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Surf Icon: Buttons Kaluhiokalani


I had the honor of photographing pro surfer, icon, and North Shore legend Buttons Kaluhiokalani at his home break in Oahu, Hawaii. Upon first meeting Mr. Kaluhiokalani he was washing sand off his feet and stowing away a surfboard from his morning session. It was a fitting first impression. There is a tradition in Hawaii when you visit someone’s home that you should bring a gift. Food or drink is always welcome so Jamie and I brought a chocolate haupia cream pie from Ted’s Bakery, a North Shore favorite for both locals and tourists.

My pie-hole would have to wait for that chocolate haupia cream (on our second trip back to Ted’s later that day). We sat for 30 minutes talking with Buttons in his living room and getting acquainted. I was warmly referred to over the phone and now in person as “Brotha Jay.” The entire shoot only lasted 2 hours, but he treated us like we had known him for years. How cool was that? As cool as getting to photograph a portrait of one of my favorite surfers in front of his home break. The images below are of Buttons at a spot known as “Backyards.”

Buttons Kaluhiokalani. North Shore Oahu, Hawaii


For more info on Buttons, check out his recent interview on Liquid Salt and look for the film Stylemasters directed by Greg Weaver and Sypder Wills. Filmed in the mid to late 70’s, Stylemasters is a time capsule of North Shore surfing during the evolution of the short board.  It features jaw dropping footage of Buttons. His athleticism is stunning, and his riding is from outer space! Surfer Magazine listed Buttons as one of the 50 greatest surfers of all time. Jeff Divine wrote, “There were no real top turns the way you see them today. But Buttons showed up and started spinning 360s, putting his board on an edge, breaking the fin free and trying airs. He’d busted the performance door down before the Aussies ever showed up.” At age 51, Buttons now runs a surf school, and shares the stoke once a month by taking mentally and physically challenged kids surfing with Access Surf. He has also recently started tow-in surfing for when the waves are exceptionally big. An icon, and still at it.

Interesting surf info: I asked Buttons who was the first person he saw ride switch foot and he answered “Jock Sutherland.”

Mahalo to Glen Sakamoto of Liquid Salt Magazine for helping out with the shoot.



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Jay Watson
San Francisco Bay Area based lifestyle and people photographer Jay Watson shoots editorial, apparel, automotive, corporate, and sports subjects for commercial clients. Published in over 70 magazines.

4 Responses to Surf Icon: Buttons Kaluhiokalani

  1. I have met Buttons a few times and you said it best….A true super cool great guy!! God Bless Buttons and to all your family Braddah!!

  2. KB-Thanks for visiting. Lucky you got to hang with him more than once. If you have not seen it yet, go check out Stylemasters. Let me know what you think.

  3. WHile living on Oahu for six months, I had the pleasure of meeting Buttons and his awesome family. He and his cousin Kowika gave my seven-year-old daughter a few lessons. I’m not big into surfing, so I had no idea how much of an icon Buttons is and you would never know it from the way he carries himself. He is a very humble and down-to-earth man and it was a pleasure spending time with his family and him. In all my time on Oahu, I felt the most aloha whenever my daughters and I spent time with them. Mahalo Kovika, Hiriata, Nuutea, CIndy, and Buttons.

  4. @Meche – Thanks for sharing your story about Buttons. Sounds like an epic 6 months in a great place. Next time you are in Oahu you should go surfing with Buttons. He runs a nice surf school now.

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