Drawn Together - The District Weekly

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The District Weekly - June 4, 2008

By Theo Douglas

Opie Ortiz will always be the guy who tattooed ‘Sublime’ on Brad Nowell’s back. And he’s okay with that

The most famous tattoo ever done in this city went on pretty quickly—an hour-and-a-half, tops. “I just drew it up and blew it up and did it,” says Opie Ortiz, co-owner of American Beauty Tattoo Parlor in Sunset Beach.

He was years from owning a shop then, so Ortiz did it at home, in a little blue stucco house at a weird spot where Eighth Street and Termino Avenue once met the Pacific Electric train tracks. No one gave much thought to documenting the moment for posterity.

“That was ’94. In our kitchen,” Ortiz says, finishing a cigarette on Pacific Coast Highway outside his shop—maybe his last vice. “I lived with Ras-1, off of Termino—Ras was the [future] guitarist for the Long Beach Dub Allstars.” Ortiz would be the singer.

Fourteen years later, nearly all he remembers is that it was daylight when the needle pierced the skin—and they were listening to the Butthole Surfers. He doesn’t think it hurt much. (The other li’l ole band from Texas is a fine memory eraser.)

Afterwards, Ortiz took a picture, which is how tattoo artists document their work. Then, because you’re not supposed to drink while you’re getting tattooed—even though people do—he and his friend Brad Nowell got a little drunk toasting the Sublime lead singer’s new tattoo. It read “SUBLIME,” in gothic letters across Nowell’s back.

“Troy [Brad’s wife] called me and she was like, ‘What did you do?’” Ortiz remembers. “And I was like, ‘Me and him split a pint of Jack Daniels.’”

And that’s all anyone ever heard about that. Not quite.

After two independent releases, Sublime signed to MCA Records. Their self-titled major label debut—released following Nowell’s untimely death at age 28 on May 25, 1996 of a heroin overdose—sold five million copies. It rose to No. 13 for the year on the Billboard 200 chart, yielded six charting singles over the next two years—including the No. 1 “What I Got”—and became the signature record for one of the two groups of musicians who still define Long Beach. The other group?

“When we were on tour, other than questions about Sublime, they would ask us, ‘Do you know Snoop Dogg?’” Ortiz says, remembering the four years he put tattooing on hold to sing in the Long Beach Dub Allstars, the band Sublime members Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh formed the year after Nowell’s death.

Ortiz might—might—have been just a paragraph in Sublime history, but then he did all the artwork on Sublime, including its classic cover: flowers surrounding that very same photo he snapped in 1994 of Nowell’s back, livid with his new tattoo. Now, he has a platinum Sublime CD package on the wall of his tattoo shop—and the notoriety to accompany it.

“People wonder how I got the red around the edges,” Ortiz says of the letters in the new tattoo, which appear to be outlined, “but it’s blood.”

Tattoos bleed at first, and they’re every bit as permanent as a quintuple-platinum record that redefined the sounds of Long Beach and of summer. At age 37, Ortiz is accustomed to people asking about the “SUBLIME” tattoo—and about another Sublime illustration he did, which gets even more interest: the psychedelic sun on the cover of the band’s second record, the double-platinum 1992 40 Oz. to Freedom.

“To this day, I still [tattoo] two to three of them a week,” Ortiz says. “I think about it every time I do it—fuck! I could be doing anything else. To me, it’s like the daily grind. Other people do their shit and I get to tattoo images I did years ago.

“Plus,” says visiting tattoo guru Rick Walters, longtime manager of Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo in Long Beach, “you get to hurt people.”

That’s not why Ortiz became a tattoo artist, or why he’s working at this weekend’s fifth annual Ink-N-Iron Tattoo & Kustom Culture Festival at the Queen Mary Events Park. He’s been following this road since discovering the remains of the city’s famous Pike amusement park (once home to seven tattoo parlors) as a kid.

“I remember going down there and just being terrified. I was like 6 or 7 years old. Just riding my bike down there and creepy-crawlies just coming out,” he says. “All these weird people. Parts of it were still functioning: the military, the drugs, the hookers. It was probably the greatest place ever.”

A few years later, he ventured into Bert Grimm’s shop—now, Kari Barba’s Outer Limits—the oldest tattoo parlor in the U.S.

“I think I was 15 when I started hanging out there. I had one tattoo,” he says, struggling to find it in his full sleeves.

“To me, it was like a church, going to church.” After a few years smoking cigarettes at Bert Grimm’s, watching the haze hang and hang and hang in the stillness of the ruined amusement park, Ortiz met future Sublime bass player Eric Wilson at Wilson High School. Through Wilson, he met Bud Gaugh, the band’s future drummer, and Brad Nowell.

“Our love for music was the main reason we became friends,” Ortiz says. “They had a band that would play punk rock, Hogan’s Heroes. Then, they formed Sloppy Seconds, and that was the whole start of the ska ordeal. But when I met him he wasn’t into reggae that much.”

That changed after high school. They’d hit Culture Beat, a reggae record store in an old shopping center on the southwest corner of Alamitos Avenue and Fourth Street. Later, Sublime would perform in-stores there, impressing the owner, Courtney.

“[Brad would] be playing some Jamaican bass line and Courtney’d be like ‘How’d you know that?’ But he knew his stuff,” Ortiz says. “He wasn’t going to go play—what’s that dude’s name? Eddie Grant?—‘Electric Avenue’.” No, more like Ray Charles, whose “Let’s Go Get Stoned” Sublime covered on its 1991 demo Jah Won’t Pay the Bills.

“Courtney had strong Rastafarian beliefs, and he was like ‘What’s this Jah Don’t Pay the Bills? Bumbaclot!’ ” Ortiz remembers. “But he bought a bunch of them and sold them in the store.”

Sublime was on its way, and so was Opie Ortiz. After about four years spent really, earnestly hanging out at Bert Grimm’s, he finally apprenticed under tattooist Skully and with Rick Walters.

“You writing a story about this shithead?” Walters asks jokingly when he arrives in a new Chevy HHR panel truck with shaved door handles. “Be sure you spell his name right. It’s ‘Dopy’—D-O-P-Y.”

Ortiz likes that. “Nobody calls me that any more,” he says gently, as he tattoos praying hands on a customer’s pinkening bicep. Not since Bert Grimm’s and his first tattoo machine, maybe.

“My stepmom at the time was like ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ And I was like, ‘A tattoo machine,’” Ortiz says. “And I got Rick on the phone right away and she bought it for me. Later on, I got a power supply and started tattooing anyone who would let me. After the nervousness went away, I really thought I was onto something.”

Members of Sublime, whose first official show on July 4, 1989 is supposed to have started the so-called “Peninsula Riot,” were always in the mix.

“Right around that time I had tattooed Bud, with just ghetto stuff. Bud tattooed me. We were always trying to make [tattoo] machines,” Ortiz says. “I tattooed Brad before. We’d done some color pieces on his arms.” Wilson was more cautious about letting Ortiz do work on him.

“Eric waited forever. They all waited for me to get better,” Ortiz says. “Eric even told me, ‘I don’t want you tattooing me until you get better.’” Now, he looks at pictures of his early work and knows why.

“I had gone to some shops” looking for work, Ortiz says. “I look at my portfolio and I can’t believe now that I went in there with my crappy portfolio.” And then, finally, one day in 1994, Brad Nowell wanted to get tattooed. Again.

“I was pretty new to tattooing and I pretty much stuck to the flat surfaces,” Ortiz says. “We had talked about it before, him getting ‘SUBLIME’ on his stomach. I was like, ‘That’ll be the shit,’ and then he went and lost a bunch of weight.

“It wasn’t . . . it wasn’t hard,” Ortiz says, making a grabbing motion—like “saggy stomach”—at Walters, who is listening and nodding. “I was like, ‘Naaah, I ain’t tattooing you there with it moving around.’” He convinced Nowell to let him tattoo it on his back instead—the other place for legends of this type. The actual lettering wasn’t that difficult. “It’s just Old English, with a little variation,” Ortiz says, explaining how the typeface is created. “In Old English, the letters come in different sizes, so you have to stretch some of them until they’re almost square. Plus, Brad broke his collarbone when he was snowboarding so it was slumped.”

That meant slanting the “S” a little, so the word would look straight when it went on Nowell’s back.

But that was it: an hour and a half—and done. One famous tattoo, just not famous yet.

People ask about it every week now—that and the 40 Oz. sun—and part of Ortiz still can’t believe it.

“He told me one day, I think after he was signed to a major label, he was all hyped up on the [record deal], and he was like ‘I’m going to take you to the top,’” Ortiz says, getting ready to go back to work. “And I just thought maybe he was going to buy me some really good art supplies. But I never thought it would be such an iconic classic.”