebrated by California Community in New Book of Photography

There is a statue beside a beach in Southern California that observes holidays, celebrates birthdays and pays tribute to emergency responders better than most statues you’ll meet.

Known fondly as the “Cardiff Kook,” the bronze surfer in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, can be seen donning a cap and gown with a “Congratulations, Graduate!” balloon tied around its wrist one day and wearing a firefighter’s uniform the next. It has been nearly swallowed by a papier-mâché great white shark, posed as part of a Banksy tribute project and worn pink to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Some of the Kook’s displays are created by local artists; others come directly from Cardiff residents. Regardless of what it’s wearing, the Kook unifies the community and creates a unique sense of place for those who on any given day can wonder, “What will the Kook look like today?”

Cardiff Kook wearing mask
The “Magic Carpet Ride” statue along Highway 101 was photographed wearing a face mask during the onset of the pandemic, on March 15, 2020, in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The statue is celebrated in a new book of photography out this month. Published by the nonprofit Cardiff 101 Main Street Association, all proceeds from sales of The Cardiff Kook And His Magic Carpet Ride are expected to support the local business community.

Alison Wielechowski, the association’s program director, told Newsweek the book contains an estimated 90 to 100 photographs, the majority of which were taken and compiled by local business owner Fred Caldwell. The book includes a brief overview of how sculptor Matthew Antichevich was commissioned to create the statue by the Cardiff Botanical Society after submitting a proposal for the artwork in the mid-2000s.

Cardiff Kook photography book skier photo
The “Cardiff Kook” is ready to catch some air with his ski gear.
Cardiff 101 Main Street Association

The statue, officially titled Magic Carpet Ride, was unveiled in the summer of 2007 along Highway 101 near San Elijo State Beach. The community “was not thrilled with the final result,” Wielechowski said. As the book explains, experienced surfers and other critics initially took issue with the surfer’s stance on the board. The criticism eventually earned the Kook—a term used to describe an inexperienced surfer—its nickname.

Over time, costumes began appearing on the statue in what Wielechowski described as primarily good-natured demonstrations of guerrilla art.

“It kind of became this classic, iconic thing in Cardiff,” Wielechowski said.

Most of the Kook’s costumes are introduced in secrecy overnight.

“What I’ve heard is that you go—you don’t make a plan with anybody—you kind of go and see, and hopefully you’re the only one there to dress it up that day,” Wielechowski told Newsweek. Some of the costumes are taken down by the next group that visits the Kook to add its own decorations; some are removed over time by officials with the local parks and recreation department. When displays deemed “inappropriate” are introduced to the statue, officials are alerted and remove them, but Wielechowski said that doesn’t happen very often.

Cardiff Kook photography book 9/11
The “Cardiff Kook” pays tribute to first responders on the anniversary of 9/11.
Cardiff 101 Main Street Association

Caldwell told Newsweek he started photographing the Kook’s costumes shortly after they began appearing. Caldwell worked with the association, which owns the copyright to the statue’s image, to make postcards and calendars featuring his photographs.

The idea to create a book of photography starring the Kook began in late 2019 after Wielechowski received a call from a local resident who was interested in creating a photo collection for their personal library. In the months that followed, Wielechowski collaborated with Caldwell and former Cardiff 101 board member Susan Hays as the book started taking form. Grant money from San Diego County was approved to assist with the book’s printing costs as the nonprofit sought creative ways to support local businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, Wielechowski said.

The book’s photographs are organized in three sections: “Art Imitating Art,” “Causes” and “Celebrations.” Photos of the Kook dressed as Wonder Woman, the Cookie Monster, Alice in Wonderland and more fill the first section, as do photos of larger projects carried out by local artists, such as the papier-mâché shark attack credited to Eric Hardtke and tributes to Vincent van Gogh and Banksy carried out by Bryan Snyder. The book’s second section includes memorials and issue-oriented displays, while the final section focuses on birthdays, proposals and other personal celebrations.

Cardiff Kook photography book St. Valentine
The “Cardiff Kook” honors Valentine’s Day.
Cardiff 101 Main Street Association

“There are real intense images with the big, huge, two-page spreads of the larger times that the Kook has been dressed up, or swallowed by a shark, or attacked by a kraken, or whatever it is,” Wielechowski said. “And then you have the smaller ones that are just like, ‘Happy Birthday Susan.'”

“People use it now as just a signpost for any kind of event or celebration,” Caldwell said of the statue. He described the book of photography as “a historic thing” and said he is “wholeheartedly behind” creating a second edition so long as locals continue finding creative ways to outfit the Kook.

Wielechowski said that there “absolutely” could be subsequent editions of the collection.

“That’s the exciting part: It’s the growth and change of our community with the constant, you know? The change is the different decoration, but the constant is the Kook that will be there,” she said.

“It’s just such an eclectic book of the community.”

Robert G. Mull

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