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Artist Spotlight: Opie Ortiz and Images of a Generation

Nobody will deny that Sublime has been the most influential artist within the reggae rock scene and the most notorious beyond it, selling over 20 million records worldwide. Similar to the Grateful Dead, their oeuvre includes not only their music but their beloved artwork, which, over the years, has evolved to symbolize not just the Long Beach band but Southern California beach culture as a whole.

In fact, the image of the anthropomorphized sun which graced the cover of their 1992 debut album, 40oz to Freedom, has become so ubiquitous that it can be found on items not just in popular mall stores like Hot Topic or Spencer’s that typically carry music-related merch with a counterculture bent, but even in general retailers like Target.

This widespread distribution ultimately leads to sales of Sublime gear well beyond their already massive fanbase. I’ve witnessed this myself on several occasions, having come across people wearing the sun logo outside of the reggae rock milieu. Thinking we had a love of Sublime in common, I engaged them in conversation about the band, only to hear that they were not familiar with the music, but just liked the shirt.

“The sun!” exclaimed Opie Ortiz, the Long Beach, CA, tattoo artist behind Sublime’s most representative artwork. His affiliation with Sublime dates back to middle school when he befriended bassist Eric Wilson in science class thanks in part to a shared affection for punk rock music and its accompanying lifestyle.

I asked Ortiz about how the now iconic sun design came about.  He explained that he had been really into airbrushing at the time, working on any type of mediums he could. Bradley Nowell (Sublime’s founder, primary songwriter, guitarist and singer) had been present while Ortiz had been creating the design on a shirt. Nowell asked Ortiz what he intended to do with it, and Ortiz told him he planned to sell it. Nowell asked how much, Ortiz told him twenty dollars, and Nowell handed him a twenty on the spot.

“I believe there’s a pic somewhere of him wearing this shirt. He loved it and cherished it,” said Ortiz. “It used to hang in his studio really high on the wall so no one would steal it. But eventually someone did.”

The sun has stoned blue eyes that portray a morose expression, with the skeleton of a fish for one eyebrow and a flower for the other, a polka-dotted mushroom representing the brain, the skeleton of what seems to be a tadpole in the nose area, and a pugilistic caterpillar for a mouth. A devil and part of a human skull fill the areas that would comprise the cheeks of the face, and a genie and a switchblade make up the jawbone areas. Finally, let’s not forget the tiny peace sign that adorns the chin.

I asked Ortiz if he would unpack some of the symbolism and/or what inspired certain elements of the 40oz design. The artist shared that an Aztec sundial was the original inspiration and that he had been influenced by “drugs” as well as the work of Rick Griffin, an artist popular within surfing subculture known for his psychedelic posters and album covers for the Grateful Dead.

Ortiz said that he’s amazed by the various explanations of what this design means that he’s heard over the years. He reminded me that he was only 18 when he did the art. “I had a vision of smaller images to make up the face. Not sure why I picked a mushroom…possibly ‘cause of the shape? I know why I did the fish skeleton — most likely our love for Fishbone! The other images…maybe I was trying to make it dark or scary, but the whole image doesn’t say scary, and that’s what I was going for.”

Beyond the 40oz sun design, Ortiz has contributed plenty of other artwork to accompany Sublime’s music, both directly and indirectly. Their eponymous LP that catapulted them from niche Southern California ska-punks to global phenoms on the back of massive hits, “What I Got” and “Santeria,” features of photo of Bradley Nowell’s back with the band’s name scrolled in large Olde English lettering across his shoulders. Ortiz did the tattoo, of course, as well as the floral design framing it and the back cover art, which brings to mind the old school flash art of tattoo pioneer, Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry.

In fact, a lot of the Ortiz’ art is reminiscent of Sailor Jerry, whom Opie cites as a “huge inspiration.”

“A lot of my friends are phenomenal tattooers and painters who inspire me all the time,” Ortiz told me, before mentioning some other tattoo artists he holds in high regards, such as Bill Canales, Filip Leu, Lus Lips, Horibenny, RG74. “I get inspiration from a lot of graffiti artists and sign painters as well,” Ortiz added.

Tattooing is this diverse artist’s bread and butter, and I had read somewhere that Ortiz started tattooing at the age of 15. “That I believe is wrong…” he corrected me. “I was tattooing, meaning scarring people with homemade equipment! But that’s when I really wanted to be a tattooer, realizing later it was really hard and expensive at the time to start up.”

Ortiz would eventually learn the craft from legendary tattoo artist, Rick Walters, during the couple of years he worked as a helper at the fabled Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio, the oldest continuously operated tattoo shop in the United States. There he learned the ropes and developed his skills. At the age of 21, he gave it another try, this time with professional equipment, and never looked back.

Every profession has its pros and cons and when asked about his favorite and least favorite aspects of tattooing, Ortiz replied “Shitty aspect of tattooing it’s no longer sacred. It’s become corny and dumb.” On the other hand, he said, he loves the good vibes from getting and giving quality tattoos.

Ortiz has been at it a long time and over the years, the craft has progressed. “The art has evolved so much, and the equipment also,” he said, adding that learning a bit about health and wellbeing is a plus. “Attitudes have opened up about tattooed people, I feel. Everyone’s tattooed, even Grandma!”

In addition to tattooing, Ortiz draws and paints as well and is known for his pop art and murals. His predilection towards art goes back to his elementary school days. Like most kids who grew up in Long Beach, he loved skating and BMX. He also practiced judo at his local YMCA, later getting into aikido which he really liked. Yet, Ortiz also gravitated towards creative outlets, thanks in part to his uncles, one of whom is a drummer and the other a sculptor, and especially his mother, who was involved in a lot of different art forms, including photography, stained glass, furniture, needlepoint and music as well.

“At a young age I realized art was a kind of outlet or release for me,” Ortiz recalled. “My mother really helped and guided me to certain mediums and avenues, expressing to me that the arts and music are important.” (Ortiz would also embrace music as a member of Dubcat and later, Long Beach Dub Allstars.)

“I started with pencil and pen at a very young age,” Ortiz told me about how his affinity for art evolved. “Didn’t start painting ‘til my teens, spray paint, acrylics. Got into airbrushing ‘cause I saw a picture on the back of a Soryama book of him airbrushing, so I thought that was how he did his work, later learning he hand painted all his work and in his last steps he airbrushed highlights. Later, I got into tattoo art and it consumed me. It still does. I still do watercolors, acrylic canvases, (I’m) doing some resin figures, patches, enamel pins. I like all mediums; spray paint is really cool and fun. I’m just getting into Procreate and have done a few designs.”

Just as Ortiz flexes his creativity over a variety of mediums, he takes inspiration from a range of influences, citing examples such as Japanese Edo period art and culture, and Mexican and southern Americas glyphs and culture. “I was watching a documentary on a Polish artist named Stanislaw Szukalski and it blew my mind the art he created! Anything I come across that has any art involved, if it’s cool, I get inspiration from it. I get a lot from nature. Being in the moment helps inspiration I believe.”

While Ortiz will always be first and foremost associated with Sublime, recently he committed to do some work for another popular band in the reggae rock scene: The Movement. On January 24th, the band announced a limited merch release featuring a design by Ortiz.

“We crossed paths at Cali Roots and chatted a bit,” Ortiz told me. “I was really stoked to be invited to do art for them! I enjoy the vibes that they have, and good energy all around. I am excited to be a part of this project.”

The Movement is stoked as well.

“This is one of those things that you just don’t believe could ever really happen in real life,” Movement singer Josh Swain said. “Opie is for real one of my heroes. Long Beach Dub All Stars is one of my favorite bands of all time. And besides the music, his artwork is literally a visual representation of the music that I grew up with, the music that inspired me to do what I do. His contribution to the scene has really been such a HUGE part of my life and I consider myself a lucky dude to be able to collab with him.

From the early reactions on social media, it seems that fans will not be disappointed.

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Ever since becoming deeply moved and then essentially obsessed with reggae music as a teenager, Dave has always strove to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of reggae music, Jamaica and Rastafari, the ideology and lifestyle intertwined with reggae. 

Over the years, he has interviewed many personalities throughout the reggae world including Ziggy Marley, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Bradley Nowell and many artists in the progressive roots scene.

Dave has also written and published a novel, “The Cosmic Burrito,” a tale of two friends who drive across the USA in search of the ultimate burrito. He plays ice hockey weekly for a recreational team he founded and manages, Team Rasta.

Reggae music has filled his life with a richness for which he will forever be grateful, and he gives thanks to musicians far and wide, past and present, whether they perform roots, dub, dancehall, skinhead, rocksteady or ska, whether their tools are analog or digital, as well as the producers, promoters, soundsystems, selectors and the reggae massive at large who comprise the international reggae community.

You can follow Dave on Instagram at @rootsdude and Twitter at @ElCosmicBurrito.

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