A Page from History: Graphic artist Bob Sorben left many a mark on Ocean Beach and Point Loma
Peninsula residents and others around the globe recognize the clever designs by Point Loma graphic artist Bob Sorben. You likely know his work. Most memorable are his Tunaville, Ocean Beach and OB Longhorns logos.
Robert “Bob” Edward Sorben owned Peninsula Graphics. He’s gone now, through a degenerative brain disorder called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in January 2020. Yet we frequently catch sight of his logo designs on bumper stickers, window decals, restaurant menus, T-shirts, hats, surfboards and a plethora of other domains.
Get Point Loma-OB Monthly in your inbox every month
News and features about Point Loma and Ocean Beach every month for free
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Point Loma-OB Monthly.
Sorben’s niece, Jeanette Sweet of North Ogden, Utah, said her widowed Grandma Nellie went to work in Southern California as a housekeeper to farmer Donald Sorben and they eventually married.
The family sold the farm and moved to Point Loma, where they built a small three-bedroom house with a detached garage for $1,200 on Alicia Drive. In 1942, their son Bob was born, and two years later came his brother Rick.
Over the years, Sweet said, her uncle acquired the nickname “Viking Bob” because of the family’s Nordic heritage and his stocky build. “My grandfather had the same burly build, with fingers the size of a baseball bat,” she said with a chuckle.
“Uncle Bob was a bodybuilder and surfer with a talent for drawing and eventually got into graphic art and silk screening,” she said.
Sweet remembers her dad, Harold Sweet (the Sorben siblings’ older brother), uncles Bob and Rick and friends sitting outside in beach chairs at the Alicia Drive house, foil pans held under their chins to tan themselves. And Grandma Nellie serving them home-squeezed lemonade.
She remembers going into the garage at a young age and watching her uncles individually silk screening decals and then handing them off to her Grandpa Don to clip onto clotheslines strewn across the garage.
“I was fascinated with the different colors, all done by hand,” Sweet said. “And them looking at each one to make sure it was perfect. Sometimes they’d hold me over a wooden silk-screening board and allow me to actually pull the color across the fabric.”
Silk screening is not cost-effective for larger quantities and requires specialized knowledge and materials. It isn’t clear when operations moved from the garage to a shop — Peninsula Graphics — at the corner of Scott and Cañon streets.
Inside the print shop, Bob Sorben designed dozens of custom and well-known logos for businesses, though some of the most distinguished were created in the garage or on top of somebody’s surfboard.
OB Longhorns logo (it ain’t from Texas, pals)
Over many years, Ocean Beach has been home to rambunctious fun-seekers.
“OB was ruled by locals, and the defense of our beach town from outsiders was almost tribal,” Sorben wrote. “The Point was broken up into clubs and each had followers, but we intermingled as one. The Sunset Surfers of the ‘40s and ‘50s and the Qwiigs Surfing Club of the ‘30s were the beginning. The Barons, Nobles, Rouges, the Yacht Club Guys and in Tunaville, the Oaks.”
Qwiigs is an acronym for “Queeners who indulge in great sports,” according to “The Varsity” author A. Lee Brown, who grew up in Ocean Beach. “In the 1930s, teenage girls were known as ‘queens’ and interested boys were ‘queeners.’ Over the years, more than 160 young men from Point Loma High were initiated into the Qwiigs.”
Brown’s next book, “Cradle of Bitchin,” is due on bookshelves next year. It’s a local story of mentors, watermen and the sea.
Among the local notables was a rowdy group of the ‘60s known as the OB Longhorns. According to longtime member Bob Mulrooney, “we played hard, we partied hard. Not necessarily surfers, just a bunch of guys from OB.”
“I can remember the very day we named ourselves,” he said. “It was 1960 and Chuck Scott, Mickey Taylor, Steve Herron and I were driving home from [San Diego] City College.” (Read the next quote with some prudence.)
“In the car, one of us — and I won’t say who — said, ‘I’m horny.’ Another spoke out, ‘Yeah, I’ve got long horns, too!’”
These revelers needed an ID, so Sorben and a guy named Billy Deacon (who was quite a character) came up with the famous OB Longhorns logo design.
There was no club registration, and each member favored a nickname. Anybody remember Mickey “Greasy” Taylor or Bob “The Crab” Mulrooney, among dozens of others? How about Dave “The Wave” Willingham, the youngest surfer to ride Hawaii’s Pipeline at age 16?
OB seagull takes flight
In 1973, the Ocean Beach seagull design came to life through the compromise of Bob and Rick Sorben’s and Deacon’s somewhat similar designs.
“We wanted to designate our town and would go to Coronet or Homer’s variety stores and buy decal letters ‘OB’ and paste them on the back of our car windows,” Bob Sorben wrote. “It was at that time my brother and I decided to create a window decal/logo for OB — something that would represent this unique community and the people would be proud to exhibit on their cars. We played with a few ideas, but they just weren’t that unusual and seemed common or too trendy.
“I had the beginning letters partially completed … drawn by hand since we didn’t have computers then. I finally found a unique seagull hand-drawn by a friend and that was it — movement and the expression of freedom that I wanted. … It took some time to find the exact position and size for the bird intersecting the OB, but finally it happened. When something clicks, you know it.”
Ocean Beach’s aura is somehow stowed in the souls of locals and thousands of visitors annually.
“Maybe it’s that time-capsule appeal,” said Ron Machado, a lifelong resident of Point Loma. “Perhaps it’s a reliving of the surfer, bohemian, hippy-type environment. When people buy these logos for window and bumper stickers and take them home, they associate them geographically to a place they really enjoyed.”
Newport Avenue shop owner Stratie Paras was the first to sell the gull decal in the early ‘70s. In 2015, the copyright for the logo was sold to John McCoy, owner of Ocean Gifts & Shells in OB.
Copyright infringement is a concern, Sweet said, “either intentionally or unintentionally. “I encourage us all to be respectful of intellectual property rights. The copyright process is arduous and provides legitimacy and ownership of specific, heartfelt work.”
Sorben’s gift to Portuguese community
“When Bob Sorben first started the Tunaville logo,” Machado said, “I became interested in the details and Bob’s marketing it on his own to local businesses. We became good friends and talked about old high school chums we both knew well.”
The moniker “Tunaville” was established by the 1930s to include Lowell to Talbot streets in Point Loma and as high up the peninsula as Willow Street.
“There was an imaginary line,” Machado said. “The peninsula was split up the middle — tuna chokers on the bay side and OB surfers on the ocean side. We had Joaquin ‘Keenie’ Batista, Walter ‘Popeye’ Drummond and Joe ‘Smoothie’ DaSilva. Then there was the brute strength, tuna fisherman Domingues ‘Mingo’ Silva, who nobody messed with.”
Sorben’s Tunaville design denotes the strain on men and fishing pole required to catch tuna and bring them aboard a boat. “It’s Bob’s legacy, a gift to the Portuguese community,” said Machado, who is of Portuguese descent.
After Sorben’s death, his niece gifted the copyright to Machado for use in the Portuguese community, reminding us of the early immigrants who settled along the shores of La Playa as far back as 1885. Their arrival influenced a bustling tuna industry that lasted nearly a century.
Over the years, Sorben reconnected with his Point Loma High School sweetheart, Susan, and they ended up celebrating 30 years of marriage, some of them spent in Minden, Nev. The two worked side by side at Peninsula Graphics until Sue’s death in June 2018.
Sorben was well-known and admired for his art and netted a number of honors, including a 1997 Landmark Award for the seagull logo. When he returned to City College to study computers, his art won first place in a national contest sponsored by Anheuser-Busch for alcohol awareness. Sorben split the $10,000 prize with the college.
Karen Scanlon is a historian and freelance writer who co-authored the book “Lighthouses of San Diego.”