If a creative statesman were ever to emerge from the streets of Long Beach, California and its storied lineage of artists, hoodlums, surfers and vagabonds, Opie Ortiz would surely be recognized as a candidate through bloodline and a sort of credibility only afforded to a person when their indelible mark has been left on the artistic legacy of a city.
And although his name might still not be one that the general public would recognize upon first glance, his art is quite the opposite – having been synonymous with the album covers, t-shirts and posters of one of the most beloved bands of the past two decades. To Ortiz, this was all just part of a spontaneously crafted responsibility to those that were part of his adolescent crew; one that would come to form a lifelong creative bond while defining the look and sound of a generation raised on the better sensibilities of hip-hop and punk. A hodge-podge of skin tones, these were teenagers who lived a California aesthetic so deeply coveted by kids in the Midwest.
Even if times were tough and money was scarce, Ortiz’ earliest years were surrounded by the loving support of a mother who saw through her son’s incessant doodling as she dared him to draw outside the lines of sketches taking shape in school notebooks laying around their house. It was this intuitive insight and encouragement that first provided Opie with an affirmation of his own abilities – and even more so – it was his mother’s creatively-charged home environment that would come to foster her child’s ever-growing need to explore the styles, mediums and variations of canvas that would come to define his future artwork. Progressive ideas were heralded in their family and thus began an introduction in his teen years to the counterculture films of Long Beach’s art Theater and a growing obsession with the artwork of Dungeons and Dragons. It was also during this period that Ortiz developed a penchant for inspired theft, stuffing comic books and expensive pens into oversized backpacks with a typical thirteen year-old’s zealous “because I can” attitude. In hindsight, this was something that the artist would come to realize was fueling an ever-growing need to rapidly absorb any and all dynamic illustration, often times well outside the budget of his teenage wallet.
In middle-school, Opie would first come into contact with Eric Wilson, a like-minded youth who found his own version of artistic rebellion through music. The two would trade mischief, eventually finding their way into the ninth grade and a broader social group that would come to form the beginnings of Wilson’s seminal band…Sublime. High school would provide Ortiz with purpose and direction as his teachers easily recognized his growing aptitude for airbrushing and ink-work. Splitting time between his studies and what was turning into an exponentially-charged fascination with tattoo culture, the young artist would spend evenings at , soaking up any and all inspiration from legendary tattoo artists Rick Walters and Mike Brown,Joe Vegas,Demon . It was an atypical existence, and one not often granted to a sixteenyear- old, but Opie embraced every moment of it, even constructing rudimentary homemade tattoo guns in initial attempts to follow in the footsteps of his mentors. Forties and blunts were intermingled with heavy doses of inspiration back at the Ortiz house. Opie’s mother figured that if her child was going to experiment, it would be better to have her son and his friends do so under her watch, and their living room became a respite for the crew – a place were ideas could be traded and idiocy partaken. Though unbeknownst to any outsider, there was more than just partying taking place amidst clouds of smoke, broken bottles and bullshitting. An allegiance to something much greater was beginning to develop.
As his social group grew, so did the popularity of Eric Wilson’s newly formed band. And while Opie had his hands full having recently completed one of his first commissioned pieces –a mural for the City of Long Beach- the bass player was insistent that Ortiz make a batch of t-shirts similar to the DIY Bob Marley design that he had crafted for their extended crew. Soon Sublime’s first run of tees were plastered on the chests of those in the know, and a partnership was born that would see the young illustrator’s artwork defining much of the band’s visual aesthetic throughout their career. His teen years drew to a close and Opie found himself taking on random projects that towed the line between staying afloat financially and recklessly exploring artistic tangents within his own portfolio. Fellow friend and Sublime manager, Michael “Miquel” Happoldt, would commission what perhaps would become Ortiz’s most widely seen and influential work, the sun which came to adorn the cover of the band’s album “40 Oz. to Freedom.” Although he was only paid $150 for the piece, it was one that Opie would have done for free as the sense of pride emanating from his friends’ faces seemed to be payment enough at the time. Not to mention the fact that the album would go on to receive a nearly cult-like status amongst white suburbia’s greater denizens, the timing of the artwork could not have been any more perfect as it encouraged Ortiz to perfect his hustle in other similarly-minded arenas. Until Sublime reached a near fever pitch just prior to the release of their self-titled record in 1996, the band had retained much of its underground following. Those that were familiar with their music, were also treated to the innumerable pieces of artwork now being credited to the group’s defacto visual specialist.
Opie found his creations nearly everywhere, from the albums to the skin of the band members themselves. It was a sort-of reciprocity in kind, and a house that Ortiz helped build until the day of dear friend and Sublime front-man Bradley Nowell’s fatal drug overdose. Those closest to the band were reeling from the loss, and Opie was no exception. Nowell and Ortiz had been kindred spirits, playing off of each other’s humor and artistic inclinations. Although typically more suited to having a pen or tattoo gun in his hand, Opie would in moments share vocal verses with Brad, lyrically battling back and forth, all the while inspiring new melodic patterns for the singer to take into the studio. Making the timing of the death even more tragic was the fact that Sublime’s self-titled album would go on to sell millions of copies, becoming somewhat of a side-b tragedy to the other prolific heroin loss of the 90’s, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. The widespread distribution of Opie’s artwork was nothing short of bittersweet and in whatever capacity the artist could pay homage to not only Brad, but also the legacy of the band, he was happy to oblige. But it wasn’t until Eric Wilson and Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh came to Ortiz with a surprise request, that the artist felt uneasy attempting to jump into the massive cultural momentum that the band’s music had initiated. Both band members had known that Opie was a capable singer, as well as emcee, having been privy to his earlier battles with Brad. Nonetheless, Opie was still shocked when they didn’t so much ask, as tell him in no uncertain terms that he would be singing in a side project attempting to do justice to the legacy of Brad’s songs. Thus began the life of the Long Beach Dub All-stars, a free-form collective of some of those closest to Sublime. The band would eventually come to tour the world, not only playing live versions of Sublime material, but also inspired originals that aimed to progress the sound initiated by their crew years earlier. It was a heavy project for all involved, and during this time Ortiz could feel an itch and longing that amidst the insanity of the road, he perhaps wasn’t spending enough time cultivating his own art. Although there were tattoo sessions, they were infrequent.
The shows were massive, but with that responsibility came the weight of attempting to do his friend justice. It was a role in which Opie was never quite at ease and when the LBDA decided to part ways, it provided an opening to pursue his true vocation with renewed vigor and dedication. In coming home, Opie opened American Beauty Tattoo, a shop that allowed him to him to be close to his family while also focusing on melding traditional American styles, with his iconic Long Beach inspired artwork. It was a hybrid that instantly found Opie catering to multiple demographics of clients, while also becoming a household name in the world of tattoo’s elite. Along with the shop and a hungry schedule of commissioned pieces, Opie again tested the musical waters, although this time much closer to home with his newly formed outfit, Dubcat. Playing traditional styles, the act focused its attentions on writing authentic anthems that borrowed heavily from the likes of roots reggae and Latin-inspired fare. As he would come to admit, in many ways the songs were a tribute to his mother, who insisted on playing the standards of each genre in those early years when she sought so intently to encourage her son’s talents. And while she used to insist that one day her child would revere these melodies, it wasn’t until Dubcat that Opie found himself living out her predictions. Much has been the story of Opie Ortiz. As never one to compromise vision in favor of trend, his talent and skill have been attributable to an accountability of self and a willingness to walk the fine line between commercial success and independent artistic integrity. And although the man is still young, it’s a rare thing when a body of work reaches a near-mythological status so early in life. But then again, his art helped usher in a movement of expression to an American landscape of youth who have looked to his process of reflective creation and attempted to do the same in their own lives. But if you were to ask Opie yourself, you might just find a guy who says he’s lucky to have seen the years through while also having the canvasses to tell the stories. -NMH