- Despite the recent progress in and demand for wet adhesives, practical underwater adhesion remains limited or non-existent for diverse applications. Translation of mussel-inspired wet adhesion typically entails catechol functionalization of polymers and/or polyelectrolytes, and solution processing of many complex components and steps that require optimization and stabilization. Here we reduced the complexity of a wet adhesive primer to synthetic low-molecular-weight catecholic zwitterionic surfactants that show very strong adhesion (∼50 mJ m−2) and retain the ability to coacervate. This catecholic zwitterion adheres to diverse surfaces and self-assembles into a molecularly smooth, thin (<4 nm) and strong glue layer. The catecholic zwitterion holds particular promise as an adhesive for nanofabrication. This study significantly simplifies bio-inspired themes for wet adhesion by combining catechol with hydrophobic and electrostatic functional groups in a small molecule.