The two men in front of a booth at the Body Art Expo convention in Pomona resembled homeboys straight out of American Me: black tank tops, backward baseball caps, dark-gray shorts, each heavily tattooed with black-and-gray portraits and imagery down their arms and back. Before them was a galaxy of iconic rock-band logos on T-shirts, including the golden "W" of Wu-Tang Clan; the Doors' bubbly lowercase font; a red, yellow and green headshot of Bob Marley; and the Rolling Stones' wagging tongue.
None of those interested them. Instead, one of the guys pointed at a bunch of T-shirts reppin' Sublime. The maroon one had the band's hometown of Long Beach written in white under the group's name; the black tee featured a round "LBC Sublime" logo in an ornate font. But the homie kept looking at a simple white shirt with a basketball-sized print of a multicolored crying sun across the chest: resplendent, oversized, a skeleton on the bridge of its nose, a devil on one cheek and a switchblade on another, a mushroom for a brain—folk art to the max. And then the homie blurted out a common conversation opener in beach-themed dives, pretty much the official compliment of SoCal surfer and stoner bros everywhere from Menifee to Solana Beach, Baja Sharkeez to Woody's Wharf.
"Dude, that's a sweet Sublime shirt!"
Two decades after the trio's eponymous album propelled them to national recognition and quickly became a summer soundtrack for Southern California, Sublime is more popular than ever. The reconstituted Sublime With Rome tours the world; their back catalog continues to sell well. Critics who dismissed the bar ballads and soul vocals of Bradley Nowell are finally reassessing their worth. Millennials and Gen-Zers can quote lyrics as easily as gnarled skankers and rockabillies.
"They're definitely one of my favorite bands," says Nikki, a twentysomething woman walking down Pine Avenue in the East Village Arts District. She's wearing a black Sublime shirt, complete with the sun and clean white script above it. Two other times that day, I had spotted that exact logo, once on the shirt of another twentysomething lady at Alamitos Beach and again on the back window of a car driving down Pine. "I mean, 'Caress Me Down' and 'Date Rape' are both classics," Nikki says, "and it's summertime in the LBC, you know?"
But a fascinating cult has evolved around the art of Sublime. The band's name tattooed in Old English on Nowell's back served as the cover art for their eponymous 1996 release and remains one of the most famous of the 1990s. That crying sun that the homies admired—the cover image of their 1992 debut, 40oz. to Freedom, an album that didn't sell well in its initial release—has transformed into shorthand for Southern California beach culture, something as emblematic of the region's scene as the Beach Boys or surfers of decades past.
* * * * *
An army of Sublime merchandise is now marching into stores across the world, all approved by Nowell's widow, Troy Holmes, and the band's management, Dave Kaplan Management. The Old English lettering and sol regis is everywhere in American lowbrow fashion: Hot Topic, Spencer's, Macy's, Old Navy and Target. Decals on cars and bootlegged T-shirts are hawked in swap meets. There are socks, skateboards, posters, shower curtains and wallets. The first officially licensed surfboard design is in the works.
Wearing a Sublime logo now has little to do with the music or Long Beach itself. Sporting band merch historically identified the wearer with a scene, an exclusionary tribe. But the Sublime ethos was always about hosting an eternal house party, with an open-door policy as long as you're going to have a good time and not harsh anyone else's scene. So Holmes has gradually phased out the city from a lot of Sublime products because she thinks the feelings and ideas should translate to everyone who wants them, regardless of geography.
"Second to the music, the art is the strongest message Sublime has to offer," she says while flipping a pancake in her San Diego-area home. "It doesn't represent a single place or a point in time. It can be any beach or anywhere. It doesn't have to just be about Long Beach."
Holmes, who runs an Instagram account dedicated to people taking photos of themselves wearing Sublime gear, says she's always surprised when she enters a restaurant and her waitress is wearing a Sublime logo or when half of a tattooed logo is peeking out from the clothing of someone at the grocery store. "Growing up in the punk-rock and ska and skateboard scenes, you wear uniforms pretty much all of the time," Holmes says. "You're being anti-fashion and anti-whatever else you're doing, but there's still a uniform. Anti-fashion has always been a big part of our life, so to see that art become a part of the subculture, it's really cool."
* * * * *
Opie Ortiz sits at the drawing table in the backroom of Seal Beach's Still Life Tattoo. He's wearing a shirt he designed, a black tee with a detailed yellow dragon and the letters DGWD (for "Don't Get Weird, Dude") through the middle of it. His dark hair is slicked back to stay out of his eyes, which are fixed on a small printout of the cover art from the CD version of Sublime's 1993 single "Badfish": a red koi cutting through the waves, an inner eye beaming on its forehead, done in a Japanese woodblock style. An outlined, half-painted all-black larger replica of the same image sits on the desk in front of him.
"I stole this idea out of the back of a tattoo magazine," Ortiz says. "Later on, I looked at it and I was just like, 'Fuck, that thing sucks.'"
The stoic Chicano is his own harshest critic. From the fish to the sun to the font style and beyond, Ortiz is the guy who has created nearly all of the artwork emblematic of Sublime for the past quarter-century, including the covers of the Doin' Time EP, the compilation Second-Hand Smoke, and the box set Everything Under the Sun, along with dozens of variations for all sorts of merch. "I created something, but to me, it holds way more spiritual essence than any kid saying, 'Oh, my god, you did the Sublime stuff,'" Ortiz says. "An artist creates [art] out of emotions. That shit was created out of emotions and friendships and love and hate and all that."
Ortiz knew the Sublime guys long before using nail polish and Krazy Glue to draw a precursor of his famous sun—a trick he'd learned while working in a screenprinting shop as a kid. The artist became "punker" friends with bassist Eric Wilson at Will Rogers Middle School in Long Beach, using his skills to illustrate Wilson's musical ventures: concert fliers, band shirts, spec album covers and more. When Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh teamed up with Nowell to form Sublime, Ortiz became the group's de facto artist.
"Opie's been as big of an influence in our music as we have in his art," Gaugh says. "It's been a real symbiotic relationship. Everything about Opie's art is real, and everything we did is based on life experiences that we all shared. That's why I think it's lived on for so long."
The band's first Ortiz design was a T-shirt featuring Jimi Hendrix's face with the dreads of H.R. of Bad Brains. He then made a Sublime-themed pillowcase for Nowell, as well as the group's first piece of official merch: a shirt with a simple lion design that's now a much-sought-after Holy Grail for die-hard fans. But with the release of Sublime's 1991 cassette single, "Jah Won't Pay the Bills," Ortiz realized he wasn't just creating some merch for a high-school band anymore.
"When they took the picture, and they had the dogs all there, I knew it was something," Ortiz says, "and it was pretty cool to be a part of something like that."
But the design that changed his life started as a T-shirt. Ortiz had sold Nowell a homemade screenprinted shirt featuring a sun comprised of Aztec parts and other images. The singer liked that $20 shirt so much that he wore it down to the threads over the course of a tour, then hung it high on a wall of his studio apartment. Sublime's manager, Mike "Miguel" Happoldt, approached Ortiz about doing another for the band's upcoming debut. He was into it, so he brought Happoldt to Westminster's Art Supply Warehouse to get the tools necessary to paint a modified version.
"When I came up with the concept, I was just creating art," Ortiz says. "I remember Miguel came to pick it up from me in the alley on Fourth and Walnut [in Long Beach]. He looked at it, and he was lost for words. He handed me $150, and he bought it to get it put on the album. Later on, Brad gave me some more money and said, 'Hey, don't sue me about the sun,' and I thought, 'Oh, I should totally sue him about the sun now.'"
He never did. Instead, Ortiz became Nowell's go-to tattoo artist, most famously doing the lettering across his back that adorned the cover of Sublime. Not only did Ortiz provide the tattoo and photo for the record, but he also drew the floral border surrounding it and had even painted a prior design of a junkie clown that MCA Records told the band they couldn't use.
"Brad would have to get all wasted to get tattooed because he thought they hurt really bad," Ortiz says. "We drank some Jack Daniels one time when I did his back, and I kept drinking it all. He was like, 'Hey! You don't need it!' and I was all, 'Well, you don't need it either. You're already fucked up!' Troy [Holmes] would get all mad at us because we were all fucking wasted."
* * * * *
Now in his mid-40s, the tattooer gets a kick out of his children pointing out everything from T-shirts to shower curtains with his designs on them—but he's conflicted about his designs' creeping ubiquity. "[Those items are] so based toward mainstream when Sublime isn't really based toward mainstream," Ortiz says.
There was a long stretch during which he wasn't too keen on tattooing his sun design or talking too much about his relationship with the band, not wanting to be typecast. "To me, Sublime is still underground," he says. "Only because people found out about how good it was back then is why it became more mainstream. We wanted to do designs that were designs that we liked and that we wanted to do. All it takes is good ideas and real shit, not some watered-down stuff. It was kind of going that way, and it was bumming me out."
So Ortiz enlisted the help of the Seal Beach-based Sullen Art Collective for an art show timed to the 20th anniversary of Sublime's release. "Troy and I have been trying to do a limited-edition line for about 10 years now, but we were never able to get it on board with any companies. Troy linked up with Sullen, and she liked the clothing they were doing, so we're doing it through them," Ortiz says. "Instead of doing all the art myself, I picked some artists who I respect—and I'm sure the band respect."
Tattoo legend Bob Tyrrell, Tattoo Nightmares star Big Gus and respected South Bay ink slinger Carlos Torres re-imagined classic designs based on artwork and photos from decades ago. The entire "Sublime x Sullen" collection was gone within a few days—far faster than Sullen co-owner Jeremy Hanna and his creative partner, Ryan Smith, had expected.
But the effort meant more to Hanna and Smith than just dollars and buzz. "We grew up with [Sublime's] music and their lifestyle," Smith says. "A lot of what we created was drawn from that experience. There weren't hardly any other bands that were like us and from where we were that we could connect to like that."
"Sublime was our soundtrack," Hanna adds. "They were the soundtrack of everything we were doing."
To celebrate the launch of the collection, Sullen hosted an art show at Garden Grove's Collective Ink on March 19. Hanna jokes that it's one of the few times he's been able to tell the stone-faced Ortiz was genuinely happy. The evening was capped by a performance by Nowell's son, Jakob, who was just a baby when his father died.
"There were, like, 300 people surrounding [Jakob] while he was playing acoustic Sublime songs, and you could just tell they were so stoked to see him," Hanna recalls. "He played his set with his mom and everyone around him smiling, and then when he was done with his set, he said something like 'Irish goodbye!' and jumped over the back fence and ran off."
* * * * *
Most people go to Floyd's 99 Barbershop in Belmont Shore to get a haircut, but it's also become a destination for Sublime fans over the past year. Muralist Jonas Never decorated its lengthy parking lot wall with a series of images that represent different aspects of Sublime and Nowell's life, with Ortiz's morose sun in the center.
"The tricky thing was that I didn't want to just repeat the same images over and over again," Never says. "I threw in the Queen Mary just to represent Long Beach and show where it was. It's hard as one artist to do another artist's design, so luckily, the wall was big enough that I could do all the imagery that [Ortiz] wanted."
For Never—whose work includes a mural in Silverlake featuring local artists from Beck to Silversun Pickups—choosing the right content and style was only half of what makes his Sublime mural so meaningful. The black-and-white images of the band, Lou Dog, and Nowell with his infant son have become a public memorial for not only fans, but also the Sublime family. The barber shop is near where Nowell's parents still live, and according to Never, Jim and Nancy Nowell stop by to enjoy the mural every time they go to one of their favorite breakfast spots.
"It's still kind of surreal to be a part of all of it because I grew up listening to them," says Never, who had a Sublime sticker on his first car. "Growing up and seeing how much of an impact on what I did and how [the band] combined different genres kind of inspired what I've done with combining graffiti and pop imagery. Just the fact that his family and friends and Troy dig it, that's just an awesome thing to be a part of."
In Holmes' eyes, murals such as Never's help to keep the Sublime legacy alive and expanding. The fans who saw the original lineup live and bought the albums after Nowell's death know the group's legacy. Holmes is now focused on the future.
"Target is the place where our generation shops for ourselves, our kids, our husbands and our grandkids," Holmes says. "I saw no problem putting a baby tee in there, and now, almost every morning, I post a picture of someone wearing a Sublime baby tee from Target. The generation that started listening to Sublime is all having kids now."
Everything from those tiny shirts to the largest Sublime beach blankets goes through Holmes now. She hasn't always been in charge of all of the band's merchandise, but it's something she now zealously monitors. Roughly a year after Nowell's death, Holmes saw a large cardboard display and poster advertising 40oz. to Freedom at a Newport Beach record store. She felt it was subpar and knew no one in the group had approved it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I called management, and they said the record company was [in charge of commissioning Sublime art], but if they didn't do it, then someone else would be doing it," Holmes says. "I told them that I would do it because I never want to walk into a store again and see something I didn't have or that we didn't approve."
But while Holmes wants to spread the Sublime legacy as far as possible, not everyone involved in the band's history is as enthusiastic. "With consumerism and marketing in the current state of our capitalist society, anything that will turn a profit as a commodity is sought by the marketers," says Marshall Goodman, a.k.a. Ras MG, Sublime's other former drummer, producer and DJ. "It's good because it's seen by a lot of people, but the marketers in consumerism just grab it because it's cool. Everybody in the underground already knows; they already get it. But to just turn into another thing to generate money—I've got mixed feelings about that."
"It's been mass-marketed, but it really started grassroots," Happoldt says. "It was supposed to be an inside joke, but then I guess it got exposed a little bit. I just wanted the album to look cool, and Opie just nailed it. If it was shitty, I don't know that it would've went that far."
The co-founder of Skunk Records has more invested in the sun than the other Sublimers. Ortiz's original work was lost in the shuffle of taking it from painting to album art, and Happoldt would like it returned. "I want everyone to know there's a $10,000 reward for anyone who brings that painting back," Happoldt says. "When we took it to get the film made for the CD, it was way out in the desert, and it took me a while to get back to pick it up. When I went back, it was gone, and the person in charge had been fired. I think they liked it, so they just took it when they quit or got fired. It's got to be out there somewhere, and I just want it back."