TALES FROM THE SURF GHETTO
Meet the ragtag band of craftsmen, entrepreneurs and weirdos at the heart of OC’s surf industry
By CHASEN MARSHALL Thursday, Jul 21 2011
“I need a fucking customer, or I’m going to fall asleep,” Matt “Slim” Doherty says to no one in particular as he cracks open a fresh beer. An airbrusher with Lost Surfboards is sitting on a white plastic chair nearby, eating his lunch out of Tupperware and nodding his head in acknowledgement.
A breeze whips along Los Obreros Lane, bringing with it the mixed smells of the ocean, resin, burnt wood and engine exhaust. It’s a warm Thursday in early July, and though the street name translates to “the workers,” it seems like no one is working. Usually, there are the familiar sounds of a wood sign being sanded, an engine being tinkered with and blow darts being shot—or at least a loud conversation coming from the back patio of the sports bar on the corner. But at this moment, there’s mostly silence beyond Doherty’s increasing frustration.
Along the narrow street, cars are double-parked among the garages, each of which is home to an individual business. Los Obreros is but one alley of businesses within the Los Molinos Business District in San Clemente, but few who know about the area call it by its official name. It’s largely known as the Surf Ghetto, though some of the area’s inhabitants aren’t too keen on that moniker. The city prefers Surf Alley. Some call it Soul Alley.
Doherty is standing outside his tool-repair shop, arguably the heart of the alley, sipping on his beer. He’s tall and lean and seems to wear the same black T-shirt, black jeans and black boots combination every day. He has an unlit cigarette between his fingers. His long, straight brown hair is dancing in the wind, much like the large American flag nearby.
Before Doherty can find himself a comfortable place to nod off, a matching father-son pair walks up the alley: Christian and Greyson Fletcher. Both are wearing dark jeans, black tees and skate shoes; Christian’s dark shades, black hair and neck tattoos set him apart. The Fletchers are surfing royalty, particularly in Orange County. In the mid-’80s, Christian was a seminal figure in introducing aerials into the trick repertoire. When he wasn’t surfing Trestles, he was hanging out in this alley, having his boards airbrushed by a punk rocker from Chino at the Astrodeck warehouse. His father, Herbie, still owns Astrodeck, a traction pad and sandal company, located a few miles from the alley. The Fletchers remain regulars in the area.
Christian is meeting with Timmy Patterson, of the T.Patterson surfboard label, to re-create a design the pair first worked on 20 years ago. It’s sketched out in pencil on a piece of paper in his pocket.
Though Doherty and most of the other businesses have signage, the surfboard shapers in the alley prefer to be discreet. If you’re a newcomer and are looking for Patterson or Matt Biolos or Ron House or Hamish Graham, you had better have a keen eye for things like stickers on doors or on cars outside buildings, perhaps the occasional T-shirt.
Without the anonymity, Patterson says, “We’d never get any work done.”
Patterson is in the first stall, smoothing out a blank with fine-grade sandpaper, when the Fletchers walk in. He looks like he walked in off the beach and started working; he’s barefoot and wearing light-blue board shorts and a T-shirt. The music blaring from the speakers is some type of electric house mix.
Christian pulls out the piece of paper to remind Patterson of what he’s looking for. The original board was 3 feet, 10 inches long, but Christian is a few pounds heavier and years beyond his prime; this board will be 5-feet, 3-inches—still a small board for a guy taller than 6 feet.
“This is going to be radical,” Patterson says.
After Patterson saws off the front four inches of the blank, the conversation turns to the recent south swell. Christian does most of the talking while Greyson observes and Patterson works.
“I was surfing Lowers, and I saw this kid trying flips, and I asked him, ‘Why?’ ‘Because that’s what’s next,’ he told me,” Christian recalls. “Then he asks me what I’m working on, and I say, ‘I’m working on surfing on the water.’” Christian laughs at his own story, understanding the irony.
Patterson laughs, too, but his eyes are set on the blank in front of him. With each pass of the sandpaper, he molds the exact board his client has in mind. Every board has a unique identity. This one, with a blunt nose and stinger rail set-up, looks like nothing you’d find on the racks in a surf shop. While machines will do some of the work, a hands-on approach is required to finish every job.
Walk from garage to garage, from shaper to mechanic to carpenter, and that same characteristic of the job will be true. Whether it’s Doug Perrault gutting and rebuilding a 1966 Volkswagen Bug or Dennis Miller and his crew working with blowtorches to weld an extravagant 17-foot wrought-iron handrail or any of the numerous shapers creating a ridable piece of sporting equipment from a block of foam, it’s all done the old-fashioned way: with hands, rich with years of expertise.
“There’s a synergy of so many different shapers and glassers, people who are in the same boat, per se, and it spawns creativity,” Biolos says. “You see Patterson, you see Drew Brophy doing his art, you see the guys over at [Brad] Basham’s, and all the different guys doing their thing. It’s cool.
“And the characters down the alley,” he continues, “it’s almost Rockwellian, you know. It’s blue collar without the blue collar—it’s very Our Town.”
In the Surf Ghetto, many of the businesses have nothing to do with surfing. While surfing doesn’t completely define the area, it’s certainly the industry most represented and easily the sexiest—aside from the business that works almost exclusively on Porsches.
The district has been zoned industrial for decades. Up through the 1940s, Pico Boulevard, which borders the north end of the district, was the “far edge of town,” according to Sean Nichols, an associate planner with the city. Dennis Miller’s business, Miller Iron Works, is one of the oldest in the area. His father, Ron, started the company in 1969, after having moved the family to California from Michigan with the intention of retiring. When Dennis enrolled as a freshman at San Clemente High School, the school’s campus was the only establishment on the east side of Interstate 5.
The surf business moved into the area in the late 1950s, beginning with legendary shaper Dale Velzy and surfboard-blank pioneer Harold Walker of Walker Foam. Slowly, the neighborhood began to change. More boards began sticking out the back of cars.
“It became a little sanctuary,” says Mickey Muñoz, who worked in the area for Hobie Surfboards and other shapers for years before opening his own shop in the late ’70s. “You could do bad stuff without getting spanked,” he continues, referring to the raucous parties and the noxious fumes.
In the following years, shapers began to move in wherever space could be found. The district was one of the few places where foam dust flying through the air and resin fumes didn’t bother anyone.
As the city has expanded, with new residential projects appearing each year, the business district ended up at the center of the city. Even in its expansion, the identity of San Clemente has remained pretty much the same.
“It’s just an old beach town that’s aged gracefully,” says Jack Staggs, who has worked in the district for 38 years. “This is a historic area; I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else.”
Staggs’ specialty is working on and restoring 356 Porsches. When he has to test-drive the ones that come into his garage, he or his partner, Kerry Sink, drive them north on Pacific Coast Highway or south on the 5 to check the surf at Trestles.
Over the years, the area has had an up-and-down relationship with the city and the residents who surround it. In the late 1980s, when the General Plan for the city was up for discussion, there were talks of trying to relocate the business district up the hill, toward what is now Talega, and building condos, maybe a glitzy hotel, in its place. None of those plans came to fruition. In recent years, the city has come to embrace the area for what it is and has even made efforts to promote what it now views as a “unique” and “special place.” There are whispers of constructing a formal arch entryway off Pico.
* * *
In this oddly configured warren of unmarked doors, most every artisan uses a different medium, and some have become synonymous with the work they do: the Volkswagen Guy, the Porsche Guy, the Sign Guys, the Flower Lady.
To many of the shapers in the area, Brad Basham is known as the Guru, and he looks and acts the part. He has shoulder-length, wiry white hair and a matching beard, giving him an almost biblical appearance. He’s calculated with his words and mostly shies from attention. But most every discussion about a shaper’s career in the area begins with his name.
“He made a lot of guys’ careers,” Patterson says. “I worked in his shop at one point when I got started.”
In the ’70s, Basham was the first guy to create a business relationship with Gordon “Grubby” Clark of Clark Foam. Clark had such control over the blanks business that he was known to command brand loyalty. Over the course of a few years, Basham became a major distributor of Clark blanks, despite the Clark factory’s being just over the hill in Laguna Hills. It was cheaper to buy from Basham than it was to go factory-direct.
“Guys would come and want one or a few at a time, so we sort of teamed up to get a better price,” Basham says, understating his role. “Early on, we got deliveries once a month; not much later, they came three times a week.”
Basham has owned and operated various buildings in the area. Patterson’s glassing room in the alley was once Basham’s shaping room. (When a board is “glassed,” various liquid substances are combined to create the hard outer core of a surfboard. Individuals who complete this job are referred to as “glassers” or “hotcoaters.”) He lived out of a camper parked out front. Now his business operates in a building off Los Molinos that looks like a miniature blimp hangar. He still sells blanks and has a full surf shop, but he spends most of his time behind the white cinder-block walls attached to the hangar. The maze of hallways and doors is home to a large glassing space and a host of smaller labels in individual shaping stalls, including Kaysen, Move or Die, Ellis and Gato Heroi. Kaysen once operated out of the two-story building across the street, renting rooms to shapers, but the starving surfboard economy took its toll.
“If it weren’t for [Basham's] place [back in the day],” Herbie says, “this whole area wouldn’t be around anymore.”
Biolos has been known to say that the modern surfboard was born in this area of San Clemente evolving at the hands of some of the world’s finest shapers. It makes sense. There are few places where a board can be completed and tested and the waste disposed of as quickly as in the Surf Ghetto.
Cole Simler of Cole Surfboards relocated his surfboard label from San Luis Obispo to the Ghetto in 1991. “The competition sucks,” he says, “but the concentration of talent keeps me sane.”
Every step of the board-making process can be completed within walking distance of all the others. Blanks can be purchased from Basham’s shop, shaped by Rick Rock in his shaping stall, taken over to Ghetto Glass to be hotcoated and fine-sanded, and the fins can be purchased from O’Fish’l, which is in the old Walker Foam building. Even the excess foam can be disposed of in a sustainable manner: bagged up and collected by the guys from Spillinex. The company, which operates out of Biolos’ former house on Calle Valle, turns the foam into a product that can clean up anything from oil spills on large bodies of water to grease spills in a mechanic’s garage to egg in a kitchen.
After Patterson finished shaping Christian Fletcher’s board, and the two had given the shape its final approval, Fletcher walked it down the street to Patterson’s glass shop, where the board would go through the final stages of production within days.
* * *
There’s a dune buggy parked in front of the garage next to Doherty’s shop. It’s burnt orange with a sparkle finish. It had been sitting in the back yard of a house in Capistrano Beach for nearly 15 years until Doug Perrault approached its then-owner. He cleaned it up, rebuilt the engine and now uses it to get around town.
Perrault is sitting in the bed of a truck in front of his garage. While explaining the genesis of the buggy, he’s slamming a small hammer into a piece of silver piping that looks like it belongs under a kitchen sink.
“It goes pretty good,” he says through clenched teeth. “I’ll probably take Hayley [his 13-year-old daughter] out to the desert and teach her to drive it.”
Perrault is the Volkswagen Guy. His work with German engines began by coincidence. As a teenager, he liked to work on motorcycles, and later, he built himself a dune buggy with a VW engine. He has been in the alley since the mid-’80s, after previously having a garage below the Rainbow Sandals factory on the north end of the district. With all his years working in the same space, the people around him have become a bit more than colleagues and associates. “Being here five days a week, eight hours a day, the people become like sisters and brothers, or maybe cousins,” he says.
In the garage, plaques and photos blanket the wall over his desk, and above those is a shelf covered with tall trophies with Tecate beer bottles attached to them. Tecate was one of the major sponsors for the Baja 1000 when Perrault competed; for 12 years, he entered seven-race series with his partner, and they won it five times. “By the end, you just want to get into your own bed, but there’s nothing like it—racing through the desert and hearing that engine,” he says.
Perrault’s hands look about how you’d expect, given what he does for a living. His skin is a deep olive, like he spends plenty of time in the desert. He still has thick, dark brown hair with a matching beard.
He last raced in 1997 and hasn’t been back to Mexico in years—too dangerous, he says. He figures he saw enough of the country not to have to return. He still has the buggy; it’s parked in the garage on the opposite side of Doherty’s. Nowadays, he gets his racing thrills vicariously through Hayley, who competes in the children’s division at the Costa Mesa Speedway on Saturday nights. She’s the only girl in her age group, and she wins rather frequently. Perrault built her motorcycle and does the maintenance; he customized the steel plate on her left boot using the bumper off a VW Bug.
* * *
The driveway outside the white building at 147 Los Obreros is regularly packed two or three cars deep. Guys covered in foam dust will step outside for a smoke break or to help shuttle a delivery of surfboard blanks inside. This is the home of Mayhem Surfboards, which is owned by Lost Enterprises.
Inside, a man in a T-shirt and camouflage shorts is inspecting a row of machine-shaped blanks. Similar rows stretch throughout the hallways of the factory. Some of the blanks are skinned; others are still raw with a light-blue Arctic Foam logo visible. Each of the rough-cut blanks has a sheet of paper with specifications of how the final product should measure.
“It’s never-ending,” Biolos says of running a surfboard business, as he moves from one board to the next. A constant soundtrack of shh-shh-shh emanates from the four shaping stalls.
He just returned from a surf trip to Indonesia and is catching up on what was done while he was away. His black hair is shaved close on the sides. There are fresh stitches sewn into the right side of his head, from when he went headfirst into a sharp reef.
Biolos doesn’t shape as much as he used to. He doesn’t have to. The building houses two shaping machines and a staff of shapers to do the majority of the work. Most of his time is spent shaping custom orders for some of the top guys who ride for the label, including Chris “Wardo” Ward and Kolohe Andino, who looks to be the next big thing in surfing. Kolohe’s dad, Dino, stops by the factory once or twice a week when he’s in town.
On this day, Biolos won’t be shaping. Mark Richards, a legendary Australian surfer, is in town. Biolos is the licensee for the MR Surfboards label, and Richards is in the airbrushing room, adding his signature to completed surfboard blanks.
“[Quiksilver] going to be flying you to New York?” Biolos asks, referring to the World Tour event with the record purse scheduled for early September in Long Island, New York.
“Nah,” says Richards, while signing a board. “I figure they’re over budget.”
“A $1 million purse, and they can’t spare a few thousand dollars to bring you over?” Biolos responds, followed by a snicker. He has already booked his flight.
He has come a long way since Chino. He has the same take-no-shit attitude, but he has evolved from being a punk rocker in multicolored ponchos to one of the most successful, recognizable figures in the surf industry.
Growing up, Biolos’ family would escape summers to live on a boat in Dana Point Harbor. Biolos would work underwater boat maintenance and in the shipyard. When he wasn’t working, he’d go fishing, sailing or scuba-diving, or he’d drag his heavy longboard out from the bushes and go surfing at Doheny. Once he graduated from longboards to shortboards, he tried shaping in a friend’s garage.
When he moved to San Clemente in 1987, he took jobs with Herbie Fletcher and Basham, doing “whatever they’d trust me with,” he says. On his own time, he would paint on his surfboards, which caught the eye of Herbie’s son Christian. Much like Biolos, Christian didn’t fit into the social norm of the day.
“Everyone was into classic rock—Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Zeppelin. Everyone was kind of easygoing, long hair, cruisey,” Biolos recalls. “I showed up with this Inland Empire, heavy-punk-rock kind of vibe.
“[Punk rock] influenced my whole motto of life,” continues Biolos, whose band back then were called Mayhem Ordnance. “It was do-it-yourself, make your own album, make your own little fuckin’ EPs, throw your own parties, draw your own fliers, create from scratch, print your own T-shirts, do it all yourself.”
Christian was also a “wild child.” He and Biolos were into the use of skulls and monsters in artwork, and they “were into the same drugs.” The two had instant chemistry. Biolos began doing artwork on boards for Christian, Matt “Archy” Archbold and Dino Andino (Kolohe’s dad)—three of the most promising up-and-coming surfers around.
In 1993, after establishing himself with his artwork and a fledgling T-shirt company, Biolos moved into a two-bedroom house off Los Molinos with Mike Reola, his business partner to this day. The house was notorious for its wild parties. Since it was situated in a business district, they could keep the music tuned loud and the party raging late. “It was fucking madness,” Biolos says. “There was a party every night for two or three years.”
A half-pipe was built in the back yard, and a shed was used as a warehouse for T-shirts and board shorts and any other products that were added to the clothing line, which was called Lost after his group of friends, who called themselves “Team Lost.”
“We didn’t have money; we weren’t the best surfers or the coolest guys. We were Team Lost,” Biolos explains. “Everyone was worried about winning—the football team, the baseball team, Team Quiksilver—but we didn’t care. So what? We had more fun.”
In 1996, with his shaping beginning to garner attention after a couple of Lost-produced surf movies popularized the Mayhem label, Biolos moved his operation into its current location. When he arrived, there was a hermit living out of the front room and an artist next door who converted junked cars into art and lived in the loft.
Biolos’ business expanded as space in the building became available. He says there were times when he considered moving elsewhere, but he knew he would be leaving something special behind.
* * *
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Open of Surfing will kick off at Huntington Beach Pier, bringing thousands of spectators to the weeklong festival of surfing, music and other action sports. The two-time defending champion is local surfer Brett Simpson. By early July, Hamish Graham, a New Zealand-born shaper, already had a stack of fresh SuperStix boards ready and waiting for his highest-profile team rider. Some of the boards Simpson had taken to contests in Portugal and South Africa; others were stashed away in anticipation of defending his title.
The event will bring a parade of A-list professional surfers and industry personalities. They’ll come through to pick up boards, share a few stories with the shapers, and then make the rounds. A month after the U.S. Open, the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour comes to town for a contest at Lowers. For almost a month, work becomes very tough to get done.
“It just gets crazy down here,” Patterson says. “You just see the randomest people come walking through the alley and hang out. And they all watch Slim. The Australians love Slim.”
Doherty, leaning against the wall outside his shop, is wearing a black T-shirt that reads, “On Your Mark, Get Set . . . Go Away.” He has a nearly empty Budweiser in one hand and a phone in the other. His girlfriend is on the other end of the line. She’s stuck in the Costco parking lot in Capistrano Beach; police shut down the city following a shooting at a nearby jewelry store.
“How long are you going to be stuck there?” he asks, seeming concerned. “Did you remember to pick up my beer?”
Perrault is sitting on a footstool nearby, staring at nothing, smiling and silently giggling to himself. One of the carpenters from across the alley is leaning against the wooden light pole, his eyes on Doherty.
As soon as he hangs up the phone, Doherty says, “That’s fuckin’ awesome.” He explains the circumstances that have stranded his girlfriend. Someone at the jewelry shop shot and killed two of the three criminals. Doherty takes a final sip of his beer and throws it into a nearby trashcan, which is almost full with beer cans.
“Good thing I don’t buy much jewelry,” says the carpenter. Doherty gives a half-laugh and disappears into his shop, headed for the mini-fridge.
Doherty’s shop is filled with greasy piles. Piles of broken sanders. Pieces of broken sanders used to fix other sanders. A pile of broken drills. There appears to be a never-ending trail of wires, leading from one pile to the next and up the shelves, where yellow boxes hold the necessary bits and fixings for Doherty to do what he does. Part of his business is fixing the tools of the guys in and around the alley.
He has been in this garage for 14 years. There’s a Confederate flag on the wall, as well as a “Don’t Tread On Me” poster. They hang over Doherty’s knife set, which is vast and stabbed into a wood stump. There’s a sign in the back: “No Trespassing: Violators Will Be Shot Survivors Will Be Shot Again.”
When Doherty reappears, he puts three Barbie dolls on his counter. “Check this out,” he says. A Ken doll is rubbed black with grease, lying prone, with two naked female dolls straddling him, facing each other. “It’s Tiger Woods Barbie,” he declares, with a big Cheshire smile.
Despite the drinking habit and the apparently all-too-OC political views, Doherty is said to be good at what he does. “The guy can fix anything,” Patterson says. “Just bring him whatever needs to be fixed and a 12-pack, and it’s all good.”
The space outside Doherty’s shop is the focal point of distraction and time-wasting in the alley. When guys from the various garages are bored or between work, they’ll wander over, grab a chair and watch. Some will engage in whatever hijinks Doherty may have in mind to pass the time. This week, his interest has been in playing badminton—without a net. He and whomever he can find will volley the shuttlecock for as long as it keeps their interest. It’s a safer game than what was played the week before, when they made a blow-dart gun out of a piece of plastic tubing and nails.
“It’s a dream come true,” Doherty says of his work environment.
“How would you describe this place?” Doherty asks Perrault, who has just pulled his head out of the engine of the gray VW Bug he’s been working on.
“Fun,” Perrault responds.
“Yeah,” says Doherty, taking a moment to assess his own feelings. “All I know is, morning to night, there’s always something being drunk or burned.”