Icons of Santa Cruz: From mermaids to otters to VW vans, Life At Sea stickers create a graphic illustration of the California life

Santa Cruz stickers

In the latest installment of his Icons of Santa Cruz series, Wallace Baine traces the evolution of the Life At Sea stickers that began with Tim Ward drawing a shark in 2003 and which has bloomed into a many-tentacled operation extending from water to land and from Santa Cruz to Hawaii and Florida.

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I really hope no one is paying attention. It’s a lovely Friday afternoon and I’m skulking around parking lots in downtown Santa Cruz, looking at cars that don’t belong to me. For the record, I’m not snooping around for easy smash-and-grab opportunities. Neither am I a property owner with the towing service on speed dial. I mean no harm to you, dear driver.

In fact, I’m looking for bumper stickers. I’m cataloging the astonishingly popular stickers created and sold by Santa Cruz graphic artist Tim Ward and his company, Life At Sea. Those names might mean nothing to you, but if you live in Santa Cruz County and have a functioning car (and/or functioning eyeballs), you’ve seen these things. They’re everywhere.

At least, that’s my theory as I case the parking lots examining rear ends (wait, that didn’t come out right). In this unscientific survey, I am discovering, sadly, that most cars have zero stickers on them (c’mon, Santa Cruz, I really thought you valued personality and pizzaz over paint jobs). But for those that do, a huge number of them have at least one Life At Sea sticker.

After about a half-hour of pounding the pavement, I tallied the following — six of the classic mermaid (swimming version), one variation of the sitting mermaid; five instances of three different variation of trees, including the popular redwood whose roots spell out “Santa Cruz”; four instances of the octopus, one of which was on a car with Texas plates and the other three all on the same car; a monarch butterfly; a starfish; an otter; a sea turtle; the wave; a depiction of a clump of trees I might call the forest; and Bigfoot, leaning against a rock, chewing on a piece of grass.

Many of the stickers are simply gorgeous pieces of commercial art, awash in color and variety, emblematic of life in Santa Cruz. They combine beguiling imagery — mostly, but not always, from the natural world — with artistic renderings of the typography to make the word “Santa Cruz” a central part of the theme. Since its beginnings in 2008, Ward’s line of stickers has exploded in both variety of imagery and in the localities it serves. The Life At Sea stickers are, first and foremost, a Santa Cruz phenomenon, but they are not exclusive to Santa Cruz. They now feature a variety of localities as well, from local (Capitola, Aptos), regional (Big Sur), and even national (Life At Sea has now expanded with a line of stickers in Florida and another in Hawaii).

Neither Ward nor his longtime friend and business partner Chris Smith can say just how many stickers they’ve sold in the company’s 14-year history. But the stickers represent a life exploring all over California, said Smith.

“For Tim and I, growing up in California, both being natives of the coast, we’ve traveled extensively from the top of California all the way down, surfing and camping and just growing up as California kids,” he said. “And I think that that has helped us to understand a broader sense of what represents California.”

Ward began his journey with stick-on decals back in 2003, though the idea was dormant for several years.

“I drew a shark,” he said, “and I put ‘Santa Cruz’ in it. Then, I sat on that sketch for five years.”

Santa Cruz shark sticker

At the time, Ward, a Soquel High School grad, was a commissioned local artist and screen printer, and he knew a lot of local retailers, from surf shops to grocery stores. He had been toying with the idea of producing bumper stickers for a while. He loved logo design and working with symbols, but it was 2008 before he acted on it: “So, I figured, why don’t I just produce this? Show it to some people and see if they bite on it.”

The shark got people’s attention and Ward, a veteran surfer, expanded his vision to include other sea creatures. The company’s name is a reflection on Ward’s original orientation to marine animals.

One of the most popular in the line today is the mermaid, a silhouette of a swimming mermaid which comes in a number of colors. The mermaid marked a kind a new direction for Ward. It was a sea creature, sort of, if you included mythical sea creatures.

Mermaid sticker

The line made another evolutionary leap a couple of years later when a friend’s young daughter told her mom, “Tim should do a monarch (butterfly).” At the time, the line’s imagery was entirely ocean-bound.

“When that was repeated to me,” said Ward, “the lights came on. Of course, she was correct. I went right into design mode.”

From there, like the first creatures that emerged from the ocean to walk upon land, Ward’s ideas expanded dramatically, embracing the natural world with trees, flowers and wildlife, to the human world to include bicycles, guitars and the surf wagons known as “woodies.” Even Ward, a Santa Cruz lifer, was shocked at the variety of images that were able to evoke some aspect of life in Santa Cruz. “It’s far deeper than I thought it ever would be,” he said.

The Santa Cruz line features marine life such as crabs, jellyfish, sand dollars and sea anemones, as well as terrestrial plant life from the California poppy, to the sunflower, to the dragonfly. Trees are represented in redwoods, cypress trees, and live oaks.

But even Santa Cruz, with its wide variety of iconic images, can’t contain Ward’s vision. The Santa Cruz stickers are unique to that particular line. But in 2013, he began developing other designs for outside Santa Cruz. He and Smith drove a van down the coast, for months at a time, hawking a “California” line of stickers that presented images resonant on a state level, including a different design for a redwood and a mermaid, with an eye to determine which cities and towns might merit the extra time and expense to do a dedicated line. And, informed by the legwork of searching out small or mom-and-pop retailers in towns and regions all over the state, they created customized stickers — “name dropping,” they call it — for many places in California, from Lake Tahoe to Catalina Island.

“We basically lived in our cars and schlepped stickers up and down the coast,” said Smith. “We did it the hard way.”

Eventually, the California line sparked lines in other states. The “Hawaii” line includes hula dancers and roosters; the “Florida” line embraces flamingos and manta rays. Ward didn’t want to mass-produce designs he developed for Santa Cruz into a one-size-fits-all format for other localities. He decided he had to keep his Santa Cruz designs mostly unique. So he created new icons to export to other towns.

“There’s a different shark that exports to Santa Barbara or Huntington (Beach), for example,” he said. “A different mermaid, a different turtle.”

otter sticker

The most popular stickers? The mermaid, of course. The otter is a big one, too. The monarch and the Volkswagen bus also remain in high demand.

From the variety of images to the towns represented, the Life At Sea stickers have expanded now into a third dimension: other products, including key chains, ballcaps, pins, refrigerator magnet, and beanies. Life At Sea has also expanded its retail market, moving into California State Parks gifts shops, for instance. And the company also maintains a robust online presence.

“These stickers,” Ward said, “are essentially an expression of a given person’s stoke on their hometown and that particular creature.”

The Life At Sea universe will likely continue to expand in three dimensions, with new designs and products. Smith said the company will probably move into New Jersey next year, with a Jersey Shore line of images.

Ward said the COVID shutdown and the inflation cycles that followed it both brought a lot of stresses and challenges to his company, which now numbers five employees. But, he said, the need and the desire to keep expanding images and products, and to bring more localities into the Life At Sea universe, will keep the company moving forward.

“We do have room to grow,” he said. “We want to continue to go north. There are great Northern California spots we can hit, and great spots in the Pacific Northwest. And, if we can, we will. It might be just a matter of time. We look forward to it. But it’s always going to work by the same mechanism. We need to get in [a given community], find a footing there, and then we can start producing more for that place.”

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