“Hold on! Hold on tight!”
It was a hot afternoon in Olinda, a coastal town in northeastern Brazil, and Marlon da Silva Santos, the leader of a group called Loucos do Surf, or Crazy Surfers, was shouting from the roof of a racing bus.
With one hand I grabbed the edge of the roof for balance and tried to shoot with the other – but the bus went through bumps in the road, pulled away abruptly and lost my balance for a moment. I managed to stay on, even though my camera almost flew off my neck.
We saw flashing police lights in the front and pulled into the bus. It was tense inside; the hot sea air swirled around our bodies. As we passed the sirens, a merry celebration erupted as we made our way to the beach.
The surfers were young, mostly between the ages of 12 and 16, and most of them were black. They wore shorts, flip-flops, hats and gold chains – a style common among many young people on the outskirts of major Brazilian cities.
Their presence on the buses made many passengers uncomfortable.
“Some drivers stop the bus, tell us to get off, to fight,” Marlon said. “But most follow their normal route while we’re upstairs.”
“We just want to have fun,” he added as we got off the bus.
I first learned about Loucos do Surf through a video posted on Facebook. In it, Marlon, then 16, was surfing a high-speed bus, gaining confidence and taking selfies. Within an hour I was exchanging messages with the surfers and planning my trip to Olinda.
A week later I met them at the Xambá bus station. At first they were skeptical: “Aren’t you a policeman?” They asked.
I showed them my website and my Instagram account and in just a few hours I joined them on a bus trip.
During my one-week visit with the bus surfers in 2017, I felt happy and free. Somehow they allowed me to reconsider my own roots: During my teenage years, growing up in Sao Paulo, I also engaged in some risky and transgressive behaviors – including pixação, a graffiti derivative popular in parts of Brazil.
Loucos do Surf is part of a long tradition of performing challenging stunts involving public transport in Brazil.
In the ’80s and’ 90s, thrill-seeking young Brazilians risked their lives traveling from downtown Rio de Janeiro to the suburbs on the roofs of crowded trains. Train surfers, hundreds of whom have been seriously injured or killed, have become popular in the Brazilian press.
After intense repression, the popularity of the practice declined.
A young surfer named Luciano Schmidt told me that the art of bus surfing is partly a response to the lack of places for culture and entertainment. “The only football field we had was destroyed.” Instead, he said he and his friends preferred “bigu,” the local term for bus surfing, “and the beach.
Some bus surfers have said the activity is also a form of protest against the cost of public transport – and more broadly – against the difficulties and financial constraints imposed on millions of young people struggling on the periphery of society.
At the time, in 2017, Brazil was still recovering from the worst recession to hit the country. The youth unemployment rate jumped to nearly 29% in 2017, compared to about 16% in 2014, according to World Bank data.
Dominant element of these difficulties is the violence that pervades the daily lives of black communities on the outskirts of major Brazilian cities – including the Sol Nascente neighborhoods, part of the city of Recife and Alto da Bondade, in Olinda, where Loucos do.
According to the Brazilian Atlas of Violence, a study published in 2020 by the Institute for Applied Economic Research in the country and the Public Safety Forum, homicides among blacks increased by 11.5% between 2008 and 2018, while homicides among non-blacks blacks fell 12.9 percent over the same period. Such data helps uncover the racial inequalities that have dominated Brazilian society for centuries – and highlight how desensitized many people in the country have become violent in marginalized black communities.
Loucos do Surf was not spared. Marlon – who was known by fellow surfers as Black Diamond and who earned King of Surf status because he is the most skilled and brave surfer in the group – was shot dead and killed near his home in 2018. , a year after my visit.
After his funeral, members of the group held a monument. More than 20 young people were balancing on top of a bus, singing in his honor.
Gabriella Batista, a surfer on the bus and a close friend of Marlon’s, told me in a text that the group had once been a family. But their enthusiasm for the fun, she said, largely ended with his death.
When I remember Marlon, my thoughts swirl with circumstances of his life: the violence he suffered, the choices he made, the economic disadvantages he faced, the uncertainty of his support networks – including the underfunded public education system in Brazil.
“School doesn’t appeal to me,” he once told me. “What the teachers say doesn’t stay with me.” Instead, he said, whenever he sat with a book, he felt as if he was wasting time that could be spent surfing.
And that’s how I remember it most now: balanced – proud, agile, defiant – on top of a fast bus.
“Is there anything better than that?” He once shouted at me as I surfed, the salty air slapping his face, his eyes bright and alive, his voice drifting upwind.
Victor Moriyama, a regular contributor to The Times, is a Brazilian photographer based in Sao Paulo. You can follow his work on Instagram.