Tre’lan grew up with little exposure to the surfing world. When he reflects on his childhood, he recalls his parent’s dislike for spending time outdoors and camping trips that never happened. So when Tre’lan was 16, he started camping.
Growing up land-locked in a mostly-rural state, he didn’t have much exposure to beaches or mountains. Like most people of color (myself included), Tre’lan never thought of surfing as an available option — that is until a series of circumstances landed him in Kaua’i, where he eventually picked up the sport. Tre’lan has lived in Kaua’i for the past seven years. It’s the fourth largest island in Hawaii, and it’s primarily known for its abundant rainforest that takes up much of its surface.
He initially began to surf in search of community and friendship on the island, but quickly realized that making friends in the water is challenging when you’re not good at surfing. In 2017, he attended the Pe’ahi Challenge, a surfing competition that takes place at Jaws — a big wave surfing break. It’s there that he witnessed gentlemen surfing waves up to 55 feet tall, an experience that he says changed the trajectory of his life. Since then, Tre’lan has been working towards competing in the Pe’ahi challenge himself and possibly becoming the first Black person to ever do so.
by Caitlin Rounds
01. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Tre’lan Micheal, I’m an artist, a big wave surfer, model. I try to be as good of a person as I can. I’m originally from Oklahoma, grew up in landlocked. I didn’t really see much ocean growing up other than Galveston, so that was very interesting. Then I moved to Hawaii maybe six or seven years ago, and I learned to surf over there — it was quite the journey.
02. Where’s home?
Oklahoma is where my family lives. I lived there as long as I had to, in all honesty — it was kind of one of those situations. I started hitting the road doing cross-country trips when I was like 17. Just loading up my car doing entire cross-country trips solo at 16, 17, 18, going as far as California to the East Coast, sometimes Florida, just exploring. As far as growing up in Oklahoma, I enjoyed my family, but I didn’t enjoy most of the other things we had to deal with living in the South. People consider Oklahoma the midwest, but it’s North Texas, you know what I mean?
03. You’re an artist, what’s your medium?
I used to paint a lot more, but these days I pretty much work in collage — I do a lot of hand-cut collage. I collect magazines anywhere from 1920 all the way up to 2021, so I have 100 years worth of materials to span through, work with, and create the things that come to me. I have everything from Old Magic Society to magazines to Nat Geo to Matisse, and Salvador Dali, and surrealist and expressionist paintings, and old Taschen books, and creative works. It’s just kind of matching and creating a lot of magnificent things. I’ve never been great at realism, so if I can take the elements of realism that I thoroughly want to create, but don’t have the ability to create with my own hands, and use the tactics of placement, and balance, and color, and style, and mash it all together in this beautiful thing, that brings a lot of relief and release just creating with what’s already here.
04. What would you say to someone who is just starting to surf?
Persistence, presence, and dedication are your friends. You’re gonna take knocks, you’re gonna feel discouraged, and at the same time, you can use those to fuel your fire. [Surf] is a very difficult thing, but it’s also a very rewarding pursuit, process, and life-changing experience — so stick with it. There’s a lot of things that could get in your way, but there’s a lot of people who love this practice beyond the surface.
05. Kaui is so far away from the “mainland”, why did you decide to make the move, and how did you make that happen?
I signed up to teach English in Sri Lanka back in 2014, and that fell through. At the time, I sold all of my worldly possessions because I was planning to go live in Sri Lanka, teach English, and live off the grid. But I wasn’t able to get a work visa so I thought, “What’s the closest I can do to that at this time?” and it was Moloka’i or Kaui. I still wasn’t versed enough in living in the tropics to live that far off the grid, and I still needed some of the modern conveniences before I decided to branch off, like I did in later times. But it was pragmatic in all honesty. I looked around and decided that this was the furthest I could go, it’s the furthest west point on all of “America” — but it’s an occupied territory.
06. What do you think the world needs more of?
The world could benefit greatly from people being more compassionate, or actually caring. Not fixing everything for everyone else, because who are you to know what’s best for me? Unless I’ve expressed that to you — and that goes for everyone on the planet. To actually take the time to listen to what it is that people need is a consistent process that I’m going through myself. It’s important to be of service in the way that people want you to be of service to them. I would say that the world would probably make faster changes if we all listened to one another beyond superficially listening or making a show of things. Not everything has to be a big deal. You can’t give every homeless person a dollar, but you can definitely do your part.
07. How do you identify the issue of inclusivity?
Inclusivity goes beyond color — I think that’s the issue. There’s gender exclusivity, and sexuality exclusivity, and all of this other s***. We take such narrow views on everything and I think that’s one of the largest problems with inclusivity: we have such narrow, insular views. I learned through surfing that if you can take the time and pause a situation (not just solely react), but take a second to breathe, see, and react — that can change a lot of things. But we live in a reaction-based society where everything is going at break-neck speed, moving so fast that a lot of people don’t remember that you always have the option to take a second before you react. Taking a second to realize that you’re dealing with another human being, even if they may look different, be different, or be an abrasive individual at their most un-kind, they’re human beings. You have to realize that they’ve had experiences that created the individual that you see before your eyes, and we can treat them with respect too — even if it’s not reciprocated, and that may change their entire perspective.
08. Aside from surf, how else do you like to get recreational?
It’s not recreational, but I love sleep — it’s my favorite *laughs*, but I love hiking and I spend a lot of time running around in the jungle. I haven’t been able to do it so much here [in California], but I’ve done a couple of walks in the desert, I’ve explored around here, I’ve been up to Big Sur, and things like that.
09. Dream collaborations — tell us about them.
Working with Grant “Twiggy” Baker or Billy Kemper training for Jaws. To surf with one of them for my inaugural session would be a major thing for me. Twiggy is South African, but Billy is the man from the island so I have a lot of respect for him. I would say that, or maybe working with HBO or Netflix on a docuseries.
10. How do you hope to leave your mark on the world?
By consistently being the best version of myself that I can be on a daily basis when I interact with people, leaving the legacy of who and how I was behind. I don’t even need people to know that I existed so long as I leave somebody’s day better on a consistent basis, and it ripples on, I’m happy with that.
Photos provided by Tre’lan Michael
Edited by Rey Joaquin