Steven Mast is a talented shaper/artist/musician/surfer who divides his busy life between San Diego, Cincinnati, and Kentucky. Known for his talent in surfboard building as well his tattoo art, Steven’s creativity has no boundaries. We spoke with him to learn more.
What was it like growing up in Ohio?
Actually it was pretty cool—in an Opie Taylor sort of way. (For those of you too young to get the reference, watch some old Andy Griffith Shows). I grew up with a family of six kids in a small river town surrounded by forested hills and cornfields. Spent the summers swimming, and exploring the creeks and woods. My family had a bunch of old beater dirt bikes that, as long as I worked and could buy gas, I could use. Just push ‘em a couple blocks and head into the woods. I remember the family loading into the station wagon to go to the drive-in and see Evel Kneivel, played by George Hamilton. Awesome.
Of course all of us couldn’t wait to grow up and get the hell out of there. But in retrospect, it was a pretty idyllic childhood.
What attracted you to surfing?
Well, I grew up swimming. My mother watched a friend drown when she was a kid, so she made sure we could all swim practically before we could walk. We’d visit my grandma in Florida every other year, so I learned to love the ocean. Then, I saw an episode of “Wide World of Sports” that covered the Pipe Masters back in the ‘70s and I was hooked. They also had some competitive skateboarding on the show. So I got out my brother’s old clay-wheeled sidewalk surfer and pretended I was surfing. I became one of the better skaters in Cincinnati eventually, but never lost the feeling that skating was a sorry substitute for surfing.
What was the feeling you had when you you first stood on a surfboard?
I actually spent a lot of time in the soup on Mission Beach learning to surf. But the first real wave I caught, turned and rode was at Doheny. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got up, went left and as I trimmed down the line, I said out loud, “This rules.” And it did. The wave was about thigh high. I’ve been hopelessly addicted ever since.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were growing up?
Growing up, I admired my older brothers. They always seemed so cool and I was in love with every one of their girlfriends at one point or another. Also, my mom’s brothers were the coolest older dudes I knew. They were like Cool Hand Luke and James Dean. Hard working carpenters.
Also, my grandpa, Harry. He’d spent time in the army in World War II, then had taken his family to Montana to work on a ranch before returning to Ohio and working as a contractor/builder. He chain smoked Camels, drank quarts of shitty beer and drove me and my brother around the surrounding counties visiting work sites. He taught me how to drive nails, shoot, pee outdoors and that life is for living, not worrying all the time about shit that doesn’t matter. He died early doing what he wanted. He was my idea of a real man. And although I didn’t at the time, I now admire my parents most for giving their lives to a family of six spoiled brats who didn’t appreciate it. They both worked themselves practically to death to give us a chance at a better life. They are both amazing people and I’m proud to be their son.
What inspired you to shape boards?
I’ve always found gratification in working with my hands. My father spent endless hours teaching me to use tools and my brain to do whatever was needed. I really wanted a board that would work the way I saw in those first television shows I saw as a kid. To me, the apex of style was the end of the single fin era. The problem was, most of the boards I saw at the time were either short longboards or long short boards. The only thing close were Skip’s eggs and Eaton’s bonzers. Since I could afford neither, I looked into shaping. I bought and studied Carper’s Shaping 101 and as many books as I could find, and became obsessed with learning the craft. I never in my wildest dreams thought people would actually pay for my shapes.
What do you love about it?
It sounds corny, but sculpting something with my hands that I created in my mind. I’ve been tattooing for twenty two years now and I have become very successful thanks to a lot of people along the way. But I have never felt more like an artist than when I’m shaping a new design. I shape intuitively and feel like I can visualize and feel how water will behave as it slides across the contours I’m creating. I get great satisfaction from the beautiful, organic curves that I like to use in my designs. Of course, testing them is at least as much fun as shaping them. I feel incredibly fortunate that the boards I shape are able to pay for themselves. That other people get enjoyment from them is icing on the cake.
Tell us about your tattoo work.
I apprenticed under Dana Brunson in Cincinnati in 1989 and have been tattooing professionally ever since. It’s a great way to make a living if you can handle the stress. Over they years, tattooing allowed me the freedom to travel and, eventually, to move to San Diego to fulfill my lifelong dream of making surfing a part of my life. I lived there full-time, working for Patty Kelley at Avalon Tattoo in Pacific Beach, for eleven years. Currently, I spend over half of my time in Newport, Kentucky/Cincinnati, Ohio, working at Designs by Dana. The balance of my time is spent in San Diego working at Avalon Tattoo and shaping boards up on the hill in Encinitas (thanks to the generosity of Randy Wong and, now, Matt and Margaret Calvani).
Who are some of the people who have ridden your boards?
I personally know a lot of the people who are on my boards—nobody famous really, just Tourmaline locals and their friends. I have a fair number of boards going to Japan through Surfindian in PB lately and that is very gratifying. I also have boards at Corduroy in Portland, Maine and Greg Surf Company in Osaka.
Who or what inspires you?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The old crew at Tourmaline—Black Mac, Hadji, Billy Goldsmith, Ron St. John, Bud Caldwell, Captain Dan, Larry Gordon. All of these guys, some of them now gone, have been an inspiration. The joy of hanging out with friends and getting some water time in, when most people their age are happy just to get up in the morning, is a true inspiration to me.
Beautiful design also inspires me. When I see something that is so well designed that it is pared down to it’s functional essence, that’s inspiring.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Humility and compassion. Both very difficult, both the path to true happiness.
What are you most proud of?
My thirty-one year relationship with my beautiful wife, Karen.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
It’s hard to explain, but surfing is like exercise, church, therapist and the playground all rolled into one. I can’t think of any other activity that allows adults to play, just play, not compete. I feel that surfing puts you in the moment and that, just like meditation, this is a life-altering and healthy thing. We, as a society, get so hung up on material things and politics and what other people are thinking and doing that we forget to just live and experience what we are doing at any given moment.
Such a gift surfing is. It still amazes me that I sometimes see angry, bitter people in the line-up. Surfers have a daily experience that some people save up for an entire year just to experience for a couple days. That fact has helped me to adjust my outlook. I try to see whatever I am doing as an experience that I may never get to have again and appreciate it for its uniqueness in time. Whether it’s tattooing an individual, riding a wave, playing music with my friends, each of these things will never happen again and each makes up my life for better or worse.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
The perfect day: waking up and heading to the beach with my wife, having a nice session, going to work for awhile before spending the evening with Karen, cooking and hanging out.
Describe a perfect meal.
I’ve been in and around the restaurant business since I was 17. All the good things in my life came from that—my wife, my career, travel, my outlook. I’ve had my share of great meals, but a few stand out. Oysters with an Abita Amber at Felix’s Oyster House in the French Quarter. The roast duck with corn pudding at Nola, Emiril’s casual place, again in the French Quarter. The Chicken Martinelli at Dee Felice Café in Covington, Kentucky. Any number of dinners Karen and I concocted at home.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Miles Davis, Mozart, Baroque chamber music, the Old 97’s, Tom Waits, Led Zeppelin, John Prine, The Specials, Dave Brubeck. There’s only two kinds of music—good music and bad music.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I don’t know about the future of surfing, but I really like the shapes of Brian Hilbers, Marc Andreini and Manny Caro. I practically worship Skip Frye. Matt Calvani, at Bing, definitely has his shit together as far as keeping a large surfboard label going and still staying forward thinking.
What are you currently riding? Your favorite surf spot?
I only own about five boards at a time and keep about three boards in my bus. I go to them depending on conditions, but my favorites right now are my 6’7″ HPH speedster and my 7’3″ Malibu hull. I’m kinda missing my Hillbilly hull though.
I love Tourmaline for the consistent, user-friendly waves and people. I consider it my home break. Although I don’t get there as often as I’d like, The Cliffs has to be one of the greatest surf areas in the world and, despite the crowds, you gotta love the wave at Swamis.
What’s next for Steve Mast?
I’m concentrating on steering away from custom shapes and only shaping whatever inspires me on any given day. My best shapes happen when I have no set goal, as in exact dimensions or am reproducing an older shape. I kind of like the idea of surfboards in a fine art mode where each shape is a new creation, perhaps in a consistent style, that stands on its own. I feel the new gallery type surf shops like Surfindian and Corduroy, not to mention Mollusk and Icons, are leading this trend.
I’m also working on spending more time in San Diego again with my wife. I love Kentucky and Cincinnati, but I really miss the beach in the mornings.
To learn more about Steven Mast, please visit his website here. Photography courtesy of Steven Mast. Special thanks to Adam Cap.