Karl Watson By Mike Blabac – switch Backside tailslide, San Francisco, 1996. Interview by Jacob Sawyer.
As soon as our first LIGHTBOX feature was published, I was eager to get in touch with Mike Blabac for the next instalment in the series.
We were lucky enough to hang out with Mike and Josh Kalis back in 2017 when the two visited London on the occasion of Slam’s collaboration with DC. I was certain Mike would be keen and the hardest part would just be choosing which photo to talk about with a photographer who has such a heavy archive that has been religiously explored over the years.
Many of the photos we initially considered were taken after 1999, when Mike’s journey with DC began, however we decided to delve further into the archives. When the above photo of Karl Watson was mentioned, it was a no-brainer.
This amazing photo ran a Madcircle ad back 1996 and was one of those which leapt off the page to me. Karl Watson has always been one of my favourite skateboarders, Madcircle was one of the best companies of all time and I had to get a back up copy of Five Flavours because mine was rinsed to death.
Naturally, it was a pleasure to dip into the history surrounding this one and it’s significance doubles because it transports us right back to the start of Mike’s career, a magical time in skateboarding history where a two week trip from the Midwest to San Francisco became a life’s work.
“When I got to the city and I skated down to Embarcadero I had a feeling I wasn’t going to leave any time soon.”
Let’s set the scene before this photo was shot. You moved to SF from Michigan in 1994. Had you been before, had a plan set up or it was a Mecca-style pilgrimage?
It was a pilgrimage, a skateboarding pilgrimage. That’s where skateboarding was beyond a doubt. A skate buddy of mine was moving there and a couple of other skate buddies from Michigan currently lived there. I moved out with a friend of mine who was actually a roommate, we just drove out. I thought that I would be there for maybe two or three weeks, tops.
I had two grand with me which I thought was the most insane amount of money at the time, like, “I could live for years on this.” We drove to SF, got out there and I just started skating. When I got to the city and I skated down to Embarcadero I had a feeling I wasn’t going to leave any time soon, I’d definitely be there for longer than the two weeks I had originally planned.
20 years old and living in SF at that moment must have been like a dream come true
It was insane, it was so much fun. I knew that it was very special when I was 20 but looking back on it now, it was insanely special. To be 20 years old, living in San Francisco and skating Embarcadero with Karl Watson, Chico [Brenes], Jovontae [Turner], Scott Johnston and Mike Carroll. Hanging out with those dudes and eventually befriending them. Skating with all those guys was magical.
Although you had healthy interest in photography back home and had cut your teeth as a photographer, as it were, the camera bag didn’t make an appearance during those early days of being in the city. Straight skate rat?
I was a skateboarder so I just skated with all those guys. It’s funny I don’t even remember shooting photos at all when I first moved to the city. I was half afraid of getting my camera stolen. When I first took my camera bag out into the city it was to shoot skateboarding which is odd because when I lived in Michigan I never shot skating. I shot a few photos of my friends but 95% of the photos I shot were of trees or lightning, just learning how to hold a camera and process film.
You had a darkroom at home growing up, right?
That’s correct. I was just learning the process of photography, learning how to shoot film. I’d come home and learn all the techniques of processing and printing. Those three steps, studying all that stuff. It’s weird because, growing up, it was so separate for me: photography and skateboarding. Even when I moved to San Francisco, I kind of combined the two out of an ask/necessity of making a living.
I interviewed my friend Dom Marley recently and he spoke about beginning to be a skate photographer but skating with everyone first and foremost and those lines getting blurred. Turning up, wanting to go skating and the burden of a camera bag at that point in time…
Yeah, you’re a skateboarder [laughs]. I remember that bombing hills, carrying a big tripod in my hand, was a pain in the ass. Slamming with it sucked, that was the worst. If you’re bombing a hill and you slam you’ve got to slide on your side. You can’t go on your back, it’s not like I had money to replace anything so I was saving that.
It’s your instinct to save what’s in your hand even if it’s some onions in a carrier bag
That is true, I didn’t do that a lot. Filmers are crazy dude, S.F. filmers are gnarly. Those GX1000 kids are amazing. To film flying down a hill, I’ve always marvelled at that.
My friend Chris lived in Twin Peaks and you would have to bomb three hills to get to Haight Street and the third one was just impossible
Oh yeah, it’s gnarly. I lived in the Western Edition in San Francisco. Scott & Divisadero was the corner I lived on the first time so you could either bomb Hayes or Haight Street but, either way, they weren’t super steep hills but they were big. I would be a bit reserved about going down them at the moment but I could still bomb them for sure. At that time, the Filmore projects were kind of popping and you had to make it through them
As a kid from Michigan, I wasn’t used to hills like that but I quickly learned how because if you were way back in the pack, going through the projects, a lot of times they would throw stuff at you because that’s the fun thing to do. If you’re the last dude and you’re lagging 40 feet behind the pack, you’re bummed. I learned quickly to keep up with whoever I was bombing hills with.
Karl Watson was pretty much the first person who came up, asked who I was and introduced himself. Then he introduced me to everyone else. Karl, he’s always been the nicest dude and still is to this day.
Who would that have been? You mention the first people you met was actually Karl Watson and Aaron Meza, who introduced you to everyone. What was your early, go-to crew?
Karl Watson was pretty much the first person who came up to me, asked who I was and introduced himself. Then he introduced me to everyone else. Karl, he’s always been the nicest dude and still is to this day. His attitude, I remember sitting there and he was like, “Hey dude, who are you? Where you from?”
They’d all seen me skating Embarcadero but I had respect, kept to myself and stayed out of everyones’ way. Karl just came up, introduced himself and introduced me to Scott Johnston, Meza, Chico, Mike [Carroll] and everyone else at Embarcadero. I quickly became friends with Meza as he filmed and we had similar interests. Scott, Mike and everyone were all very welcoming. It was rad.
So the photography gig naturally evolved from a few missions. Early published photos from that first year would be of Edward Devera, Joey Bast and the Scott Johnston Pure Wheels ad?
Yeah, you did some research. That’s the Scott Johnston ad where the type was swapped. I remember the Joey Bast photo was in a pull out TransWorld calendar; the Edward Devera photo was a full page photo and Scott’s was an ad. That was the first ever ad and I remember Scott asking me to shoot that photo and getting paid. This was before I was ever paid by TransWorld and I was blown away. I could shoot a roll of film with the homie, go to the lab, pick out a slide, hand it to someone and get cash. Like, “Wow, this is insane!”
That planted the seed.
A very massive seed. It’s funny because I was still skating a lot. One regret I have is not shooting more but I shot as much as I kind of needed to or thought I had to to pay rent, buy snacks or whatever. Survival rent and food. I shot only as much as I had to to live and skated the rest of the time so I have those memories but I don’t have all the photos unfortunately.
You were working at the GAP and then a brief stint at DLX?
No, I was working at the GAP at the time and I had done some Polaroid transfers for Stereo and some random stuff once the word had got around the city beyond my small circle of friends that I could shoot photos. I would contribute a little bit to them, some stuff for Think. I spoke with Jim [Thiebaud] and he was as gracious and as nice as he is to this day. I asked him if they needed another person and he said they already have Gabe [Morford] and Gabe’s the best so they were chilling but to just keep shooting photos. This was before I had a retainer at TransWorld or had started working for Madcircle.
He said, “If you keep shooting it will work out, man.” I remember speaking to him on a payphone and him giving me that advice. I did just keep shooting and eventually I got a retainer at TransWorld. I remember when Grant [Brittain] started sending me bricks of film and it was just incredible. I got a retainer from them because they didn’t have a photographer in the city and I was friends with the best dudes skating the city. It just worked out and then I got a job working for Madcircle through Scott Johnston.
Then straight into helping build that company
I mean, that company was all Justin Girard. It was so much fun though. I had a small brick in the wall but it was fun. Even filming all of the 16mm stuff for the Five Flavors video and helping to edit it. Shooting all the ads and sitting there with him in the early days of Photoshop, tweaking on everything; helping to run errands; in the very early days seeing Barry McGee dropping over artwork. It was pretty dope.
Let The Horns Blow came out in ’94 and then the squad is rearranged by the time you’re hired.
Yeah, the squad had been rearranged to the crew who were in Five Flavors. That was the evolution when I first started working at Madcircle during those couple of years.
Madcircle ‘Five Flavors’ squad: Karl Watson, Scott Johnston, Bobby Puleo, Pontus Alv and Rob Welsh
You were working and living with Justin Girard, was he a creative force of nature?
He was. I mean, he is. It was insane. He was very passionate, very creative. He had a vision, this was before I knew anything about branding or marketing. He always saw Madcircle in this way before there was such a thing as streetwear. He saw all these dudes wearing Tommy Hilfiger and everything and he designed clothes that used logos that lent themselves to that.
He was always influenced by sports and made those felt pennants in the early days like they would have in Baseball. So many things that were influences from the outside and bringing that in to skateboarding. This was something a lot of people didn’t do and I think it’s one of the many reasons that people look back fondly on Madcircle now, so many years later.
Were you mindful of the company role as kind of building a body of work with a narrative –as far as an aesthetic vs a looser brief, shooting for editorial? Or was it more pressure?
There was no pressure, per se, I was just having fun with it. I was stoked I was getting paid to do what I’d always loved doing since I was seven years old. I was blown away I was making a living. Skating with my friends and getting paid to do it, it was a lot of fun. Never in a million years, when you’re twenty years old, do you think with something you’re making you’ll be talking to a guy in London about it, like 25 years later. You don’t think that way, I certainly didn’t. I knew it was a special time, I just couldn’t wrap my head around exactly everything that it entailed.
Karl Watson by Mike Blabac for Madcircle.
Never in a million years when you’re twenty years old, do you think that something you’re making you’ll be talking to a guy in London about twenty five years later
This ad can’t have been the first time you shot with Karl? The Union square switch 5-0 comes to mind.
No, it is. The Union square switch 5-0 was after this photo. He had an ad due for Madcircle and that’s why the sticker is on the ledge. Karl had just got a box, he had boards, he had his sweatshirt, stickers in his pocket, he was just so hyped to be able to put that sticker on there. I remember being a bit reserved about it, saying, “I don’t really know about the sticker, man”. He was like “It’s tight! It’s a Midcircle ad, let’s put it on there.” I didn’t want to argue with him, you know?
Trying to get him in the photo directly above the sticker and getting that logo centred in the ad and in the lower two thirds of the frame was going to be difficult. I was framing it up in my head with his hands just barely in the frame. It’s challenging, some photos like this. I wouldn’t say it’s guess work but you’re framing it up and shooting film so you’re hoping you pull all of that off.
This was following the his move from being pro for Profile to announcing his Madcircle pro board?
This was was the ad to announce that he’s on Madcircle. Did he turn pro for Profile before that?
Yeah, he was pro for Profile then got on Madcircle but he had to have been am for a while again before turning pro.
That is right, you did some research, man. He didn’t have many Profile boards out before this. The reason this photo worked out – for any photo geeks out there reading this – I had a Nikon F3 and it synced at the top flash speed of 1/80. It was such a horrible flash sync. I had to learn that flash photography in the middle of a bright sunny day, 1/80 does not work out. This was shot later in the day, it was darker, the sun was setting, it was foggy.
The shutter speed was below 1/80 which is why there is a bit of blur and panning in there with the two flashes. I remember knowing there was going to be the two flashes, the belt was a pleasant surprise. But in hindsight the reason why it looks as tack sharp as it does is because it was later in the day and he was framed against a darker background that was in shade. It was one of the first photos that showed me how it being a bit darker plus using a slower shutter speed all kind of worked, a little lightbulb went off when I saw this photo.
Everything was sort of working with me that day. As a photographer you learn why things work and others don’t. More often than not why they don’t but in this instance, fortunately why they did work. That’s because the light was very low. I learned to drag the shutter a lot when I was a kid shooting photos and this is one of those photos.
Yes, as photography is.
It’s interesting to me. One of the reasons this was the photo we picked to talk about, that you have shot so many incredible iconic photos that spring to mind and are some of our favourites – just of Josh Kalis alone, for instance, yet this shot taken super early on is just as definitive. An epic photo in your body of work but super early on…
Well, thank you. I mean, it’s because I’ve been lucky to photograph guys like Josh and Karl who have gone on to have a gigantic place in skateboarding and are very significant parts of its history. They’re looked back on very fondly and are both still doing it this many years later. Karl, the way he looks in this photo, you can’t look better doing a switch back tail. The belt, the Madcircle sweatshirt, everything about it worked, you know what I mean?
I just happened to be there and light it well and frame it, I framed it how I had it in my mind and it all worked out, it’s sick. Josh is the same way. I was there to photograph him at Love tre flipping the can but he’s the one who caught the living daylights out of it and has one of the best tre flips ever. I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph guys like them and [Mike] Carroll and [Eric] Koston and Danny Way, you name it. It’s been amazing.
Karl, the way he looks in this photo, you just can’t look better doing a switch back tail. The belt, the Madcircle sweatshirt, everything about it worked, you know what I mean?
This ad calls out the Madcircle industry section in 411 where you can see that same belt from the photo flapping through his section. He was really starting to harness those powers, it must have been sick to see his progression go down? Always so creative and between here and Five Flavours a lot happened
It was insane but it’s no different to growing up skating with your friends and watching them get better and improve. All we did was skate. When you’re with your group of friends and all that you’re doing is skating and you see some improving and forming their own style.It just so happens that all of my friends were insanely talented and all forming their style and I was lucky enough to be there to document it.
I was also forming my own style but with my camera more than my skateboard. Photography is the same as skateboarding, the more you do it the more you can recognise someones work from afar and recognise who it is. I was lucky enough to be able do that with all of those guys.
This was taken at the time that the Pier became the more heavily localised spot?
Yes, well it’s funny because I used to get grief. [Aaron] Meza used to call me “Bay Blocks” because I was always hanging out at Bay Blocks which is what they called Pier 7 originally. We used to skate the whole stretch. There were the gaps to the ledges, these metal ledges and then there was Pier 7. They had built Bay Blocks before they had built Pier 7, well they kind of built it all around the same time but they hadn’t put in the glass tiles in the centre and that stuff right away. It was beginning to be sessioned as a spot even before they put all that stuff in there.
Then the Pier became you and Karl and those guys’ spot rather than the inheritance of Embarcadero as it were
Yeah, people over the years have asked me for photos of Embarcadero and I shot so few because I had grown up looking at photos of it as a kid before I moved there. I just had so much respect for what was going on there and everyone at the spot that I didn’t want to jam up anyone on the C Block with fisheye and flashes and all that kind of stuff so I wish I shot more there. But Pier 7 was built when I was already there so therefore I felt more comfortable shooting there more than at the spot I looked at in magazines as a kid growing up in school.
This loading dock bay is just down from Pier 7. Kelch skates it in the FIT Industry section
(Laughs) Yes he does
But this is before that, this wasn’t an established spot when you shot this
Yeah this was not a very much skated spot at the time at all
You were at Embarcadero first and then Karl mentioned this idea for the ad?
Yeah we did meet at Embarcadero and then skated over there this day. I shot maybe half a roll of film. He did the switch back tail quite a few times just because he’s so good. That’s another magical thing about skateboarding and shooting photos back then. So often it was just me and another person or myself and a group of friends. It wasn’t like how it is today when there’s like a van full of people and two filmers and it’s planned out who is going to do what where. There was none of that, here Karl had an idea of what he wanted to do but it was just him and I skating over by ourselves, a couple of homies hanging out.
Were you looking through the viewfinder? it’s pretty close to be in there, you must have been trusting those back tails
A couple of them I did when I was higher up but this one I did not, as lame as that is for me to say because that’s a thing “you’ve got to look through the viewfinder”. But to get that close, it’s physically impossible to get your camera under someones skateboard and have a human head between the camera and the ground so this one I did not. I think that stigma comes from the old Del Mar days where some kook from the newspaper would be there holding his 35mm lens up in front of Grant Brittain on the deck or something.
I got as close as I could to use that full frame, it didn’t use all of the ground. I love looking back on film and scanning the entire piece of film and just seeing it framed. The [Eric] Koston nose blunt is the same way. That photo ran with zero cropping on it, it ran exactly as it was in my camera. I used to frame things like that. Now I don’t because you have the luxury of having a 48 MP camera, knowing you can crop and shooting wide and all these different things. But at the time you would fill the frame so that’s what I would try top do back then.
Do you remember seeing this photo on the Lightbox, was it a group discussion at the house?
I would always pick the film up at the lab, looking at it on the Lightbox was the first time I had ever seen it. I already had this frame earmarked. I came back to the house and looked at it with Karl and Justin and we were excited, I had to skate down to the place, it was near the Pier where we had all the scans made. They would drum scan everything at the time. Getting the scan and laying it out in the ad was pretty magical to me, all of that was fascinating.
You helped to lay out the ads and do all of that stuff too?
Yeah because I grew up looking at a lot of photography books. In skateboard magazines, I used to hate all the kooky stuff they would do and frankly still do to photographs. But the Midcircle ads with the type and stuff, some didn’t age very well but the layouts I feel for the most part did.
Compliment the photo rather than detract from it.
Exactly, it taught me something early on. You can have an amazing photo but it’s how you treat a photograph too. That’s how it’s seen, how it lives and how it’s viewed in history whether or not it’s put on a pedestal. You know, Stevie’s portrait that ran could have been his Checkout but instead DC put that thing everywhere so now that’s what is burned into peoples minds. Kalis’ the flip the same thing that went absolutely everywhere. The Madcircle ads were laid out very well and put together so that when you looked at them in the mag they stood out even if they were only one page.
it taught me something early on. You can have an amazing photo but it’s how you treat a photograph too. That’s how it’s seen, how it lives and how it’s viewed in history whether or not it’s put on a pedestal
Is that Justin’s hand style on the ad?
No that was a font, he had a computer filled with different fonts.
It looks like Ralph Steadman style
Yeah it’s funny because at the time it wasn’t like you could go on the internet and buy fonts you had to order them from a magazine. It was this crazy process, he had to do some scouring. Yeah the “It has just come full circle” was just a font that Justin had, a Photoshop plug in font. The Midcircle logo was an already existing logo but he just distressed it in Photoshop and it kind of lent itself to the type.
Just to quickly talk about the Lightbox aspect of it. Do you get an excitement looking at old images on the screen back lit like when you first saw them?
It is. It’s certainly not the same though. Film when you first see it in the lab, there’s an anticipation and you’re running back through your head all the things that you did right or did wrong and what your settings were and if the flash fired or not. So that was always very magical to see the end result of that process on the Lightbox originally. But it is fun for me now, I’ve been going back and scanning. Especially now I have some time on my hands considering what is going on in the world. Scanning old film and seeing it on the screen is just insane, it’s pretty fun. Similar but nothing like seeing it for the very first time.
What’s the best thing you ever saw Karl do and where was your favourite place to skate with him?
My favourite memories of watching Karl skate are just watching him film lines at the Pier. Sitting there with homies while people were smoking and playing dice and just hanging out. Sitting there and watching him skate, I appreciated it so much then. Seeing him film lines was a lot of fun for me. The switch 5-0 at Union Square was an idea I had. I had seen Karl do that trick before at union Square and seeing what a photo could look like and having a tripod.
I’d just bought a little tripod. Holding the camera there for a few seconds with the shutter open and knowing he was going to be transparent it was fun for me to do that and see that. I’m going off on a tangent now but I suppose that’s what this is for. Him filming lines though for me are the fondest memories I have of watching him skate.
Were you there when he did the Switch Back 5-0 switch front shuv at the end of his Five Flavours part? The trick he battled for and gets hugged afterwards
No I wasn’t. I wish I had shot all of those moments too. I did a little bit over time especially as my career sort of evolved. Capturing that stuff means so much now, I’m glad I shot a lot of portraits. Just hearing you talk about that reminds me of that thought.
My favourite memories of watching Karl skate are just watching him film lines at the Pier. Sitting there with homies while people were smoking and playing dice and just hanging out. Sitting there and watching him skate, I appreciated it so much then
The ad ran in Thrasher Nov 1996 with Mike York on the cover riding a Mike Carroll board. Were you always hyped to see the ads when the mags came out?
Oh yeah it was insane to me, it’s crazy to go to a news stand and pick a magazine up and go through it and see your work in it. It’s still fun to me today to see my work in a magazine or to see a photo on a wall some place if I’m walking through an airport. It still gives me that feeling. Or to see a campaign I worked on on TV or something. It’s the exact same feeling as when I would thumb through Thrasher and see that stuff as a kid.
The momentum Midcircle had especially as Five Flavours dropped it seemed unthinkable at the time that it folded but I guess it led to your move to Girl and then DC and everyone on the team continued to do great things too.
I was very fortunate at the time when Madcircle folded in late ’97. The first internet bubble was coming up and the first tech boom was happening. Nothing like it is today but things in the city were starting to get insanely expensive. Real estate was going through the roof and rent was sky rocketing. I had just found out I was going to have my son and that combined with rent sky rocketing, the thought of raising a child in the city with no income at the time was not that appealing.
So I moved to L.A and along with that for lots of other reasons along came Chico, Mike, Meza, Huf. Everyone came down South and moved to LA at that time. I remember driving from the valley where I was staying with my in laws at the time and showing up at Carroll’s house. He had a place with Tony Ferguson and Chico. I showed up there and Meza was there, we were all doing the same thing it’s just we were in L.A, it all kind of worked out.
The Karl Watson ad as a photo it’s the fisheye formula that you said first fascinated you, name checking Spike Jonze and Grant Brittain as influences. It’s still exciting looking at it today. You can’t beat how evocative it is and it makes you want to go skating. That’s not a question I just realised more of a statement
(Laughs) I was waiting for the question. That’s the ultimate aim with a photograph, skateboarding or not, to evoke some emotion and to get some sort of feeling out of it. Shooting skateboarding, the best thing you can hope to do, aside from getting someone to pick up a camera is to really get someone stoked to go out and skate. That’s what photography did for me as a kid. It was fascinating for me as a photographer but I would see photos in magazines. At the time that’s where you would see more skateboarding. Videos came out every so often and you would watch the same video over and over but you would have magazines every month. I just remember thumbing through a new magazine until the edges were frayed and getting inspired to go out and skate. So as a photographer, being able to make something that inspires people to go and skate is amazing.
I just remember thumbing through a new magazine until the edges were frayed and getting inspired to go out and skate. So as a photographer, being able to make something that inspires people to go and skate is amazing
Requiem For A Screen works his inimitable magic for us once again
Beginning with this photo which is the start of your career, the way it’s shot and the whole blueprint which made it work. It’s the reference for those retro Girl ads which have been running which you shot. Full Circle…
Yeah it is, super close up fisheye. Those Girl ads were [Tyler Pacheco] Manchild’s idea. He was sitting with Sam [Smyth] and Mike [Carroll] and looking at Mike’s back smith, the one on the Dome ledges. Where there’s no beginning or end to the ledge. Just someone skating in your face. Not the hardest thing Mike has ever done on a skateboard but a rad image of him skateboarding nevertheless.
That was the idea for those ads, a dope in your face image of skateboarding. I’m also so thankful to have had that time. I worked for Girl for a very short period of time and they’re like family to me. Girl and Chocolate when it first started up when I was in Michigan and Goldfish was just so incredible to me, so to work for Girl was insane. Those ads, I just shot one not too terribly long ago.
Back to the essence, back to what inspired you and continues to inspire other people
Yeah it’s a pure photo of skateboarding, I can’t really put it any other way. It’s meant to evoke that thought to just go and skate instead of the hardest trick on the biggest rail. Something that’s attainable for everyone who looks at it, a dope photo of skateboarding.
Five Flavours is one of my favourite videos ever made. Such a sick snapshot of that time, that company, SF, skateboarding, one of the best team line ups ever and the whole company aesthetic you created was just beautiful. I think what I’m trying to say is thank you
(Laughs) Well you’re welcome, thank you, I really appreciate it. I mean I’m still doing it, like all of us. Everyone who is still involved in skateboarding, we’re doing it because we truly love it. So I feel fortunate as I’ve said to be part of so many different dope things over the years and Madcircle being one of them.
All photos courtesy of Mike Blabac. Mag scan thanks to Science vs. Life.
Previously: LIGHTBOX: Gino Iannucci by Ben Colen
Related: Mike Blabac – 5000 Words Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
More photo stories: Andrew James Peters: Mentors, Heroes & Monster Children, Dominic Marley – 5000 Words, Dressen at Southbank 1987, Milton Keynes Skate History with Leo Sharp and Wig Worland