Vice Versa: Karl Watson
Words & Photography By Dave Chami
When I think of Karl Watson, I always think back to his voiceover in the Mad Circle video 5 Flavors. He described skateboarding as being like an equation, where we learn by our mistakes, and that if you really feel something, it will come out smooth. It seems like he has applied these attitudes to more than just his skateboarding, though. This is a guy who has been pro for sixteen years, owns half of Organika, and has three kids. Ask anyone who has met Karl and they’ll agree, the biggest gift he has given to skateboarding is his positivity, his smile, and his heart.
Tell me about what happened at the Tampa contest this year?
I was having a good time skating the course, I went up the vert wall and got caught up between Chico Brenes, my good friend, and Pete Eldridge, an ill ripper, and somehow caught Chico's board with my face. I felt like I got punched by Tyson in his heyday. I thought my jaw was broken but actually my cheekbone was fractured in two places. I went to the hospital for X-Rays.
And what happened at the hospital, 'cause there's another side to this story?
They did a CAT scan to see if I needed surgery, came back and said that my face was indeed fractured in two places, but that I wouldn't need surgery. Then it was like one of the new reality TV shows where they're gonna kick somebody off but they drag it out to create tension, and finally the doctor tells me that they found a brain tumor on my pineal gland.
What's a pineal gland?
It's the part of the brain doctors know least about, they call it your third eye. I'm really fascinated by it because my mother had a brain tumor in the same area and I've spent time reading about the pineal gland. As soon as the doctor told me I just thought "I can beat this without even doing anything." I firmly believe that. You can beat anything with your mind 'cause our minds are so powerful, much more powerful than we're led to believe. Still I went back to the hotel room, sat down, and I'll be honest with you, I bawled my eyes out. The next morning I was watching the Best Trick contest online and I was like "Dude, I wanna go so bad." So, I hopped in a taxi, went to the contest and proceeded to try to skate. Bear in mind my face was still hella sore, so I could barely jump, but somebody shot a sequence of me, which ended up on the TransWorld site. I was doing a frontside noseslide to tailslide, and everybody heard my story. To be honest the tumor is not the end of the world and I'm pretty optimistic about everything.
What's the story with the tumor, do you know any more about it now?
Well, we have a crappy healthcare system in this country and it's been an ongoing battle to get insurance, but I will get it in January so I'll find out then.
Who are some of your favorite skaters past and present?
Tommy Guerrero, the king of S.F., Ray Barbee, and Tony Hawk—a lot of people leave him out, but if you watch his last part in Ban This, he invented so many tricks, so beautiful, and actually he influenced a lot of street tricks too.
You get psyched on that, huh?
I love it. When I saw that sequence you shot of Ben Hatchell doing a back Smith to feeble grind revert on some gnarly tranny, man, that's one of those tricks that you never forget. I love that kind of stuff
Frontside noseslide 270 at Hubba.
Had you done that trick on anything else?
I learned it on one of the ledges at Pier 7 and then started trying it on hubba that same day.
I tried to film it with Ty Evans for the TransWorld video. I was skating it with AVE, he was trying a switch frontside crook, but we both didn't land our tricks. There was a slam of me in the TransWorld vid from that first day and I went back and got it soon after that.
Pier 7, EMB, or Third And Army?
EMB because that was the foundation of all the other spots. I mean, Pier 7 was just a byproduct of the end of EMB. I was surprised that it even became a famous spot. At the time it was just a two stair and a few ledges and EMB had been like a skatepark. Pier 7 had been there for a couple of years before we even started skating it, but the first person to wax the ledges and skate it was Mike Carroll. I remember the first person to take me to Third And Army was Mike York. He drove us over there and he was trying a fakie front crook around the corner ledge. He was grinding a couple, and then on one, man, it was so scary. His foot slipped under the bar and it flipped him over the back barely missing hitting his head, and right then it set the tone, like this spot looks fun, but it's kinda gnarly with the bar and the drop right there.
Let's go back to some of your favorite skaters.
Okay, so from back in the day, Tommy Guerrero, Ray Barbee, Tony Hawk, Eric Dressen and Natas Kaupas. Nowadays I like anyone who's original and creative, and gets gnarly—I love 'em. People who are really unique in my eyes are Jack Curtin, Tony Tave, Chris Pfanner, Jaws, Andrew Reynolds, Bryan Herman, Garrett Hill, Jim Greco, Dylan Rieder, Cody McEntire, Derek Burdette, Leo Romero, Chris Cole, Marc Johnson, Torey Pudwill—I can't wait to see his part in the new TransWorld video—the whole Kayo crew, the whole Sk8mafia crew, the Decenzo brothers, Theotis Beasley, Shuriken Shannon, Lucas Puig, Mike Carroll, Guy Mariano, Andrew Langi, Nyjah Huston, and Ben Hatchell.
Didn't you live in Tommy Guerrero's old apartment?
Yeah. When I was about thirteen, my mother and I moved into an apartment in S.F. I went into my room and the only thing that was left in the house was that little drum and stick thing from Animal Chin. So, it turned out that it was Tommy Guerrero's old apartment and packages of Rip Grip were still getting sent to the house. When I was that young, I took that as a sign that one day, I was gonna be a pro skater [laughs].
How do you maintain such a PMA? How do you keep that smile on your face?
[Laughs] You know my Dad always said when I was a kid, "Why do you smile so much?" I saw him today and the first thing he said was, "Damn, you still got that smile on your face, huh" [laughs]. I guess the thing that keeps me smiling is my family, and understanding that we are all children of the universe and this life is precious. We only have one life to live and I appreciate that—that's what keeps me smiling, just that realization.
Tell me about Richmond, California and why you live there.
Well, Richmond was basically the murder capital of the United States for a while, and there are good parts and bad parts of Richmond just like any other city. It's kind of a sad place but there's also a lot of possibility for it. The main reason I live here is that it's a dark place and I want to shine some light in the darkness. I hope to one day open up a skate shop here, and I always want to do things that help out this community. I want to help build the skate scene here. A really good park just opened here recently.
Did you start the Hood Games for the same reason?
Yeah, the Hood Games is a non-profit that Keith Williams, his mother Anjua, and I started. Keith was an art teacher at Oakland High School. We met at the X Games in 2004 and came up with the idea to start a similar event that was free for kids in the "hood." Our first Hood Games was in East Oakland, another gnarly part of the Bay Area where Too Short is from. I'd actually never been to that part of town—it's deep in the hood. Two nights before we held the event at the East Oakland Youth Development center somebody was shot and killed on the corner out front. Thankfully, the event was a success and we've now held Hood Games in Long Beach, downtown LA, and plan to bring them everywhere.
People might assume that you only listen to Reggae music, but I've heard you bumping some Madonna in your car.
[Laughs] First of all, I like all music, but Madonna's tight, man—she's a great performer. She has that confidence that I strive for, plus she has longevity. I love this song "Isaac" that she sings. I also like Tegan And Sarah, Sant0gold, Modest Mouse, and Operation Ivy from back in the day. Just all sorts.
Tell me about Organika.
Well, Organika was created in 2001 by myself and Troy Morgan. We work well together, he's a great guy. The main thing Organika offers to the world of skateboarding is our approach. Everybody on the team treats kids with respect. We are conscious with our graphics and we truly care about skateboarding. This is also Kayo's approach. We don't use wood from China and we offer the highest quality product out. Not trying to toot my own horn, but it's just the truth.
So, you’re half-owner?
Yes, and I've chosen the team and Troy and I are constantly working together on graphics and running the company on the daily. It's a beautiful thing and we've been up and running for eight years now, so can't complain about that.
At what age did you leave home?
When I was a teenager I was no angel. I did a lot of graffiti, and when I was sixteen some friends and I got arrested graffiting this rooftop in the city. We all went to Juvenile Hall and by this stage my mom was basically fed up because it wasn't the first time, so she kicked me out of the house. Looking back it was the best thing that happened to me. It truly was and I tell her that all the time. We didn't talk for a whole year and during that time. I did a lot of reflecting on who I was, what my purpose was and how much I appreciated everything that she did for me. When I got my first apartment I remember I had a towel and it started getting this weird smell on it. I was like, "Whoa, what the heck is this? why does my towel smell?" Then I realized, "Oh you gotta wash your towel" [laughs]. It was something my mom used to always do for me cause she was the best.
Were you making any money from skating at this stage?
I was making 100 dollars a month from World Industries. When I got kicked out [of my mom's house] I lived at Lavar McBride's house for a few months, then Lee Smith’s house for a few months, and also Sam Smyth's house. All my good friend's families took me in, treated me like I was one of their own children, and from there I moved into a three bedroom house with nine dudes from Colorado.
Is this The Dungeon?
Yeah, it was a basement apartment on Fell Street. I met these guys from Colorado at EMB and they said I could move in with them. I found a mattress on the street, dragged it to the house, laid it in the room, covered it with newspaper and a sheet and that was my bed. Gradually I stepped up in the world and now I have a really nice house. All of that made me who I am today, just going through those struggles and realizing how awesome my parents really are and all the sacrifices they made for me. After that year I reunited with my Mom and we've been tight ever since—a new respect.
How did a guy who loved cheeseburgers so much as a kid become a vegan?
Man, I used to live on Carl's Jr. and McDonalds, but in that first year when I moved out of the house I also thought about a lot of other things like how animals are basically enslaved. I started feeling compassion for them and just had to cut it all out. At nineteen, I became a vegan and was vegan for nine years until I went on a trip to Japan. We were out in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing for me to eat, so I gave in and ate some eggs. Then on the same trip I ate salmon and since then I've been a pescetarian, so I eat fish and eggs, but not red meat.