This feature was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Void Magazine.
It’s a muggy evening in Northeast Florida and local surfer-shaper-musician Sean Piper is toiling away in the Ghetto Surfboards Factory. Piper’s covered in foam dust from his tattooed arms down to his jeans and checkered Vans slip-ons as he mindfully eyes the back-third of one of the board’s opposing rails, considering some edge-sharpening with the grated sandpaper he’s holding in his hands.
Earlier this evening, after a full day at his nine-to-five working as an Operations Rep at a local logistics company, he put his two young children to bed before setting to work in this 20×20 shed that he recently dropped in the backyard of his northeast St. Johns County property. This capacious structure—and his garage for a few years prior—has become a sanctuary of sorts for Piper, who with a full-time job, a wife and two kids, regular gigs playing bass in the raucous Skate Punk outfit Concrete Criminals, and a litany of other hobbies, rarely spends time in isolation.
“The main reason I continue to [shape surfboards] is that it’s a fun escape,” Piper explains. “It has an art component. It’s an outlet. But mainly it’s just an opportunity to do what I want.”
Piper’s begun to dial in a few shapes to which local surfers seem to respond well. A 23-inch plus wide log called the Standard and a Con Ugly variation called the Fugly, mid-lengths like the Perro, and a wide, round-nosed, shortboard made to be ridden as a twin-fin with a small trailer called the RipOff, are among Piper’s more popular designs. And while his shapes are unique in that they stray from the potato chip blades lining the racks of local surf shops, it’s Piper’s colorful, loud, sometimes abstract glasswork that is setting him apart from the pack.
“It’s difficult to fine-tune a shape but you don’t have to. Really you can shape anything and it works—or doesn’t not work,” he says of molding foam into a seaworthy vessel. “Glassing is difficult for all kinds of external things—humidity, temp, the colors in the resin might kick differently. There’s also more self-expression in it.”
Tonight Piper’s working on an assortment of custom orders—a grovel-y shortboard, one longboard model for a first-time log buyer—and, if he has time, he might glass a board for another local shaper who recently contracted him to do so.
Piper will work in the shed until he’s tired (or bored). He might very well be up at 4 a.m. tomorrow and be back at it before his kids get up and it’s time to go to work. It’s that work ethic that, despite the fact that he’s shaped only a few beaked noses over 200 boards, has allowed Piper to get quite good, quite fast. And it’s the North Carolina native’s experimental mindset that has endeared him to eclectic mix of surfers here in Northeast Florida. Those with one of Piper’s Ghetto Surfboards under their feet include members of various bands from the region’s punk, hardcore, and rock n’ roll scene including Jeramy Maile of The Wastedist, guitarist-for-hire Tim McIntyre, Concrete Criminals drummer and videographer Lang Sheppard, and The Mother Gooses guitarist Ed Gil.
Relatedly, this kind of work ethic, while not uncommon among full-time shapers is rare among hobbyists, or those who don’t make their living shaping boards. But Piper, who spreads himself fairly thin via his day job and various extracurricular activities, grew accustomed to burning the candle at both ends, both as a student at the Citadel and then officer in the U.S. Army, where he did two tours during the height of the Iraq War.
Even though his father attended The Citadel, a military style education wasn’t always in the cards for Piper. In fact, as a kid and then teenager he was vocal about his opposition to the idea. “I always said I wouldn’t go,” he remembers. “My plan was to go to UNC-W[ilmington] and just surf, or whatever.”
Piper grew up in North Carolina, in the city of Jacksonville, just a half hour or so from the coastal town of Topsail (colloquially pronounced top-sull). He started surfing when he was 12 and like any surfer coming of age in the late ‘90s was soon consumed by the proliferation of surf movies (those on VHS and later DVD). His favorite flicks were the …Lost movies of the era, which featured lots of high-performance shredding, punk rock, and plenty of non-surf related, occasionally illicit, antics.
“Something about that lifestyle seemed really appealing,” Piper laughs. “The Taylor Steele videos were, I don’t want to say lame, but they were all about the surfing. The …Lost videos always had a personality—the party scenes and stuff were always crazy.
“I’ve never been a party guy, though,” he continues, with a smirk. “I’m like a ‘don’t look at me, I’ll just consume my beverage in the corner kinda guy.’ But it looked fun.”
Those …Lost videos also kickstarted Piper’s lifelong infatuation with punk.
“I would go to the end of the video and write down the bands. Then go to the CD store and buy the albums,” he says. From there things got heavier. He dove into peak era punk bands like The Casualties, GBH, Scottish HC freaks The Exploited. “I’m not sure how I found that stuff, but I was obsessed. It was the heaviness, the distortion, more so than the lyrics that I latched onto.”
He shaped his fist board—a 5’5 X 19 1/4 round nose fish, as any …Lost acolyte might—in high school. But he didn’t pursue shaping much further at the time. Then, despite his burgeoning punk ethos, and brimming antiestablishment streak, not to mention years of saying he wouldn’t, Piper enrolled at The Citadel, for no other reason, he says other than the fact the rigor-oriented college “made you go to class.”
“I felt like if I went somewhere else, I’d never graduate.”
The rules and rigor of the Military College of South Carolina (also known as The Citadel) might seem obtuse to an outside observer. Students wear uniforms. After their heads are shaved bald, underclass cadets are referred to by their upper-class superiors as nob (insert last name, here), as a reference to their heads resembling a doorknob (Sean would have been “nob Piper”). They go through military training that is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing.
“The main deal is that your freshman year, the whole year, you’re getting yelled at. And a lot of it can seem really silly,” Piper says. Surprisingly, he embraced the structure, the harsh discipline, and even the hazing.
“I’ve always been good at putting things in boxes—compartmentalizing,” he says. “I like to think I can cut loose, but then I look at myself and I’m a full-on square [laughs]. I didn’t mind the structure. I actually enjoyed it. It made me more of who I am now.”
After graduation, Piper joined the Army and was quickly deployed to serve in the Iraq War, which was just getting underway and the time. While his enlistment coincided with the U.S. government’s ramped up post-9/11 war on terror, Piper says his reasons for joining up didn’t stem from patriotic duty. Rather, he was thinking more of his long-term financial goals and future employment opportunities.
“This wasn’t a patriotism thing. It was I need money thing,” he says. “I had heard that guys that were doing transportation like I would be doing, were getting out of the Army and making good money. That’s why I chose that over infantry or tanks, or something. You don’t see many tanks in the civilian world.”
As a platoon leader based in Al Asad, Piper was tasked with transporting fuel across the Iraqi desert, where he routinely encountered his share of hairy situations, including potholes stacked with improvised explosive devices.
His second tour, however, was even more eye-opening. “The second time I was behind a desk. I was walking around different bases and seeing the amount of money that was being spent on this [war]. It made me mad, a bit. It seemed pretty wasteful.”
It was during this tour that Piper reengaged with the punk music of his wayward youth, spending hours in the MWR (morale, wellness, recreation) facilities, plucking away on the bass guitars provided and penning overtly antiestablishment lyrics that would sound right at home if screamed by Piper’s musical spirit animal, The Exploited vocalist, Wattie Buchanan.
Aside from the monetary waste, Piper says he grew disenchanted with what he saw as a lack of value for human life. “The people that wage the war, for the most part, their kids aren’t in it. You know what you’re getting into when you sign up for the military. But to me it just seemed like the Department of Defense was being the Department of Offense. All this stuff was in the back of my mind for writing music.”
Songs from this period of Piper’s life have been given new life as Concrete Criminals tunes like, “American Despair,” which opens with a customized recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance over Piper’s furious bass riff and includes a fiery critique of the military industrial complex.
Piper formed the band with vocalist “Cousin” Matt Warren, guitarist David Larson, and Sheppard on drums in late 2014, just a short time after the dissolution of Piper’s first band in Northeast Florida, the punk outfit Poor Richards. The skate punk-centric Criminals meanwhile have since released two EPs, a split-7” with The Wastedist, opened for a laundry list of renowned punk acts from Guttermouth to Agent Orange, The Queers, and Unwritten Law, received given a glowing review in Thrasher Magazine, and played this summer’s Warped Tour stop in Jax.
“I don’t often stop to think about all the fun and cool stuff I’ve been able to do with this band,” Piper says when I remind him of the Criminals CV. “It’s just another way I compartmentalize, I guess.”
You’d have to forgive the 35-year-old, though, as since leaving the military, getting married and moving to Northeast Florida, he’s welcomed two kids to the world, while building a reputable side business out of his surfboard shaping hobby.
True to his “don’t look at me, I’ll just consume my beverage in the corner kinda guy” mentality, Piper remains soft-spoken, and unnervingly humble about it all, though. Aside from maintaining the obligatory social media presence, Ghetto Surfboards remains an understated, underground entity. That’s partly due to Piper’s need to compartmentalize, but also to his complex comportment—a mix of blue collar work ethic, honorable fidelity, and a full-on punk rock, surf rat, antiestablishment streak.
“With surfing and music, the mainstream doesn’t define the culture,” Piper says of his twin passions. “I like that I can shape all kinds of boards and people are riding them. I know punk isn’t in the mainstream, like it used to be. But every now and again, I’ll see a younger kid stoked on our music. Whether it’s surfing weird boards or playing music, I think just watching people having fun is so sick.”
This feature was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Void Magazine.