A handful of artistically designed skateboards and surfboards are still scattered around the Sullen Art Collective headquarters in Los Alamitos, but that's the only remaining sign of the origin of the 14-year-old tattoo-based lifestyle company.
"We were pushing action sports for a while," says Jeremy Hanna, co-owner of Sullen. "We had about 30 athletes, and we were at every skatepark, surf contest, parties, anything we could to get our name out there. We were hustling t-shirts as much as we could."
After years of struggling to make a name in the logo-based world of surf and skate apparel, Hanna and fellow co-owner (and 20-year veteran tattooer) Ryan Smith realized they should try moving into a relatively unclaimed market, the world of tattoo-themed clothing.
"I was always drawn to surf graphics and branding because it was the illustrated creative artwork out of the SoCal beach culture, but I always responded better to things that were darker and more moody," Smith says. "We tried bringing the tattoo aesthetic to the beach culture, but it didn't fit. So we started doing tattoo conventions and really found our audience, but it was years before we realized this is where we belong."
Smith's experience as a tattoo artist made the switch seem like a natural progression, and although it took a few more years of grinding day and night before the brand really caught on, the co-owners never doubted that they'd be successful in their new industry.
"We always knew we would succeed," Hanna says. "We knew that anything that required extra effort, that's where we'd succeed. We didn't have the money that some people had, but not everyone was willing to grind like we were. We were driving around throwing up stickers in the middle of the night, things like that. There was a lot of uncertainty, but we always knew we'd succeed."
"If your heart's not in it, you won't find success," Smith says. "The sacrifices you have to make just to create a living, breathing business, we wouldn't be able to recreate it. There were some hard times."
These days, Sullen is one of the most recognizable names in the ever-growing tattoo industry, and while some tattooers may complain about brands capitalizing on tattooing's new mainstream market appeal, Smith and Hanna believe they're going about everything the right way. They're not in the business to become incredibly wealthy and famous; they're looking to help tattooers in as many ways as possible.
"We're always in service to tattooers," Smith says. "It's always 'How can we give back to them?' It's always about what do the artists get. If we can expose tattooers to a world that doesn't know them, then it helps them out. It can help us out too, because we get branding or exposure or really cool original art, but we're making their art more approachable and accessible to people. We're constantly thinking of new ways to celebrate their art."
"We have an opportunity and a stage to educate people on tattooers," Hanna says. "It's not just exposure though. We've made posture shirts, travel bags, stuff made specifically for tattooers because Ryan sees things as a tattooer. We have an open door policy for tattooers, even if they just want one shirt. We'll always help artists. Our guys know that we'll use our connections to help them with anything we can, and most of the time, we can help."
Since 2001, Sullen has worked with over 100 tattoo artists, and the brand doesn't show any signs of slowing down anytime soon. What began as a clothing line has now launched its own web series, podcast, art gallery and more, each of which has grown substantially since inception.
"People pat us on the back and say congratulations, but I still feel like we have a lot to prove," Hanna says. "Look at Sullen TV: they're moving into a new 6,000 square foot facility where they'll be able to have artists come in and film their seminars if they want to. It'll be a hub for tattoo knowledge."
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One of Sullen's upcoming ventures will be an actual tattoo shop run by one of the most prominent artists, Big Gus, who stars in the Spike TV show Tattoo Nightmares. Aside from the shop's regular artists, the guest spots will feature renowned tattooers from all over the world thanks to Sullen's international appeal.
"Big Gus is opening up the shop, so that's pretty big right now," Hanna says. "A lot of our artists come into town for conventions or on vacation and they don't have a shop to tattoo out of. Now they'll all be able to tattoo out of there. Some of the best artists in the world will be tattooing at that shop."
Sullen Art Collective, 11081 Winners Cir # 100, Los Alamitos, (714) 847-6917, sullenclothing.com