Surface Energy

Jason “Willz” Williams Uses Art to Spread Positive Inspiration.

By Brian Upton
October 7, 2023
Jason "Willz" Williams sits on a handrail, holding up his hands

It doesn’t take long after striking up a conversation with Jason Williams to be swept up in the infectious energy of the moment, a sensation you’ll surely want to be a part of.

On a local level, Jason is known as “Willz,” and his roots run deep in Santa Cruz. Williams discovered his new home’s passionate embrace shortly after relocating from Golden, Colorado, with his family to the West Coast.

“I moved here in the 5th grade. We resided in the Columbia Street Apartments, and I vividly recall that first day when I hopped on my bike and pedaled down to The Lane. I had no idea what was happening (laughs), with all these people surfing and everyone simply hanging out and watching,” Williams reminisces about the immediate and profound change in his environment. “I sat there, realizing I had left behind the mountains I grew up loving for this vast ocean. It was a complete culture shock, but I loved it.”

It wasn’t until junior high that Willz took the plunge into the ocean to start surfing, a decision that presented potential social challenges due to his love for basketball.

“That was the thing. I was a jock playing basketball, but I also hung out with the surfers,” Williams explains. “Nobody was doing that. Surfers and jocks just didn’t get along, but I got along with both crowds without thinking much of it.”

Willz attributes that period to when he began to grasp the significance of appreciating diversity and nurturing his love for different cultures. Living on the lower Westside of Santa Cruz exposed him to various people and cultures.

“The lower Westside at that time (late 80s, early 90s) had people of every race and all walks of life mingling. It was a melting pot, but because I was raised that way, it was all the same to me. Santa Cruz felt incredibly diverse in the neighborhood where I grew up, so I ended up viewing the world through that lens.”

Jason "Willz" Williams

The Music

Williams attended Santa Cruz High School, where he uncovered another passion that would become a lifelong commitment – performing.

“High school introduced me to house parties. That’s where the action was in those days, and I saw an opportunity at those gatherings,” Willz recalls seizing the moment. “There would be a DJ or a band playing, and I could grab the mic. It marked my first encounter with performing in front of a crowd, and I never looked back.”

Photo Credit: Charlie Witmer

Over the past two decades, Williams has fronted and collaborated with local and international artists, tirelessly pursuing his musical passion.

“Taking the stage is an energy you can only experience. I began with Ribsy’s Nickel and have been on that journey ever since. Projects like Cruz Matik and Forward Back keep me grounded and stoke the creative fires, enabling me to explore different cultures continuously.”

Jason "Willz" Williams with bandmates
Photo Credit: JL Royal
Jason "Willz" Williams on the microphone
Photo Credit: JL Royal
Jason "Willz" Williams with bandmate
Photo Credit: JL Royal

Willz is grateful to live in an era where music can be readily shared and accessed by a broad audience. Recently, he joined forces with Reggie Stephens and Los Cojolites at the Kuumbwa Center in Santa Cruz to remix the song “Tierra Madre” (as detailed in the 2023 summer issue of Santa Cruz Vibes).

“That trip was amazing,” Williams recalls, sharing a sentiment he often expresses

“Art gives us the gift of unity, and I plan to unite the masses whenever possible.”

Jason "Willz" Williams

The Art

“I would rather die of passion than die of boredom.”

Vincent van GoghThis quote, permanently displayed on the lower banner of Willz's website, serves as a constant reminder to Willz to lead his life in accordance with his passions.

“I feel blessed to do what I do. I get paid for doing what I love. If you’re not passionate about it, not pursuing it, and not motivated to improve, I don’t even know what that other side is. If I weren’t doing it this way, I feel like I could die of boredom.”

Williams attributes this philosophy to keeping his mind open to new opportunities. “That’s why I have so many facets. I can’t draw all day, paint all day, or edit and film all day. I bounce between these projects to keep things fresh because if I didn’t, I’d burn out.”

Leading a full-time artistic lifestyle wasn’t always evident for Williams. He pursued all his dreams while working a regular job. However, a specific turning point in his artistic journey led him to commit fully to the man he has become today.

“Until about six years ago, I was a granite fabricator, working the classic 9-to-5 job. Then, one day at work, I accidentally cut a piece of my thumb while making a template,” Willz recalls the injury that altered the trajectory of his life. “I was at the hospital, thinking, ‘This isn’t for me.’ During my recovery, my boss, one of my best friends, and my girlfriend at the time challenged me about my art, sort of like, ‘Are you going to do this or not?’ That was the tipping point, and I knew I wasn’t going back to my old job. I just started drawing.”

Jason "Willz" Williams draws a design on the bottom of a skateboard deck

He eventually began sharing his work on Instagram, where his unique style resonated not only with close friends but also with the broader public.

The modest announcement on his Instagram account marked the beginning of something significant: “Artbywilllz #ArtByWillz FINALLY got my personal IG up and running & YES I’m drawing every day now so HMU for logos, designs anything 🙏✌️”

Initially, his designs were primarily for surfboards and skate decks. Still, in October 2018, a momentous event occurred that set his comment sections on fire and flooded his inbox with custom orders. Willz painted a pair of Vans for his girlfriend.

Santa Cruz, CA ocean landscape drawing on Vans Shoes by Jason "Willz" Williams
Jason "Willz" Williams shows a grim reaper illustration on a Vans shoe
Artwork on Vans Shoes by Jason "Willz" Williams from Santa Cruz, CA

“My girlfriend Anita asked me to paint her shoes. I hopped on YouTube and discovered people custom painting shoes as a full-time gig, and I was blown away. I realized the pens they were using were the same ones I had been using for the surfboards.” 

Willz transformed Anita’s shoes and shared the final product on Instagram. “The response was enormous – overnight, everything changed. Anita helped me get organized and built the website, and it’s been a team effort ever since.”

That moment emboldened Willz with the confidence to work on various surfaces, leading to commissioned custom work on mugs, hats, traditional canvases, helmets, cleats, mailboxes, jean jackets, and more. His style is distinctive, yet it encapsulates the essence of Santa Cruz, and he readily acknowledges other local artists who influenced his growth.

“Santa Cruz boasts so many artists I admire. There’s Jimbo Phillips, Shaun Logan, and Kevin Walsh. Then there’s Nelly. I love Nelly (Dave Nelson) because he’s out in the water taking photos and excitedly calling me to say, ‘I’ve got your board in my photo!'”

Jason "Willz" Williams

Williams also pays tribute to a friend, the legendary Santa Cruz surf icon Shawn “Barney” Barron, who passed away in 2015 before witnessing his full commitment to art.

“Barney was a massive artistic influence on me. Huge. He would always drag me to his house to help with editing. He kept pushing me to paint, but I never did. I never painted with him; I just stuck to my pens.” Willz reflects with nostalgia, “It wasn’t until after he passed away that I started painting, and I realized I could have been doing that with him all along.”

By definition, Jason “Willz” Williams embodies the modern-day Renaissance man mentioned at the beginning of this article. Still, you won’t hear him describe himself that way.

“The one thing I tell people is that I’m an artist. For me, that means I paint, draw, film, and edit. I’m a lead singer in two music bands. That’s my favorite part about all of this because as a kid, you always want to tell people, ‘Yeah, I want to be an artist,’ but I didn’t think I could do it. Now, I feel blessed that I can just tell people what I am. I’m an artist.”


More About Jason "Willz" Williams

Find out more about Jason “Willz” Williams at

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