Column: Underground rebellion with business signs in Laguna Beach?


Remember in elementary school when you were told you couldn’t do something, and you pointed to a classmate and asked, “Why does he get to do it?”

Welcome to third grade in Laguna Beach.

It was just over a month ago when the Planning Commission told Melissa Martinez that she could not display a thoughtful, unassuming sign in her business window in North Laguna.

But now you can see a similar sign at Billabong.

Using an almost identical – but less artistic – changeable display, Billabong encourages people to “Know the Feeling.”


It’s a well-used surfing expression that dates back at least to the 1980s.

According to the company’s history, Billabong trademarked the full slogan in 1984, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” Since then, it’s been used regularly to describe the sport.

Billabong is a $1.1 billion international company with multiple subsidiaries including RVCA, Element Skateboards, Von Zipper and many others. There’s probably zero chance it thinks about the Laguna Beach Planning Commission when it crafts a marketing plan that will be played out in its 10,000 stores in more than 100 countries.

Martinez, meanwhile, has played by the rules and tried since 2015 to put up her sign. And it wasn’t even meant to promote her business. She just wanted to do it because it was cool. It was uplifting. It was Laguna.

Yeah, no.

Billabong, on the other hand, gets a free pass because it is promoting its products and brand. However esoteric the slogan, it’s a surf thing.

Martinez, who is not appealing the commission’s ruling to the City Council, actually supports Billabong’s sign, and she hopes the city doesn’t ruin the vibe.

But isn’t she even a little miffed at the apparent double standard?

“To me, I hope I did encourage someone to put up a sign,” she said. “It’s like this underground rebellion in this town. I like this kind of uprising.”

Originally, the city gave all the right official reasons for rejecting Martinez, yet together all of them were wrong. They simply made a mistake and should have approved the sign.

Furthermore, it was the snarky, condescending way that they treated Martinez during the meeting that revealed a larger problem.

In an age when corporations can lose $1 billion overnight because of the way they treat citizens on airplanes, for example, Laguna officials should respect its residents.

It’s the reason Martinez is not appealing to the City Council. Why should she? There was nothing in it for her except goodwill, and now that’s gone.

“I would appeal it if I had some kind of backup,” she said. “I just don’t want to go in there again and be slaughtered like I was last time.

“They didn’t care. They didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. They didn’t look at any of the documents. They just could not wait to shut it down. So I don’t know what else I could present to make them change their minds.”

Now, all we have is a city sign ordinance that encourages snitching. Rat your business neighbor out. Tell the teacher.

It’s a petty, vindictive approach that is so anti-Laguna, anti-surfing, anti-small business.

This might not seem relevant but bear with me. Long ago during the Underground Railroad, the people who helped slaves escape to free states would communicate through secret symbols and similar forms of communication.

For example, there were special codes. A bear paw symbol meant to take a mountain route. A bow tie meant that a slave would have to change clothing.

In fact, revolutionary forms of protest through cryptic communication date back thousands of years.

Perhaps it’s time Laguna looks in the mirror and asks if it’s a city of liberators.

Perhaps it’s time for more businesses to put up a shingle and speak the truth.

A sign of the times is a good place to start an honest conversation.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at