chrome ball interview #135: karl watson

Chromeball vs. Spitball

You're widely seen as the "happiest" or "most positive" guy in skateboarding, but do you personally feel that way? Why do you think that is? 

(laughs) That’s a great question. Because, honestly, while it’s an honor to be given that title, it can be really hard to live up to.

I think that comes from back in the EMB days, befriending various outsiders who came in to the spot. I couldn’t help but notice whenever dudes were obviously feeling uncomfortable out there. So, for whatever reason, I took it upon myself to be a little more welcoming than the rest of the crew. And it just stuck. It became something that everybody always said. So, over the years, people would meet me and automatically think I was the nicest guy in skateboarding.

I honestly don’t think it’s true. I’m definitely not the happiest. I have bad days just like everybody else.

Because I imagine if you are having a bad day at the park and people are expecting Happy Ol' Karl to come through, that has to make things worse, right?

(laughs) Yes! Absolutely!

I actually have this thing about my face, that whenever I’m not smiling, it looks like I’m frowning. So early on, I started smiling more than usual so people didn’t think I was mad at them. And that just stayed with me, which has honestly made me more of a happier person, in general. That probably had a lot to do with it. I smile a lot.

Who do you see as the happiest person in skateboarding?

I’d probably have to say Theotis Beasley. He’s got that great big smile, I gotta go with him.

So Dogtown was your first sponsor?

Yeah, back in 1989. The SF version of Dogtown, back when Red Dog was partnering with Keith Cochrane and Greg Carroll, who’d later start Think. First came Dogtown.

I want to say Greg was the catalyst for all that. He’d be down there with us at Embarcadero and he hooked it all up… Me, Nick Lockman, Sam Smythe, and Shawn Mandoli. And when Dogtown ended, we just went with him and Keith over to Think.

The Missing Children.

Exactly, even though that graphic wasn’t really about that.

Did you ever meet Red Dog as a little dude?

I only met him once back then, that was about it. That whole thing was pretty much already coming to an end. Skateboarding was in such a state of flux, going from launch ramps to technical street skating... Dogtown was already looking to revamp their whole thing.

It was fun getting that attention back then, but honestly, I wasn’t ready to be sponsored yet. I really wasn’t that great of a skater at that point. I feel like it largely just came down to my being at the right place with the right crew. Nick and Sam had talent, which was the only way I was able to slide in there like I did. And I just rolled on over to Think with those guys after that.

What were those early days like at Think?

Oh, I was hyped on Think. Because it felt like ours. Nick Lockman even came up with the name. Because they were actually going to call it “Move” at first. Move Skateboards. And at age 9, Nick not only came up with the idea to call it “Think Skateboards”, he also came up with the logo as well. So yeah, we were definitely in there at the beginning, which gave us all a sense of pride with it. It’s wild, too, because that company had such a long run!

So much of that original squad were my friends. Nick and Sam, I grew up skating with those guys. They’re the ones who actually first took me down to EMB, and now, here we all are on this Missing Children board. We loved it, man.

I remember riding, like, a hundred of those “Safe As Milk” boards in a row. That was my first taste of having a consistent shape and concave, which really helped me progress back then. Just having that stability.

Where did the Missing Children concept come from?

I think they just wanted something to be noticed. To create a little controversy and draw some attention to the brand. Because if you think about it, a bunch of missing children on a poster is pretty gnarly. But we were just so young, we didn’t totally get all of the ramifications. We just thought it was cool, even though my parents were pretty bummed on it... And then they spelled my name wrong. That was the only thing I was bummed on.

“That’s not my name!”

Oh well, I got over it. I’m stoked on it now.

Yeah, but they’d known you for years by that point!

Yeah, but I hadn’t really had any editorial yet. And Karl is typically spelled with a “C”. They really had no way of knowing. There weren’t even any contracts back then. It was just a different time.

Even before that, they had me holding a gun for an ad! Pointed directly into the camera, shot fisheye. That was an ad! My folks were tripping on that hardcore, man! Because I’d never even held a gun before, and here I am in a magazine with one? And it was so heavy. I remember complaining about that, too.

“Aw, man… do I really have to hold this gun again? It’s so heavy! Didn’t we get the photo already?”

“Nah, you gotta hold it like this…”

I was actually going to ask about that ad. “True Brother in the Struggle” with a Mandela quote and you holding a gun?

Oh damn, I forgot about that Mandela quote.

Yeah, I’m like 13 there. That was a Keith Cochrane idea. I remember that being his gun, too… I still don’t know why they used that quote for such a photo, though. Maybe for a contrast of imagery? Because Nelson Mandela was this peaceful warrior and here I am, this little hood kid with a gun? It was definitely unique.

Well, I love your early Venture ad with the noseslide transfer.

Yeah, that was at the Safeway curb, right by my house. That was a fun day. Pre-cell phones, I just made plans to meet Tobin Yelland at the spot and shoot it. I must’ve done that trick a million times that day but I didn’t mind. That was my trick back then. Tobin got such an epic photo of me, too. That’s still one of the best photos ever taken of me. Fisheye with the legs popped up. You can see the graphics really well... and I’m such a little kid there. I had no idea why he was lying on the ground, getting all dirty. But once I saw the final product, I immediately saw what he was going after. Perspective!

So we joked about you having a bad day earlier, but your Partners in Crime part captures just that. Tantrum and all.

(laughs) Yeah, it did. I had no idea that stuff was going to be in there, but I watch it now and it’s funny. That might be one of the first parts with stressing in it. I’m super pissed off there.

I was trying a nose manual to nollie back 180 and getting so close! I wanted it so bad! And then Jake Rosenberg kept on putting the camera in my face, making me even madder. He really knew how to push my buttons back then.

If I would’ve just calmed down, I probably would’ve probably done it. I understand that now. If I just would’ve focused that energy towards accomplishing my goal, instead of being angry. But I was so influenced by the older dudes at EMB back then. That’s all I saw. If they couldn’t land their tricks, they started screaming and throwing their boards. I was a product of that environment.

Were you embarrassed when you saw that later?

Nah, I knew it wasn’t a good look but that’s who I was back then. It was something I had to go through.

But it wasn’t all stressing, you did have one of the longer parts in that video.

Yeah, I actually got to film for a good 2 or 3 months there, which was pretty shocking for back then. I’m just so young in that one, but super focused. And I was really thinking about things back then, too. Already going on my own missions with filmers to get stuff. Unique tricks. Getting out to other spots besides EMB so my part would look different. I’m not sure if all that came across, but that’s how I was going about it. 

But while I was honored to be in the video, that part also made me realize how kinda janky I looked on my board back then. When you’re a kid and you’re out there doing tricks, sometimes you think they’re far greater than what they really are. Because there are a few tricks in there that I felt like I “made up”... like I do what I thought was a frontside nose “slide” transfer with nollie back 180, going from high-to-low? In my mind, it was a proper slide. I was proud of it. But after actually watching it, I can’t call that a slide, man. That’s more of a stall.

And there’s what I thought was a switch crook 180 out in there, too, but it looks more like a nosebump at the very end of the edge. A sloppy... something. I don’t even know what it was. Something happened but it wasn’t a switch crook 180 out, that’s for sure. It was not that. (laughs)

So were you hyped on your part or kinda bummed on seeing this stuff for the first time?

It was an eye opener, for sure. Because I remember Keith Cochrane telling me that I needed to bend my knees more. This was right before the video dropped.

“Man, you need to bend your knees more. You don’t bend your knees enough when you skate.”

I was actually more offended by that than anything. But once I saw my part, I knew what he was talking about. He was right. We just didn’t look at clips back then.

There were a few things in there that I was stoked on. My back 3 with the Burger King hat on. My crown. I was really stoked on that one. That half-cab noseslide fakie and a boardslide nosegrind 180 out…

Describe your EMB experience as an impressionable young skater.

Man, being a kid at EMB in the early 90s… the fact that I was accepted by the crew, that was a blessing. Because there weren’t many kids who were accepted like that. You could be allowed to skate there but if you weren’t in the crew, you didn’t get the full EMB experience. I got to hear about everything that was going down. All of the heckling, all the conversations about this dude hooking up with that chick, all of the fights… and I was right there in the mix with everybody. Absorbing it all. There was always something fun and exciting going down. And you never knew what to expect. It really did form who I am today as a person.

You’ve said that you were the wildest of the young kids down there. How so?  

Oh, I was definitely the wildest… and honestly, I see a lot of that in my son Jonathan as well. Because he’s kind of the same way, the class clown. That's how I got attention. Pull my pants down and skate across EMB. Jump on the trampoline naked. Anything to get a rise out of people. That was how I learned to be liked, by acting like a fool.

But everything just seemed to click for me down at Embarcadero. I honestly felt like I had found my true family, through skateboarding. So there was no turning back after that. I was totally immersed in skateboard culture and you weren’t about to rip that out of me.

The closest I ever got to quitting was when I was 14, I broke my finger down at EMB one morning. It got caught between two bricks and was a really bad break. I remember crying the whole way home on the bus. My Mom took me to the hospital to get it fixed and when I got home, I threw my skateboard away. Straight into the garbage, just because I was angry. But it just so happened that the next day was garbage day, so it was gone. And by that point, I wasn’t mad anymore.

“Oh shit! My board just got thrown away.”

I couldn’t believe it. Because I was just mad at the situation, you know? I didn’t really want to quit. But when I realized that my board was gone... oh man, it hit me hard.

But do you know who ended up bringing me another board? Henry Sanchez. An aggressive young man but he had a big heart, Henry brought me a board over to my house. I still remember that. And that’s what got me skating again.

You’ve called Kelch “Your Dad”, does that stem from this whole family vibe you’re talking about?

It’s funny, because it took a year of skating with Nick Lockman and Sam Smythe before they finally brought me down to EMB. Totally just vetting me. So when I was finally able to skate this place that I’d seen and heard so much about, I was stoked. I immediately went and tried to do an indy grab off the stage... total nose dive. Straight to my face. And because I was so young, I was also very expressive, so I definitely started screaming and making a scene. It was Kelch who came over and literally picked me up by the collar of my shirt and walked me over to the wave.

“You’ll be okay, little homie.”

And it was on after that. That was my initiation into EMB. This was 1989, before it landed on the world stage. So yeah, it was still very much Kelch’s realm down there.

But how would you react to the often seedy underbelly of EMB as a kid so fascinated by skateboarding culture?

It was pretty crazy, for sure. Because these are all guys I respected. I mean, drinking 40s and all that was just a part of it. Smoking weed, that’s to be expected. But when guys started getting really fucked up on stuff, that was scary. That’s when suddenly you felt like a little kid again, real fast.

Because not only did you know that it probably wasn’t the best thing for them to be doing, you also saw a different side of people. You’d have these wild interactions with people that they wouldn’t even remember. And something like that could change how you saw that person forever afterwards.

Anything stand out?

Yeah, but it’s also kind of a fight story, too. You remember Pierre, right?

Yeah. So at the time, there was another dude who was high up in the rankings at EMB. He had brought his girl down and one of the other dudes, Ryan, said something disrespectful to her. Just wilding out. Well, Pierre didn’t put up with that kinda stuff. He was already sensitive to that sort of thing, but if you messed with somebody’s girl in the crew, too? Pierre was not having it. So Chef seriously kicked dude in the face from the stage. I’d never seen anything like it.

Because Ryan was not somebody you wanted to mess with. He was part of the THK Crew. The Honkey Krew. Those guys were, like, the founders of EMB in the early 80s. A bunch of Irish guys from the avenues. Surfers-turned-skaters who were just gnarly, man. You did not fuck with these dudes. They were the guys who brought that surfer mentality to EMB. That this spot belongs to us.

But yeah, Chef kicked Ryan in the face and they all started fighting... that was the first time I ever saw Ryan scared. I’d never seen him back down or run from a situation. Actually, he was always the one initiating fights. So not only seeing this guy get his butt kicked but also seeing Pierre so angry, it honestly scared me a little. Because I’d never seen Pierre mad before. I’d seen him eat glass before, but never mad.

You saw him eat glass?

Yeah, straight-up chewing glass and swallowing it. And the next thing we knew, he was spitting up blood. Everyone’s laughing but I seriously thought dude was gonna die… but he lived through it. (laughs)

It was! Damn, you’re bringing back memories!

Alphonzo and some of the H-Street dudes had come down to EMB and were skating the Seven. And the thing with Embarcadero, if you came there without a high level of respect for the locals, if you didn’t greet everyone at the spot, they’re gonna be eyeing you. And if you do something wrong, then you really fucked up.

But Alphonzo knew how to carry himself. Being a half-black dude in San Diego, he’d already dealt with enough heckling. He was street smart, but in a San Diego/North County kinda way. He wasn’t San Francisco street smart. He didn’t address the locals correctly. Because that’s the one thing you gotta do: say hi to everybody at the spot. Especially the guys who are there drinking and smoking, because those guys are typically the leaders, in a way. Alphonzo didn’t do that. So when his board shot out and hit Ryan’s girl in the ankle, Ryan immediately got up and punched him. No hesitation. He was quick to go like that.

And you were there for the Ricky Oyola incident as well, right?

Yeah, that was horrible.

Ricky was trying something over the Seven and for whatever reason, screaming “Nigger” was like his “Fuck” back then. So next thing we know, we’re just hearing this dude screaming “Nigger!”, like, multiple times. We couldn’t even believe it. It was like he had Tourette’s or something.

The first couple times, we’re just kinda looking at each other in disbelief. But then he screamed it again, Jovontae just starts chasing him. They’re fighting. They’re running around. They ran into the art gallery, which was always off-limits to skaters. They start fighting in there. It was wild, man.

And yeah, that stuff was always exciting, but at the same time, we liked seeing out-of-town pros come to the spot. Obviously, Ricky’s circumstances were a little different than Alphonzo’s case, but we’d always be a little bummed to see them getting into fights down there.

Didn’t you get punched by a cop at EMB, too?

Damn, I have no idea how you know that one, bro. But yeah, I was just walking through EMB with my board. This was after the cops had started cracking down on skateboarding and there was some crazy energy going on. The cops just happened to recognize me, so they arrested me.

They brought me down to Chinatown police station and handcuffed me to the bench. I was only 13 or 14 at the time, but I was talking as much shit as I possibly could. All the shit in the world. Saying stuff that had to be hurtful but what I thought were good things to say at the time. There were two cops in there and one of them just walked over and punched me super hard in the face. My head hit the wall. And I immediately turned into the victim.

It took years for me to learn from that situation. Of course, you don’t punch a kid, but also, that cop is a person, too. He’s not just some android. He’s dealing with his own stuff, too. And here’s this kid who thinks he knows everything, talking all this trash. I had to learn that I was the one who initiated that situation. And after that, I’ve never had a bad experience with a cop.

Weren’t spitballs your weapon of choice back then?

Oh yeah, spitballs were my thing. Spitballs and gleeking, bro. No remorse. And I was a good shot, too. I’d shoot at people while they’re driving. Nobody was safe. It was stupid. We used to ride around in the back of my buddy Soup’s truck. It had one of those shells on the back with the tinted windows. It was perfect. We’d be driving all over the city and I’d crack open one of those windows a little bit, shooting spitballs at everybody.

But I had to learn a hard one with that, too. Because one time at Hayes and Divisadero, I shot this lady at the bus stop. And how I shot her, she had glasses on. I didn’t mean to do this but the spitball hit her glasses and ricocheted back right into her eyeball. It was wild. But we were stopped and she heard us all laughing in the back of this truck... Man, she came over, grabbed one of our boards out of the truck and broke the freaking window with it. That was something else. So yeah, that was one of the last times I ever shot somebody with a spitball.

But what about other skaters? Was everyone fair game or were certain people off-limits? Like Kelch, for example?

Oh, hell yeah! Everybody was game. I mean, I knew I couldn’t hit Kelch in the face with a spitball, that was going too far. But I’d get him in the back of the head or something.

I was all about taunting dudes. Because I knew they weren’t going to beat me up. Sure, they’d chase me around and rough me up a little, but it was all fun. It was like big brother-little brother type stuff.

Who was your favorite target?

Probably Nick Lockman. Because he was smaller than the rest of us. He was helpless. (laughs)

Is there a time where you specifically remember seeing a trick being invented at EMB?

Oh, definitely.

There was a local artist who had gotten inspired by the skaters at EMB and ended up making a statue down there that also had a little ledge with coping. It was so much fun, man. Because we never really had stuff that grinded good at EMB. Everything was pretty rough and rugged. But this thing had perfect metal coping on it, so a lot of tricks were learned on that thing.

Henry Sanchez did a fakie 5-0 grind, fakie flip out on it. That’s the one that still stands out to me most. Because he just made it up. And I’d never even heard of someone doing something like that before. It was like magic.

Henry and Carroll were always coming up with new stuff back then.

So how did you get on World?

That was right after I got that Venture Ad with the crossover noseblunt slide. And if you look really close at that photo, I actually had a World sticker on my board. Just a coincidence. Not that it was some big thing, nobody really tripped on that stuff back then.

World happened after we got associated with a few of their ams from LA who’d come up to skate EMB, like Jeron Wilson. There were a bunch of us in SF that all got on World around this time, through this same connection. Mike York, Shamil Randle, Ben Sanchez. We all rode for World, which was like the biggest thing in skateboarding at the time. So when that opportunity came up, of course, I was down.

I still remember telling Greg that I was leaving Think. He was so bummed, man.

“We just spent $2,500 for that ad in Thrasher and now you’re gonna quit on me?”

That was actually when it first dawned on me that running ads in magazines was expensive. I had no idea. And I truly felt bad about that. But what could I say? World was the best crew at the time.

Tell me about your “lost” Love Child part.

I was 14 or so at the time, and I’d started going down to LA a lot. Skating the Pond Ledges and the Santa Monica double-sided curbs. I would stay at Tim Dowling’s house, so we’d just be out there filming constantly. That was the thing to do: film, film, film. Every single day, for probably 3 or 4 months.

So after a while, I have all this footage. I start thinking that I’m gonna have a pretty good part in this video. So I go back to San Francisco and Love Child comes out. I get the video in my next package and immediately call up everybody I know. We’re gonna have our own little premiere.

“Meet me at Lavar’s house.”

So we’re all sitting around, watching it at Lavar’s house. And I’m starting to think to myself, “Man, they must really like my footage. They’re putting me towards the end!”

A little bit goes by.

“Oh, they’re putting my stuff in the credits! Extra special!”

The credits roll. I’m not in video.

None of my friends knew what to say… and it was such a hurtful moment for me. Because I had worked so hard on that footage. All I could do was just reflect on myself and my skating at that point, like what Keith Cochrane had said about my knees. Because I was crushed, man. And after that, I really started to focus on my skating. Being totally honest with myself and scrutinizing everything. Not only that, I started really trying to understand skateboarding. Because before that, I was just learning tricks. I wasn’t focusing on the techniques. I was just trying to land stuff. If I landed it, all good. But no, it’s deeper than that. So I really started focusing on the actual techniques, which made my style better. It made my skating flow better because I became more confident with my movements.

But yeah, that was a crazy moment for me, for sure.

I can’t even imagine.

And then the footage resurfaced, like 20 years later or something!

I’ve seen it! It would’ve totally fit in Love Child! But did you ever see an edit or choose a song?

No, nothing like that. I just filmed with Socrates or Tim Dowling and the rest of the team. And I was there when they filmed stuff that was in the video. So my stuff would’ve been on the same tapes. I figured for sure that I was gonna be in the video.

Because it’s not like I wasn’t on the team or something. I was getting paid every month... it wasn’t much but it was still something. $100 a month. And they were sending me boxes.

What was Rodney’s explanation the next time you talked to him?

Honestly, it was this big taboo topic. Rodney never mentioned it and I never brought it up. I quit a few months later.

You’re still on the team after that?

Yeah, I was still on World after that. Still getting paid. Still getting boxes. But it was obviously a dead end.

Fast forward a few years later to the Mad Circle days, Rodney comes to Pier 7 and he’s watching me skate.

“Wow, I’m so impressed, Karl! I really like your progression! If you ever need a home, I’m here for you.”

And yeah, I was honored. After all, it’s Rodney Mullen! But still, what about that Love Child part, homie?

That’s amazing.

Something else I remember from back then, all of us skating with Rodney in Santa Monica one day. And I was trying a switch inward heelflip to regular tailslide. I was really stoked on it, too, because I’d never seen anyone do that before. I thought that it was so different.

“Hey Rodney, what do you think of this trick?”

“Eh… you know, it doesn’t look that good.”

“Oh, okay. Cool.”

So I stopped trying it. No hard feelings, I actually appreciated the honesty. But then two years later, he did that same trick in his video part!

“What the heck!?!... Come on, Rodney!” (laughs)

As part of their “Bread and Butter”, did you skate the World Park often?

Oh man, we lived there, bro! That place was amazing! They had those bunk beds... there were so many crazy little kid things going down. Because we were free. We were away from our parents, staying in this warehouse where we could skate til 5 in the morning. Sleep until 2. We loved it. There were boards there, misprinted shirts that said “Fucked Up” on them. We were those dudes… like the FA dudes at that time. We were that crew.

Give us an example of some off-the-board hi-jinx.

(laughs) Well, we definitely had this one porno tape. And up in those bunkbeds, we had a tv and vcr in the middle of the room. Well... sometimes boys will do what they do. Turn off the lights, pop the tape in and everybody would just sit in their beds in the dark. While this video was playing, I guess we’d just do our thing. It was very interesting.

I can’t even believe this was a thing! (laughs)

(laughs) Well, how did things end at World? Were you ever even communicated as a team member?

That “Bread and Butter” ad was the only World ad I was ever in. And I don’t know if I really quit or if it was more of a mutual separation. Because I loved World. Even after not being in the video, I still loved it.

But I was kind of in limbo for a while after that. I rode for a few weird companies, like Clean Skateboards. That was the first company I turned pro for.

Yeah, what was the story behind Clean?

It was a father-and-son operation out of Reno. The father was wealthy and the son was inquisitive and big-hearted. He had a vision of what he wanted to do in skateboarding. And they turned me pro! I was only 17!

It was actually a good experience. He paid me well for the time and flew us all over the place... even though I really wasn’t ready to be pro yet. I definitely turned pro prematurely. But that’s the thing, when somebody believes in you, that alone can help you become a better skater. Just by him giving me a shot, it actually pushed me to get to where I really needed to be. I knew that I wasn’t at that pro level yet, but getting that opportunity made me want to get there.

What ultimately happened with that company?

Just like how a lot of brands go out of business: the skaters bled it dry. You keep getting your check and your boxes but the company isn’t selling enough product to sustain. So out they go.

I feel like you kinda went under the radar at this point. What all was going on here with you?

Oh, after World, I got really into graffiti. When I was 16, I pretty much spent that whole year focused on that. Going out in the middle of night and bombing. Finding unique rooftops, that was my thing. Figuring out a way to get up there, super high, and not really knowing how to get back down. Basically risking my life every time I went out. It was insane. So yeah, my attention swayed over there for a minute.

And after Clean, I started working a job, too. Selling pizza by the slice on Polk Street. I did that into my Mad Circle days. 3 days a week: two 7-hour days and a 14-hour day, from 11:30 am to 1:30 am. Because I wanted to skate as much as possible, I crammed in most of my hours on a crazy Friday. But that job was actually a good thing for me. I feel like that was where I started to meet different types of people and became more open-minded to things. Just getting some life experience.

But one highlight during this era was your stuff in Penal Code. I always loved your bit in the intro but did you have any idea what you were doing there? That it was a Jean Luc Godard reference? Or was that just Meza telling you to stand in random places?

Oh, I had no idea what he was referencing. It was the latter, for sure. Just standing there with Meza. I’ve always loved that dude... the softest hands in the industry. I just trusted that he knew what he was doing.

“Hey Karl, I want to showcase a different side of you.”

“Cool. Let’s do it.”

I think that was one of the first times I ever filmed with 16mm. And I had no idea what it was going to look like, but it came out awesome. It put that project on a totally different level. Just the whole vibe, I’d never seen a video come out showcasing lifestyle like that one did.

One of Hubba Hideout’s most underrated tricks, why put your switch back 50-50 in a shop montage? That’s a big trick!

It’s funny you say that, because people always bring up the frontnose 270 like it was such a hard trick. I always think to myself, “Man, that switch back 50 was so much harder.”

To get both trucks up there, that was crazy! I guess I just wasn’t thinking along those lines of using it for something “bigger”. And also, having it in an FTC video was legit, too. Especially at the time.

But for a while, switch back 50 was my trick. Because living in the city, you’re pushing everywhere, so your leg gets hella strong... which meant that my switch pop was tremendous! I could switch ollie over anything! Maybe that’s why I didn’t really see it as that crazy back in the day? Because it came relatively easy. I think I got it within 30 minutes, which was pretty fast at the time.

Always one of skateboarding’s great what-ifs, talk about Profile.

Yeah, Profile was before Mad Circle, which meant I was pro two times over before I had to go back to being am for Mad Circle. But Mad Circle was a real company, whereas Clean and Profile were considered to be... not so much. Mad Circle was next level.

Profile was started with the homies: me, Spencer, Lee, Stevie and Henry. It was with Roger from Experience, just because he had money and a little warehouse going with Experience Skateboards and Pure Wheels. Just Henry being on the team was enough for us, so we made it happen. And Profile was our first taste of being involved in the process of graphics, ads and whatever else we wanted to put out into the world.

So was it Henry’s company or was he just another rider?

I’m sure that he had some kind of ownership there. Because he was older and such a big name, he must’ve had more of a vested interest there. I know he had a big hand in putting together the team because he was not about to be on a team with people he didn’t mess with. Trust me, Henry was not playing that game. (laughs)

Black Rain, bro! The Rain!

He was this guy who came onto the scene and automatically, everybody liked him. Quiet dude, not trying to impress anybody. Smooth style, good trick selection... Honestly, I still don’t know very much about him. But people still bring him up to me out of nowhere.

“What’s up with Rain?”

Too funny, bro.

So was Profile always a rocky situation?

Well, it definitely ended rough. There turned out to be lack of money. And with Henry involved, he could be a gnarly hothead at times. When things started going bad, shit definitely hit the fan as far as Henry was concerned. And not too long after that, Roger ended up losing all his other brands and moved out to Texas, starting Texas Skateboards.

It was such a tough way for that to go. We were all so invested in it.

I heard Roger did some dirt.

Yeah, but we were all so young. At that age, you think everyone is doing dirt behind your back. Who knows what the actual reality of it was? Because being in that position now, I understand how hard it can be to keep things afloat. And it was a tough time financially back then.

But Roger was generous, man. He was the first person I knew to pay skaters $400 a month for a wheel company. That was big deal at the time. Pure Wheels.

Yeah, they had a crazy team! Makes sense now.

Yeah, but it was a bought team so nobody really respected it. It wasn’t like he earned those guys. He just wrote them a check.

So how did Mad Circle enter the picture? You went back to be being an amateur for that?

Yeah, I had been basically floating for a while, but still skating a bunch. Until one day, I think I just straight-up asked Justin about Mad Circle while we were out skating.

“Yo, what’s up with Mad Circle?”

Because he had seen how much I’d been progressing, he gave me a chance… but it came with a catch: get on as an amateur and prove myself again to turn pro. And by that point, I knew that I was ready. I knew what I had to do, so I did my thing and it paid off quick. I got my pro model back on Mad Circle and I haven’t gone back to am since. (laughs)

What about your welcome ad with the Blabac switch backtail?

That was just another one of those missions.

“Alright, Blabac, I’ve got an idea.”

We left EMB to go get it, just he and I. That’s the thing: I’ve always been one to go on specific missions with just the photographer and a filmer. Nobody else. That way I can focus on what I need to do. So it was just he and I for that one. I even put the sticker on there to make it more dynamic. And I must’ve ended up doing at least 30 switch backtails that day, but we got the right one with the belt flying. That whole thing just turned out sick.

...and then Mad Circle went out of business! (laughs)

(laughs) We’ll get to that. But your ender in 5 Flavors: switch back 5-0 front shuv out. You’re literally screaming “Finally!” as you roll away. How long had you been trying that?

At that point, I’d been trying that trick for 3 months. And not just trying it, filming it. Really trying to get it. It was such a battle that I would literally go to sleep at night thinking about this trick. I’d seriously dream about it. So when I finally got it, it was such a good feeling. And all the homies came running up to me, they’d seen the battle. They knew.

It’s funny because when we made the switch from EMB to Pier 7, the older guys who set the rules never really came to Pier 7. They kinda went off and did their own thing. Because if that had been at EMB, I would’ve never shown excitement in that way. If you showed excitement after landing a trick at EMB, you were definitely a T-Dog. Luckily, the rules had changed for Pier 7. Because I was stoked, man. It took 3 months to get that trick! I was not about to hold back my excitement.

But it’s almost like a running theme in your parts, with the fireworks after your switch frontside nose transfer ender in Give Me My Money, Chico as well.

(laughs) That’s right!

That was another situation where I had to go back four times to get it. And that’s one of the hardest tricks I’ve ever done, because of the obstacle. Coming in on that tranny with the curve? It was so hard. The timing that was needed to roll away from that trick? It was something else. So to be able to do it the way I did, I was hyped. I mean, I’m not even religious but I was still screaming out, “Thank you, God! I love you!” (laughs)

I was so happy, bro. And my beard is extra thick in that clip, too. I was around 31 at the time and I cut off my first set of dreads maybe a year earlier. I was definitely overcompensating for the lack of hair on my head with that crazy thick beard. I mean, I’ll see that clip now like, “Oh my god, what the hell was I thinking with that beard?”

It’s like I had an animal on my chin, bro.

What’s the longest you’ve worked for a ledge or manual trick?

The nose manual nollie 360 spin to nose manual again. The one I did at Fort Miley? I tried that for 3 consecutive days. A total of 9 hours filming time. That took a long time… and Kyle Camarillo battled that out with me every step of the way. It’s funny because once I finally did it, I did it again right afterwards. Two times in a row. The second one was a sequence. It was insane. It’s like I had to do it first to figure out that it was possible and then it just became easier.

Why’d you do it at Miley?

Because it was hard to do that trick with enough speed to pop out at the end. So I did it at Miley because I could pop out into the bank, which would give me enough speed rolling down to make it look decent.

So did you see the end of Mad Circle coming?

It’s not that Mad Circle went out of business, it was more like beef between Justin and Giant Distribution.

But no, I didn’t see that coming at all. My oldest son’s mom, we were 8-months pregnant when it went out of business. So that was a huge blow... even though I was only making around $800 a month, it was still good money. Our rent was only $600 bucks back then. But it was scary, man. That’s when I took on the 14-hour shift at the pizza place. Because I got really good tips and we were able to survive on that.

But why Expedition? Why go with a SoCal brand?

Because at the time, my thinking was that Bay Area companies didn’t pay enough. (laughs)

I was looking through a Transworld and saw this Expedition ad... it was a 6-pages, man! Every single rider had their own page! With smoke behind them! This company was fire! And it was the first company that I ever remember seeing two black guys on. Alphonzo Rawls and Stephane Laurance. That’s sick! Because usually, it’s just one brother on the team. And then to have Richard Angelides on there, too? Chany!? Chris Lambert? Yes, man. I respected all those dudes.

So I just called the number in the ad, man. Cold called them up. I eventually got to talk to Troy and ended up sending him a letter with some of my art, letting him know that I really wanted to do this. And they were interested, but they took their time with me. They made sure that if they were gonna add somebody, that I was a good fit. So I filmed for a little montage that they put me in... even before I officially got on the team. Still testing the waters. They even sent Lambert and Chany up to SF to meet the fam. And I guess I passed the test. Let’s do this.

Did you have any other options? Honestly, I’m surprised you were never in the Chocolate mix over the years…

I’m stoked to hear you say that. Because I’ve heard that I was actually on the original list for Chocolate but I was getting flow from Stereo at the time. I guess Rick just decided to let me do my thing over there, out of respect for those dudes. So no, I was never part of that camp. I always prayed to God that I would be, but it never worked out. And when I found out that they let me ride it out on Stereo flow back then, I was so bummed. To be one of the original guys with my homies? That would’ve been amazing!

But with Expedition, there were no other options. I only wanted to ride for those guys.

So you were inspired by Stevie’s switch backtail 270 for your frontside nose 270 out down Hubba, right?

I was! I saw him trying those out one day and it got me thinking. So I went with the frontnose 270 out, learning them at Pier 7 before bringing it to Hubba next.

Are there any other inspirations you can point to like that over the years?

Oh, absolutely. I always draw inspiration from my friends. Like, I saw Robbie Holmes messing around one day while we were all sitting around. He was doing nose manuals on flatground and popped one into a switch nose manual.

“Oh shit! That’s a good trick!”

So I applied that and did one from bench-to-bench over a gap in my Alone part. That was from Robbie.

But is why is the frontnose 270 make in FTC3 but the slam in TWS?

Well, the first time I tried it on Hubba was with AVE and Ty Evans. AVE was trying a switch front crooks, I was trying the frontnose 270. We lit it up with the generator and lights. And Ty was filming us, but I just couldn’t make it that day. So I ended up coming back to get it and Ty wasn’t around for that, which is why it ended up in FTC.

I guess Transworld thought the trick was unique enough to put my slam in the video anyway.

But how come that wasn’t your ender in FTC3? You went with the nollie 180 switch nosegrind revert (twice)?

Because the frontnose had already been seen by that point in the Transworld video, the slam anyway. I felt like some of the steam had been let out of it. And honestly, I wasn’t all that psyched on the trick. Because the way I learned it at Pier 7, I nollied out. There was some real pop into the 270. But when I did it down Hubba, it wasn’t how I envisioned it. I actually did it twice but the one people saw, I feel like I just fell out of. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

I was stoked on the nollie 180-switch nosegrind revert. That was something I had made up, so that was the one for me.

Expedition Alone saw you going off with the crazy ledge and manny tech. Almost all single clips, how’d you go about filming that? Such an underrated part.

I filmed that part with Trevor Prescott and we edited it together, too. I got to pick the music and everything. And that is, by far, my favorite part. I don’t think that I had a tangible list but I definitely had one going in my head. And more importantly, I had an overall idea of what I wanted it to look like. Luckily, Trevor was always down to work with me and spend the time necessary to get things right.

That part is probably the apex of my ability on a skateboard. Because I felt like I could do anything at that point. Not in a cocky way, I’d just think of things to try and it would work out. It was incredible. I wasn’t injured. I had my son, who was a huge motivation for me. And just by splitting my time between family and skating, I’d always have tricks popping my head. It was just a special time.

How did Organika come about?

So World Industries, now under new ownership, came and offered me a spot on the team with really good pay. $3,000 a month and a car payment... a BMW or something, but I wasn’t really tripping on that because I’m living in the city.

Regardless, there was no way in hell that I was going to leave Expedition for World Industries, with Flameboy and all that. No way. I didn’t care how much they were offering... but I did want a raise from Expedition. So Troy gave me a little bump and brought up possibly starting another company together. At the time, Expedition had a deck called the “Organic Regrown” that was selling really well, with a bunch of leaves as the graphic. So because of that, Troy wanted to call our brand “Organika”. And honestly, I was so against it.

“No! Let’s call it Altered States of Mind!” (laughs)

I’m pretty sure that I’d just tried mushrooms at that point, and was really into smoking weed. It made sense to me at the time! Understanding the present moment and all of that kinda stuff? Yeah, Altered States of Mind!

But Troy wasn’t feeling that one at all. It had to be Organika. And looking back on it, he definitely made the right decision. We had a good run with it, too. Organika made it 15 years!

Yeah, what happened with Organika? Was that just a symptom of Kayo’s overall troubles?

Well, Troy and the Kayo crew definitely stuck it out with all the brands. Because DGK was definitely the mothership, as far as Kayo went. And it was definitely a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation for a while. Even though Organika was doing well with sales, it was nothing compared to DGK. And we liked to pay our team members well, so there was a lot of moving money around under the Kayo umbrella. It just got to a point to where we couldn’t do it like that anymore. And ultimately, I was the one who decided to pull the plug on Organika. Because I saw how much Troy was going to bat for the company. But that was a hard loss for me. It was difficult not having Organika anymore after 15 years.

Such a strong team with guys like Quim Cardona and Miles Silvas, but who’s someone you tried getting on the team and couldn’t?

Oh, I tried super hard to get Stefan Janoski, back when he was still riding for Expedition. I really wanted him on Organika in the early days. But to be honest, some of the other dudes on the team weren’t really feeling it but I vouched for him anyway… and after a while, the rest of the guys did come around to it. But they’d already stolen him for Habitat by then.

What’s Maxallure all about?

I’m back with Nick Lockman again! He was brand manager at DGK for 12 years and when it was time for him to leave, he and I connected to start Max Allure. And it’s been such a blessing, man. The people we’ve picked for the team… in some way, every one of us played a role in getting another member of the team into skateboarding back in the day. It’s truly a family affair.

We’re not trying to be the next multi-million dollar company taking over. We just want to make products we like. Because we’re not starving. We just want to make good quality wood, dope graphics and great content. That’s Maxallure.

We’ve got some amazing stuff coming out soon, too.

Can’t wait. But where’d the idea for a children’s book come from?

My First Skateboard came about through skateboarding being in the Olympics. Because while I am happy about that, at the same time, I really want the key attributes of our culture to be preserved. I didn’t want those aspects to just go away.

So one night, I started writing down all of these aspects that I’ve always loved about skateboarding. How it breaks down so many different barriers… race, age, gender, language. And it went from there.

I ended up writing a little story that basically encapsulated all of this, loosely based on my own childhood. Showcasing not only what I’ve gained from skateboarding but what we all gain from skateboarding.

And there’s a second one in the works?

(laughs) Everybody wants a second one but I’m actually in the process of hopefully turning it into a cartoon series. I don’t know how much I can say, but we’ve had a few meetings and they seem interested. Hopefully it works out. There are a few more steps that need to be taken but we’re almost there. We’re calling it “My Name Is Jonas” and it’s pretty much a continuation of the book.

That’s amazing, Karl! Congratulations.

Thank you! It feels good to be able to share this gift of skateboarding with the world.

So as we wrap this up, if you could resurrect any classic ledge spot in SF, what would it be?

I’d have to say Brown Marble. Because they had the small ledges, long ledges, short ones, tall ones... That place was like ledge heaven. And it was that good marble, too. They all grinded perfect. So yeah, Brown Marble.

I can’t even imagine being able to skate that spot now. The lines that would be going down there today? It would be insane!

Which means more to you: EMB or Pier 7?

Embarcadero will always have a special place in my heart, just by being so young. But I would have to say that Pier 7 is my favorite. Because that’s really where I found myself. That’s where I not only started to become more confident in my skating, that’s where I also became more confident in myself as a person. Instead of listening to the rules of older dudes at EMB, we became the leaders of Pier 7. We made the rules. Pier 7 was our thing.

Finally, looking back on everything, what would you say is your proudest moment and biggest regret in skateboarding?

My proudest accomplishment was definitely putting out my book. Over everything. Because that was not an easy task at all.

And my biggest regret in skateboarding would be probably having too much tunnel vision. Only thinking about skateboarding and kinda losing sight of the bigger picture. Even when you’re pro, it’s important to have other interests, besides skateboarding. Because you can’t transfer that notoriety as a dope-ass skater into the real world and expect to get work when the ride is over. People don’t care about that stuff. They don’t even know that world. Tunnel vision, man. You gotta keep an open view. Not to say that you shouldn’t keep skateboarding up high, just don’t disregard everything else.

Thanks Karl!


Anonymous said...


Louie G said...

Always loved Karl's skating and personality. One of the best on and off the board. Thank you for this one!

Adriano La Greca said...

so good!true inspiration right here!

Anonymous said...

I path story is missing, but good stuff anyway

Anonymous said...

Best dude. Best interview. Best site. Best best.

Yoel Zagar said...

Much love Karl truly inspiring

Anonymous said...

"K" names will always do well in life.

Anonymous said...

Great content, as always! Karl rules!!!

Anonymous said...

Can somebody in the world camp from the early 90s explain why Karl's part wasn't on Love Child? The lost footage definitely showed that his skating was up to par.

Great interview Chops!

Mayhem said...

Great interview. Cool to hear some of that background on the golden years of EMB & the pier.

RIP to my boy Trevor Prescott. Gone but not forgotten.