This summer, thousands of fans flooded the Broadway Pier in San Diego to celebrate 30 years of Tribal Streetwear. Rows of lowriders and custom cars with candy-coated finishes wowed visitors as they mingled among the vendors, food, music, drinks and skateboarders. Inside, a carefully curated art exhibit featured artists who have collaborated with the brand on clothing designs over the past three decades. Titled “The Legacy Show,” the experience exemplified these creative sub-cultures and the corresponding visual language that has made the San Diego-based company more of a lifestyle than a brand.
In 1989, Tribal Streetwear was founded by brothers Bobby and Joey Ruiz. Originally silk-screening T-shirts with designs inspired by tattoos as well as Bobby’s experience as a graffiti writer, most of the company’s initial imagery was infused with Mayan and Aztec lines and shapes — a characteristic that was instrumental to the name Tribal.
Reflecting on these early influences, Bobby Ruiz says: “My brother and I grew up in south San Diego and later Mira Mesa, so we brought the lowrider and Chicano-style graffiti culture to the skate and surf communities. All these things combined to establish an open-minded aesthetic that continues to this day.”
The term “streetwear” caught stride in the 1990s and is generally understood to be a grassroots casual clothing style inspired by surf, skate, street art, break dancing, hip hop and punk. The clothing typically consists of T-shirts, ball caps, pants and sneakers and can be seen as a reaction to the mass-produced clothing available from big companies typically found in malls and large retail outlets.
“There is a version of streetwear from the keyboard and another that is from the streets,” Bobby says, and the street is the key aspect of Tribal’s continued success.
Bobby emphasizes the importance of understanding street culture and being involved in the trends and styles that are practiced in this context, adding that believes Tribal’s continued relevance is because of the diversity that is built into their headquarters on 17th street in San Diego.
“I have to wait for skaters to move (expletive) when I arrive in the morning, then I walk in and greet the guys in the tattoo shop. Plus there are artists continuously working in the building on new pieces, and of course there are always cars.”
Each of these subcultures lives simultaneously within Tribal headquarters and helps the company maintain the aspects that originally inspired the brand.
Tribal has never succumbed to marketing stunts to get attention. Instead, the brand has relied on its close connections with San Diego’s art community. Tribal has collaborated with like-minded brands such as Dogtown Skateboards and Hurley and continues to partner with performers in the music industry and seeks opportunities where art, cars, graffiti, or tattoo art might be featured.
Tribal is uniquely situated in San Diego, and Bobby is proud of what the city represents for streetwear.
“I believe that streetwear was born in San Diego,” he says. “A small clothing show called 432F was held for several years in San Diego in the 1990s that featured streetwear and alternative clothing brands because they didn’t fit with surf and skate brands.” he says.
432F was considered the stepchild to the big Action Sports Retailer (ASR) trade show that was held at the same time. This is where Marc Ecko, Conart, Obey and Third Rail all started to get attention, Bobby explains.
“It was the first time there was a movement and scene for these brands to come together to showcase their goods on an international scale.”
Tribal Streetwear developed an international presence in the 1990s as the company sent their product to Europe, South America and Asia for trade shows, while also establishing retail stores and always bringing artists, musicians and dancers with them to showcase their unique Southern California culture.
On the success of Tribal becoming an internationally known brand, Bobby reflects: “It’s not always about being financially wealthy. I think wealth is in your lifestyle, your community and being close to the people who you love and love you. It’s more about how you live your life.”
The Tribal T-Star logo serves as an excellent representation of the company’s philosophy. Made up of several “T” letters that lock together like a puzzle, the logo showcases a star in the negative space. A metaphor for the various aspects of street culture and family coming together to form something special, it’s a bold and unforgettable symbol that can be spotted on stickers, rings, clothing and other paraphernalia by fans of the clothing line.
Tribal Streetwear — a pioneer in the development of streetwear and representing the powerful voice of the street — is celebrating 30 years of artistic expression and cultural pride this year and is looking forward to the future.
“Tribal is San Diego,” Bobby says. “We represent this part of Southern California all over the world. From skateboarding to Chicano culture, everything that comes from here is wrapped up in our work.”
Daichendt, dean of the colleges and professor of art history at Point Loma Nazarene University, is a freelance writer.