It all began with a ratty 1973 Dodge Tradesman van the moment Tyler turned sixteen. You know, the van that your uncle had in the 70s with the carpeting, captain’s chairs, wood paneling, and the rear bench seat that turned into a bed. Only this one had already seen its prime long ago. It was an eyesore at best, but it was literally the vehicle that launched Tyler’s career as a surfer, shaper, and hot rod builder. The Dodge would soon be packed full of El Segundo kids and their shortboards for afternoon Topanga sessions where the prevailing wind would brush side-offshore; creating launch ramps for the Christian Fletcher-inspired generation. At sixteen years of age Tyler was bursting at the seams to explore the world and his wheels would enable him to do just that.
Fast forward to 2011 and Tyler is at the top of his game with building beautiful boards and hot rods. But today is like every day in the life of arguably the most under-spoken craftsman in the world of surfboards and hot rods. After playing with his adorable (and huge due to towering genetics) three-year-old daughter, Tyler hops in his stock white Ford van to get coffee at The Donut on Main Street in downtown El Segundo as he has done for countless years. So routine and welcome is the stop, The Donut cashier often refuses money as Tyler is seen as a family to them. A few quick laughs at The Donut and Tyler heads down to El Porto for the daily surf check. As forgettable as his daily-driver white Ford van is, Tyler’s arrival in the parking lot at El Porto is noticed by most due to his local legend in the water and in the garage.
Christian Tyler Hatzikian was born to Chris and Betty Hatzikian in January 1972. Chris Hatzikian, known as Zeke, quickly indoctrinated Tyler into his worth ethic and love of surfing. Chris was at the time a home builder and was accustomed to working hard by his Armenian heritage, working with his hands, and having an overwhelming attention to detail. Chris made Tyler his first surfboard which was a six-foot, diamond-tail, Lightening Bolt-style single fin. Chris soon began to teach Tyler the art and skill of shaping, glassing, sanding, and polishing. Chris was also well-versed in reading the conditions and knowing the California coastline long before the Surflines of the world. Chris would often load his work truck with boards and a sleepy Tyler in the pre-dawn hours for a surgical strike at Rincon. It was Chris’s experience that influenced Tyler knowing where to be when for the best waves on the right board back when .com was nothing more than a typo.
Interestingly enough, hot rods and cars have influenced Hatzikian’s surfing much more than his surfing has influenced his hot rods. Working on classic cars led Tyler to wonder what surfing was like at the time of the respective car. While still an aerial-punting shortboarder back in the early 90s, Tyler picked up a ‘56 Chevy four-door Bel Air, nine-passenger wagon. Hatzikian calls it “the ultimate surf wagon”, and it was this classic that shifted his future to the past. This path would lead Tyler into classic yet innovative board designs and an unmatched traditional surfing style in the water.
Tyler comes from a long line of hot rodders starting with his grandfather Art Hatzikian. Part of the close-nit Armenian community in Los Angles in the 1940s, Art was frankly known for raising hell on two wheels. Tyler has two pictures of the elder Hatzikian that are early indicators of the Hatzikian legacy in Southern California. In one 50s-era photo, Art races his Triumph prone down the Saugus drag strip with one hand on the fork for stability, tripping the traps at a then-crazy one-hundred-nine mile-per-hour pass. In the other, Art surfs his 40s-era Harley drag bike (standing goofyfoot with one foot on the tank and one on the seat) down Gage Avenue in Los Angeles in 1945. Tyler’s dad Chris carried on the legacy of speed during the muscle car era with projects such as a ‘59 Chevy El Camino, numerous ’57 Chevys, and a lightening-fast ’68 SS Chevy Camaro powered by a healthy 396 big-block. Tyler’s energetic grandmother, Mimi, recalls hearing Chris drag-racing his Camaro several miles away on summer nights then coasting down the street home with headlight doused to slip unnoticed to the police into the family garage. Chris later brought havoc to the family garage by almost burning it to the ground while welding traction bars to a ’57 Chevy. Today the Camaro and ‘57 might be long gone, but the garage is still standing and the Hatzikian passion for hot-rodding thrives.
Tyler’s first foray into the hot rod scene was during high school via a stock ’55 Chevy 4-door powered by a 265 cubic-inch V8 with a Powerglide transmission. The glass-packed growl emanating from the ’55 and the classic yellow-and-white color quickly became part of Tyler’s persona in the late 1980s in Los Angeles’ South Bay. His cars have included countless Chevy El Caminos, Nomads, and others before moving to his current 327-powered ’32 Ford Coupe cackling through classic zoomie headers and his ’41 Ford .
Tyler buying, restoring, and selling cars and hot rods elevated his home life and career. Tyler toiled endlessly sanding boards at a glassing shop and building boards under his own label to generate cash which he used to buy cars. You would never find Tyler at a new car dealership. You would find him checking out a car on the tip of a friend-of-a-friend, or combing through old neighborhoods looking for neglected project cars. Diamonds-in-the-rough as Hatzikian would call them.
One of Tyler’s highlight builds was a beautiful, black-and-yellow, ’56 Chevy Nomad with a 327 restored to showroom condition. His turned over this investment into to ’41 Ford woody where he slowly brought it back to its glory, wood and all. Not long after completion, Hatzikian parted ways with this beauty to help make a down payment on his first and current home in El Segundo. While others invested in stocks and bonds, Tyler invested in cars and used his own passion and hard work to build his nest egg. While trading up in value was nice, Tyler was driven purely by his passion, enjoyment, and respect for old cars and hot rods.
Hot rodding’s influence on Tyler’s surfing has continued long past his period-awareness epiphany triggered late in the 1980s with his nine-passenger ’56 Chevy wagon. Working recently on his now-traded 383 Chevy stroker-powered ’50 Mercury, the light bulb switched on with Hatzikian. He was working on the body with the time-honored technique called “metal bumping”. This method of body work eschews body filling and instead slowly works the metal by lifting lows and holding down highs using a hammer and dolly. It is not unlike using a trying to straighten a coat hanger with one’s hands. There are not a lot of shadows , visuals, and thus a lot of the work is done by feel. Patience and skill are requirements to say the least. After working on the Merc for several hours, Tyler walked over to his shaping bay to work on a board design. After working painstakingly on metal for hours, he immediately and saw new angles and areas of surfboard shapes in the well-lit shaping bay. “I thought, what a joke, you gotta be kidding me!” recalls Hatzikian. Hot rods and metal craft had again given back to Hatzikian’s bread-and-butter surfing.
His classic longboards are arguably the most coveted in world. Tyler’s quest for perfection in quality is relentless at the very least. He has committed himself to “advancing traditional design” by continually honing his single-fin beauties. In a nutshell, Hatzikian is seeking to continue what board evolution may have occurred had shortboards not exploded into the surfing world in 1967. Or had longboarding not imploded, based on perspective. Looking at where Hatzikian is with traditional longboards today, one need not wonder what 1970 or 1972 may have been without shortboards. How David Nuuhiwa was forced from his 1966 noseriding grace at Huntington Beach to his wrestling match with a shortboard four short years later.
Perhaps in an ode to his restoration of the ’41 Ford, today Hatzikian’s board of choice is a 1950s-design, solid balsa craft modeled after Malibu chips of that era. Though honed for trim and glide, Tyler places himself deep in beach break tubes and carves gouging cutbacks with his balsa beauty. He credits his love of this board to its unique characteristic and the fact that balsa “doesn’t lose its spring”. Unlike most modern balsa boards, this design has a strong period influence from the early 50s and is “made to be ridden”. To perhaps accentuate his disdain for wall-hangers, Hatzikian’s balsas have a non-buffed finish. To date twenty-three Tyler balsa boards have been made and are cherished around the world.
As easy as Tyler makes it look in the water, he asserts it is not always so easy. First, as a designer, Tyler is doing much more than blowing off steam and honing his already silk-smooth cross-stepping during a regular surf. Being the craftsman of his equipment means that every board under his feet is also a test bed, subject to constant scrutiny and analysis. A slightly off-tempo cutback to the layman might mean an errant sixteenth of an inch to Tyler. All the while, most eyes are on him when he paddles for a wave at El Porto or other Southern California surf spots. “I still need to perform even though testing, it is not a like dyno in the back room where you can test privately. With surfing you wear your stats on your sleeve”. There is an unquestionable expectation for Hatzikian to perform every time he rises to his feet, or for that matter, whenever a beautiful new board passes over the threshold of his factory. But Tyler takes it all in stride knowing it is he himself who continues to raise the bar and continually improve in surfing and craftsmanship.
What lies in the future for Hatzikian? Perhaps a new pintail balsa design. Maybe finishing his current ’41 hot rod powered by a 455 Oldsmobile. Definitely not following the latest trend. Only Tyler knows how much he can elevate surfing and hot rodding by looking to the past.