Mark Cunningham’s not your average retiree. He recently spent some time at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, enjoying the sand and calm surf of Waikiki Beach.
This lifelong lifeguard hung up his rescue buoy back in 2005, closing a 30-year tenure patrolling O’ahu's shores — including Ehukai Beach Park, home to one of the most dangerous surf spots in the world, the Banzai Pipeline.
That same year he won the International Bodysurfing Competition in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. The event was just one of 15 championship titles he’d earn during his side-hustle as one of the world’s top bodysurfers.
Yet well-known for his modesty, Cunningham describes his command of the waves as just another resume skill essential to saving lives. Still, his ascent through the surfing world is the stuff of legends. That’s because while comfortably seated among the ranks of surfing greats, Cunningham occupies a unique space. His waterman roots were crafted, honed, and mastered all without a board.
The Rise of O'ahu's Saltiest Icon
It all started in his teenage years growing up in Niu Valley. Standing at a lanky six-foot-four-inches following a rapid growth spurt, Cunningham often recalls these early board-surfing days as his “comedy routine.
That’s when he discovered bodysurfing. Armed with nothing but a pair of fins, bodysurfing didn’t just ease Cunningham’s comfort on the water. It complemented his awe and respect for the ocean, allowing him to strike synchronicity with the waves — not supremacy over them.
This reverent ethos resonates throughout Cunningham’s career dominating O’ahu’s most epic surfing spots: Sandy Beach, Point Panic, Makapuu, and of course, Pipeline. While he might challenge his reputation as the greatest bodysurfer of the modern era — he’s insisted that title goes to Mike Stewart — no one can argue with Cunningham’s mālama for the sea. Between saving lives and mentoring new generations of North Shore surfers, he also founded the O’ahu Junior Lifeguard Program and helped launch the Defend O’ahu Coalition. Whether at work or play, Cunningham lives through this mālama spirit of celebrating, championing, and protecting his oceanic playground.
From the Surf to the Studio
Cunningham's more recent adventures-at-sea illustrate this deep-rooted passion — literally. He now hunts for what lies beneath the waves, searching the surf for lost treasures like board fins, sunglasses, and even designer watches. Cunningham stores this menagerie of long-forgotten items at his garage-turned-art studio in Kāhala, where he assembles them into three-dimensional sculptures. Through his art, he seeks out each object’s hidden story and honors how they’ve been shaped by the passage of time.
But just like his surfing glory, Cunningham is reluctant to claim a title as an artist. “Mother Nature is the real artist,” he tells Flux Hawaii Magazine. “I’m just putting it all together for everyone to see.
Gallery owners, critics, and art lovers seem to disagree. Cunningham’s sculptures have been on display in galleries from New York to San Francisco and even featured on the TV series Hawaii Five-O.
Getting Stoked in Waikiki
What’s up next for Mark Cunningham? We're beyond proud to invite this local surfing legend-cum-artist to join our Surfers in Residence program. As the birthplace of modern surfing, there’s no better spot for Cunningham to share his deep love for the sea with wave-chasing travelers from around the world than Waikiki Beach.