Take a walk along Ocean Beach and you might encounter Kirk Maxson constructing his kingdom on the coastline. His castles, constructed of dripping spires of sand, barricade against shallow pools of sea foam.
It’s an ephemeral form of art. When the tides rush in, the sand castles are gone. But Maxson’s are immortal, preserved online for his 1.7 million TikTok followers.
Maxson has lived in the city for 30 years. He cut his teeth in the ’90s as a part of the Mission School, a movement influenced by the aesthetics of that neighborhood’s mural culture. His sculptures—uniquely etched gold leaves fashioned into crowns and wings—have even adorned runway models at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
But Maxson’s newest audience is a rather unexpected one. What started out as a childhood habit has become viral #oddlysatisying #asmr online content. His simple videos typically depict the same repetitive action: A hand dips into a puddle of wet sand before moving to a new tower, where it drops a trickle of silty cement to create a spire. The clips generally get tens of thousands of views, sometimes reaching the millions.
“It’s not something that’s getting attention because it’s derisive or divisive or shocking. It’s the opposite,” Maxson said. “It reminds people of their childhood. And it’s calming.”
Maxson’s father was an architect, and Maxson looked up to him, collecting Antoni Gaudí books about La Sagrada Familia—the 140-year-old, incomplete Catholic church in Barcelona that looks like a Gothic stone sand castle.
“I’m not trying to do that, but in my DNA since I was a little kid is those organic forms,” Maxson explained.
The sand castles also mirror the snow-topped Douglas firs Maxson came to love while growing up in Oregon. Or they could be soundwaves, with the kingdom’s outline reflecting in the water. Maxson would rather not offer up any definitive interpretation, even though bystanders on the beach are always asking him for answers.
“It might be the way people feel awkward interacting with art,” Maxson mused. “You can be mesmerized by it and be affected by it and not actually know why. And that’s kind of scary, too. So if you can label it, it makes it easier.”
Morgan Ellis/The Standard
Thinking that I know what something should look like.
My stomach. When I was a kid, I used to throw up all the time.
My grandfather really had a love of nature, which passed on through my mom, which passed on to me.
Entertaining and soothing people. The power of art can do that.