What's now an art collective that promotes many of the most famous tattoo artists alive was once just a couple of broke guys wanting to sling T-shirts. "Coming from no money, we were forced to get creative in the early years," says Sullen Art Collective co-founder Jeremy Hanna. "We made stickers and were putting them on stop signs and freeway signs up and down the coast before we even had shirts or hats. People thought we were crazy for it, and there were a lot of people who didn't think we were going to make it."
About 15 years ago, Hanna and veteran inkster Ryan Smith were trying to re-brand an action-sports clothing line using tattoo-themed shirts. They were so successful that Sullen went from being headquartered in Hanna's living room to appearing in tattoo shops and conventions globally, as well as spawning numerous imitators. Nowadays, its iconic skull-and-crossbrushes logo stands as not only the company's symbol, but also a way of life.
"When we made the decision to go after tattooing, a lot of that was based on the fact that we knew tattooing as an art form was global," Smith says. "We knew that with tattoo artists traveling internationally, it would set us up for international exposure. A lot of the guys we worked with early on were still making names for themselves, so they were traveling a lot. It was the perfect partnership of them needing more stuff to sell while they were traveling and us needing more art and exposure."
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Among its roster is a Dream Team of artists, including Freddy Negrete, Carlos Torres and Bob Tyrrell. But what makes so many tattooers work with the Seal Beach-based brand is how well it treats the artists. From the obsessive attention to detail in making sure the artwork, comfort and function of each product is flawless to the familial support the company gives its artists at conventions, Sullen is committed to going about its business the right way. Its biggest contribution to the industry doesn't come in T-shirts or travel bags, but in the worldwide network of artists it has created.
"We've always liked to collaborate with people, and Jeremy's always had this innate ability to have a lot of friends," Smith says. "When we started reaching out to artists, half the time, it was us finding artists we were inspired by, and then the other half was friends of friends who wanted to work with us. We still look for new artists who inspire us whenever we do new lines, and a lot of those times, those people will become friends and mesh with the other artists we've been working with for a long time. We're like the glue that gets everyone together and gets everyone talking."
"When times were tough, our Sullen family was always there," Hanna adds. "We've always had a large network and a lot of good people surrounding us. These days, our tattoo artists are our brand ambassadors, and they're telling our story whether we're there with them or not. It's amazing."