Tomas Vu grew up in China Beach (Da Nang), Vietnam and made money by taking care of the surfboards of American G.I.s stationed in his city. One G.I. in particular took a liking to him, and introduced him to the Beatles. The modern technologies that made this man into a literal killing machine also allowed him to play the Beatles for a young boy from half a world away, changing Vu’s life and giving the G.I. a sense of personal redemption. This inherent tension of technology – its possibility to both enhance and destroy life – was apparent to Vu at a young age, and is the inspiration for his surfboards.
Vu’s imagery describes a dystopian vision of our future, an epic clash between man and machine, nature and technology, which he sees as the defining tension of our modern era. His drawings are burned multiple times onto the surface of the boards through the mechanized process of laser cutting, and their meanings and implications shift as they do.
Complicating this further are the Beatles songs with which the imagery is paired. Although the Beatles often explicitly protested “deeper meaning” being projected onto their works, the songs have become transcendent and universal. The songs are laser cut onto the boards at variable speeds and depths, with the lyrics often repeating and overlapping. Much like the possibilities for meaning created by the layering and repeating of drawings, the words lose their sense of narrative and context and are opened up to a wholly new set of implications.
By using a surfboard as his canvas, Vu forces these works back into the world. Just as the imagery will continue to mutate in the mind of the viewer, the boards will literally change, picking up history as they are used. The surfboards are modeled on the alaia, a pre-20th century Hawaiian surfboard that was traditionally between 7 and 12 ft long and made from koa wood. Vu’s boards, like many modern alaias, are constructed from paulownia wood rubbed with linseed oil. They are produced using natural material shaped with human hands, and are thus variable and imperfect. By using a mechanical, computerized tool to mark a surfboard made of natural materials and shaped by the human hand, these works hint at the redemptive potentiality of technology.