Where are they now? 'Off Radar' with Sean Smith.
If you were skating through the first decade of the millennium and paying attention to the skate media in the UK during that time, then you’ll have been more than familiar with the skateboarding of Sean Smith.
Hailing from Newport Pagnell, Milton Keynes, Sean was essentially the protégé of MK legend and Blueprint Skateboards OG Rob Selley. First appearing as part of the Karma Skateboards team back during their Chris Atherton-lead ‘Shit on the Lens’ years, Sean went on to help Rob establish Motive Skateboards in the early 2000s, whilst his own brand of technically minded and overly solid skating saw him rack up no shortage of coverage across the pages of both Sidewalk and Document. Video-wise, Sean is best remembered for his closing section in Motive’s first and last full length release ‘Dimensions’ (2009), and his part in Sidewalk’s 2011 DVD offering ‘In Progress’, both of which include some of the finest technical skateboarding that this country has ever seen, a lot of which is still referenced in conversation today.
As you’re about to learn, over the last few years of Sean’s tenure as a sponsored skater, he was spending an increasing amount of time residing in Barcelona. Despite the city’s reputation within skateboarding as one of the most productive destinations in Europe, over his time there, Sean gradually drifted off the coverage radar. There were a lot of questions being asked about where he was and what he was up to, but footage and photos became less forthcoming, then, around 2013, word started circulating that Sean was back living in Milton Keynes full time and no longer skating.
For the second of our ‘Off Radar’ interviews, we decided to catch up with Sean and find out what lead to him hanging up his ‘sponsored skateboarder’ hat, and what he’s being doing in the years since.
Interview by Ryan Gray, 2018 photography by Chris Johnson, archive photography by Leo Sharp.
When was the last time you had an interview?
I don’t think I’ve ever had one.
You definitely had a ‘Haunts’...
Oh yeah, that was quite a long time ago, that’s got to be about ten years ago now. That was probably the last interview I had (editors note - Sean's 'Haunts' was run in Sidewalk 146, November 2008).
The last part that we filmed was the Sidewalk ‘In Progress’ part, which came out in 2011. Back then you were on still Motive, living in Newport Pagnell near Milton Keynes…
I was still living in Barcelona. Well…I was back and forth between Barca and home.
You seemed to be in Barca quite a lot back then. When did you first move there?
I moved to Barca when I was 22. I stayed there for maybe eight months, and then came back for a bit, saved a bit of money and went back out there.
You were pro for Motive for most of the time that the company was going, weren’t you?
Yeah. Was I the first pro?
You, Dylan (Hughes) and (Dave) Snaddon got turned pro at the same time…no actually, wasn’t Jody (Smith) the first pro?
Jody was, yeah. He got turned pro then left about a week later (laughs). He had one graphic with a turntable on it, and then I think he got an offer from an Alien Workshop to ride for their European team.
When did things between you and Motive come to an end? Were you there until the very end, or did you leave beforehand?
Probably when I started living in Spain. Well, I used to do stints in Barcelona; I did eight-month stints over a period of about five or six years. So I’d stay there for eight months, run out of money, come home and work in a warehouse for a few months and save enough money to go back out there for a while.
The guy who started Desert Crew was this Croatian dude, Milan; I was staying at his and (Thomas) Winkle’s apartment. Desert Crew as a company started out with him printing some t-shirts, but eventually he ordered a load of boards, and he asked me if I wanted to skate for the boards. Desert Crew was such a sick group of skaters – Colm (Noonan), Josef (Skott-Jatta), (John) Romo, Malcolm, Cian (Eades), Kofta... I spent all of my time with these guys either drinking or skating so it made perfect sense to skate for Desert Crew. I think Milan even offered to pay me (laughs).
Sean's closing section from Motive Skateboards 'Dimensions' (2009)
Was Motive doing much at that point, or was that when it was sort of coming to an end anyway?
Rob (Selley) did send me a few boards out to Barca; I think that was when I first moved there. Rob had offers from people to invest into Motive, but he always wanted to keep it his own company. He didn’t want part owners involved and I think he liked the idea of it being an underground company, not too ‘in your face’. For the skaters, it’s all good getting free boards but I wasn’t really living here, so it made more sense to be part of something in Barcelona.
I must have left Motive around 2012. It seemed like that was the end anyway; everyone else left around the same time. Dylan and Snaddon were already looking elsewhere for a board sponsor, and I think Rob had helped Bushy (James Bush) get on Fabric, thinking that if everyone was leaving he might as well look out for him and get him on another company.
How many pro boards did you get on Motive?
I think I had four. I had the gas mask one, the constellations one, the lion one, and…the letters one.
And how many of those have you kept?
I’ve got one, and that’s the gas mask one (laughs), and it’s got a hole in the middle of it (laughs). Adam Wood at iFive Distribution, they used to get the boards done for Motive Skateboards, and as a nice gift, he made my first pro board into a clock. So he drilled a hole in it and put a clock mechanism in it, and after a while of it sitting under my bed, the clock mechanism fell off, so now there’s just a hole in the middle of my board (laughs). That’s the only one I’ve got, unfortunately.
Did you ride for Desert Crew Skateboards then? I didn’t realise that was actually a company.
Yeah, it was actually a company for a while. I think it was my last long stay in Barcelona when I actually left Motive and was skating for Desert Crew Skateboards. Desert was no longer based at Winkle’s; we all got kicked out or left because Winkle got his job at the DC Embassy. Milan and the other guys were paying for an apartment on Montjuic so I was staying there for a while. I got kicked out from there and ended up living with two French skaters that didn’t speak English. I was basically living on my own so I was pretty bummed out and didn’t even have any drive to skate; I was just getting drunk and taking drugs.
So when did you last move back home to Milton Keynes from Barca? What lead to that decision?
When I was 26. When I was there I started to think, “I need to get out here". I got kicked out of the flat with the French guys with no notice; I got a knock on the door one day and told “you have to move out today!" so I went MACBA and spoke with some of the Brazilians and they were kind enough to give me a room. The room was just big enough to fit a double mattress in, which I carried all the way from the French flat (laughs). The Brazilians place was right next to MACBA. There were cockroaches living in the cereal boxes, climbing up the walls in the kitchen, sometimes they’d be in the bedrooms. Jack (Thompson) and Daniel had a house outside Barcelona; they went to America for a while and Jack was like “you can stay in my room"; he just helped me out, because he knew I would appreciate it more than anyone else; he could have even rented it out for money but instead he hooked a brother up. Thanks Jack.
What happened when you got hit around the head at MACBA – that was around this time wasn’t it? That sounded pretty serious.
I’d moved out of the Brazilians place and I’d moved to Jack’s house. Their house was outside of the city so it was a bit of a trek, and I wasn’t going to come in that night but it was this girls last night before she went home and we had spent some time together so I wanted to see her before she left. Anyway, I was at MACBA beforehand; obviously I didn’t have my board, we were just drinking. I went to the corner where most people go for a piss and these Moroccan guys were like “what are you doing? Don’t take a piss here", I’d had a few drinks so was like “yeah, whatever", then one of them started insulting me.
After I finished I walked over to them and asked “what’s your problem, mate? You don’t need to say that shit" and he said it again, so I said the same thing back to him. Before I knew it, a cupped hand came out of nowhere and hit me in the ear. It was so disorientating I did not know left from right, didn’t know what was up or down…they could have jumped on me, I wouldn’t know what direction they were coming from. Luckily I had a bunch of mates sitting a few meters away, so I walked back to them in shock and was like “I’m completely deaf in my left ear, this guy just whacked me". They all ran over to find the guy, but by that time they’d all run off.
What had happened to your ear?
He completely burst my eardrum. I didn’t think it was too bad at first because I was drunk so I carried on drinking for the rest of the night (laughs). In the morning I was still deaf in my left ear so I went to the hospital, they had a look at it and they took it quite seriously. They said I had an 80% hole in my eardrum and said I’d definitely need an operation on it. What they said was that if it’s a small hole in your eardrum, like under than 50%, it’ll heal on its own. If it’s a big hole, like 80%, you need an operation on it. They referred me to another hospital, they had a look at it and said something similar, but said it was a 60% hole. That was the point where I thought, “I need to go home". There was always a language barrier and I felt I needed to understand properly what the doctors were saying to me.
When I got home, the hospital here told me that the hole had healed a bit more and it was only 40% now, so it was managing to heal itself.
For nine months I couldn’t hear properly and I couldn’t shower properly because I would risk infection if I got water in there when I was washing my hair. It affected my balance as well; I tried skating but I was taking some stupid slams.
That was 2013. When I got back I went straight into a job at a warehouse in Milton Keynes. I was over skating at that point; I just wanted to get my head down.
Sean from Sidewalk Mag's 'In Progress' (2011)
When you left Barca, did you make a conscious decision that you weren’t going to be moving back?
I don’t think I’d decided I wasn’t ever going back, because it is good there, but my thoughts were that I needed a long period of time away from the place, otherwise I was really going to go downhill.
I wasn’t living healthy at all – I was eating bad, drinking a lot, taking drugs, I was living a really unhealthy life.
The thing was though; at the start I was doing the best skating I’d ever done, by a country mile, shit that I never filmed as well. I was skating more than I ever did when I was sponsored. I mean, I was still on DC when I was out there, but after a while I was only skating MACBA every day, because that place is like the epicentre isn’t it? By the time I left, I was doing a lot of skating drunk as well (laughs). It’s just the culture in Barca; a lot of the Scandinavians there, the Swedish dudes, they’ll be on the Damm Lemons in the early hours, then by 5pm or 6pm they move up to the Estrella’s, the San Miguel’s (laughs). Usually you skate all day, then around 6pm or 7pm we’d get a bottle of rum between five of us and share that out at MACBA, then go from there.
You were still on DC when you came home, right?
Nah, Jody kicked me off (laughs). I don’t hold any resentment; I’d told him that I didn’t want to be sponsored anymore. It’s one of those things, in Barcelona you see so many skaters who are amazing who aren’t even sponsored. It doesn’t really matter if you’re sponsored or you’re not – if you’ve got enough money to buy boards and shoes then it’s not important. So long as you’re enjoying skating, that’s all that matters. That’s what Barcelona made me realise, you don’t need to be sponsored to enjoy skating. I was skating so much there when I got kicked off DC - I was skating every day - but I wasn’t filming or shooting photos. If you’re not promoting your sponsor in that way then of course they’re not going to want to sponsor you, but I was happy to just skate every day and not be on a mission to film and take photos. I’d done years of that, I just wanted to skate.
So when you came back to Milton Keynes, were you skating at all?
Nah, with my ear I was completely disorientated and didn’t have any balance, and I think I was completely skated out at that point anyway. And living in Milton Keynes, I’m not going to go down The Buszy after skating MACBA every day (laughs). Going from skating with two hundred people at the same time to three skaters in the freezing cold, it’s a big fall from grace (laughs).
You’ve definitely been skating a lot more recently though.
I skated possibly ten times between 2013 and last year. I didn’t realise that you lived so close; I thought you still lived in London. When I realised you lived nearby and we started talking again, that was sick. You’ve been giving me boards and stuff, and you’re still up for filming. I’ve not had that for a while; I’m a lot keener than I was to get out skating again.
We even got you to The House comp in Sheffield last year (laughs). What was the last comp you entered?
Probably Radlands (laughs). Nah, I did a few comps with DC but I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed I was there.
You entered the first UK Champs, the one at Corby.
Oh yeah, I think I landed two tricks – a front feeble on the flatbar and a nollie back heel over the hip, then I tried to tre flip the driveway for the rest of my run but couldn’t do it (laughs). I did better at The House comp, I had so much fun; I enjoyed that so much. I wasn’t skating to try and win, I was just vibing off skating with so many people, skating a new skatepark with new people.
How’s the Milton Keynes scene these days in comparison to how it was the last time you were properly involved in it?
I think it’s better now; it’s definitely bigger. Before I went to Barcelona there was my generation, the EGC lot, that was pretty much the scene, and we were all about 25. It was still good then but everyone got older, everyone was skating less, everyone was working…you’d go down The Buszy and you’d be on your own in the freezing cold, it’s quite depressing. I’d rather be working, you know what I mean?
I think now there’s the generation below us – Jman (Josh Gregory), Jamie (Staples), Bushy…and there’s loads of them, there’s about twenty of them, and they’ve all got a well good vibe about them. They enjoy themselves. Big Gaffa is the hype man; he turns up on like a ten-inch Anti Hero board drinking beers (laughs). It’s a good scene now, they’re all hyped on skating, and they’ve got loads of energy about them.
How was it having CJ turn up to shoot photos for this interview on January 4th?
That was pretty gnarly. Leo Sharp came down just before Christmas and we went to the pub but he wanted a photo of me, Rob and Bushy at The Buszy, I started skating about – not doing anything much - but it was well wet and I ended up tweaking my ankle. My ankle felt OK in the New Year so I told CJ to come down, and it was literally freezing cold, it was when Storm Eleanor was hitting and it was properly windy. It was probably the worst time of year to shoot a photo, let alone when you’re a bit out of practice anyway. I hurt my toe straight away but we got a couple of photos…and he shot some real professional portraits (laughs). I was stoked on those; they’ll be going straight on my Facebook profile.
What do you do on a day-to-day basis at the moment then?
I normally work five days a week as a plasterer. I still live in Newport Pagnell, Milton Keynes, but I work in London, so I drive down every morning and back every evening. It takes about two hours to get to work; you don’t even have time for a cup of tea most days, so it’s straight into work. I’m learning plastering, I’ve been doing it for just under a year and a half. I’ve got quite a bit to learn but I’ve picked it up pretty quickly. I can skim on my own; I’m lucky I’ve picked it up quite quickly.
Do you ever miss sponsored skateboarding?
I guess I miss parts of it. Going on trips, you can’t beat that. Those were some of the best times I’ve ever had.
Any final words, for now?
Thanks to you guys for doing the interview, and thanks to CJ for the photos.