In a back room at Ink Floyd, the NoDa-based printer, Jacob Freve is hard at work on a 12-by-18-inch poster. His tools aren't colored markers or paint brushes, and he can't just hit "print" on a laptop. Yet screen printing is just as much a hands-on process as what Claude Monet did.
Freve pours a row of periwinkle blue ink on top of a bright orange, woven mesh screen before sliding a squeegee across the top, pressing the ink through the screen and on to a sheet of crisp white paper below. He sets it aside, and repeats the process through a stack of pages until, minutes later, all are dried. With a different screen, he adds a second color, and a face appears on the paper. The finished product, with its palpable layer of ink, will — coincidentally — promote an upcoming screen print art show, Reclaimed, at Twenty-Two.
Screen printing allows artists to produce multiple copies of the same image with only minor differences between them. It's an efficient process that's quicker than using a paint brush, but more tactile than a computer-printed image. Run your fingers along a screen printed poster and you can feel the thin layer of ink sitting on the parchment.
The process, more than a century old, has attracted numerous musicians and artists around the country who want to create posters for their own bands and friends. It's nothing new, though it has continued to thrive through the digital age. These aren't the posters you see stapled to utility poles; rather, they're souvenirs available for purchase. In an era when most albums are downloaded, posters remain one of the few concrete items that fans can hold on to. It's a nostalgic nod to one of the world's oldest practices: printing.
Reclaimed will showcase the works of dozens of artists from around the country. Fans have been collecting concert posters and other music memorabilia for decades — there's even a 2012 documentary about it called Just Like Being There. But in Charlotte, there are few DIY screen printers who actually create these kinds of works. Reclaimed organizer Evan Plante hopes this show is the first step in building a new culture here — one that fosters, expands and even collects the art side of concert posters.
"Music, bands and shows are so intangible," says Plante, 36, who also plays drums in the Charlotte garage-punk band Black Market. "You have an MP3 of music. Last year with Black Market, we were recording songs and getting them out, but I'd make a cover for each CDR. If you don't get a copy, you missed it, it's gone. The tangibleness of music is missing right now. Having the song is easy, but having the thing that was available and collectible is what's interesting about it."
In the past, people could look at the photos or liner notes on an album — whether it was vinyl or the booklet inside the CD case. Fans could touch them, read them, drool over them and roll their joints on them. These days, music is digital and there's little more than a name in your iTunes or MP3 player. People don't get to touch the music anymore.
For years, music fans have collected screen printed posters. Screen prints are usually done on thicker paper, signed and numbered, and likely contain the tiniest of imperfections (slightly offset colors, small dots or lack of color), which makes them more desirable — it's the "no two are alike" idea. Just like a T-shirt, a poster can be a memento of a particular concert and hold just as many memories for the owner.
"It's cool to bring screen printed posters to a show and watch everybody freak out," says Sarah Robbins, a 28-year-old screen printer, guitarist for the Charlotte pop-punk band Alright and Self Aware Records co-founder. "Nobody cares about a stack of [computer-] printed posters. [Screen printed] posters take time, thought and planning, and people appreciate that."
The artwork itself becomes a point of focus as much as the music. From the bizarre to the ordinary, from the use of colors to different typography, artists create their work to convey some kind of emotion that will strike a chord with music fans.
Posters by Ink Floyd of Charlotte and Christopher Williams of Durham, North Carolina, will be a part of Reclaimed.
These screen prints are usually signed, produced in small quantity and sell out quickly. Aficionados and collectors will post photos on fan forums and buy and sell them, too. If you log on to a music fan board — from Pearl Jam to the Avett Brothers to smaller indie bands — and look around, it's not long before you see mentions of posters. "Did you see the one from Tampa last year?" "Who has a copy of the Denver poster for sale?"
ON A COLD January night, Plante, Robbins and Del Rio guitarist/singer and graphic designer Pete Hurdle meet me at Twenty-Two, the site of this month's exhibit.
These three are just some of the faces involved in different facets of screen printing around Charlotte. Other artists can create the images, and printers, such as Ink Floyd, offer mass-produced capabilities (though the process is still done by hands, screens and paints), but these are three musicians in love with the DIYness of screen printing who hope it flourishes in Charlotte.
When I inquire about the process of screen printing, I get enthusiastic answers. There's talk of light setups and wattage. Plante, Robbins and Hurdle are fascinated with other artists who can handle 12 to 14 different colors on a print — the average print uses closer to four.
Plante discusses his backyard setup while Robbins talks of her 6-foot table where she does her work. The two of them came up with the idea for Reclaimed. Hurdle, 30, who mainly does design work, wishes he had the space for a screen printing setup in his small apartment so that he could do it himself. Instead, he has to find other people to do the printing for him.
They all agree that the initial startup is more involved in space and money than the maintenance for doing screen printing. A starter kit can be found online for less than $200. The screens are reusable and water-based inks aren't too costly (plastisol for T-shirts is more costly, as are the shirts themselves). It's simply finding the space to allow things to dry, for the light setups and darkness required to set up the screens. And, of course, learning how to do it in the first place.
Plante was in his early 20s when he first tried to learn the process from a friend. "You start out with this goop," his buddy said, "then you put a light on it. Put it in a drawer and a day later you come back and put paint through it and it's done." Detailed instructions they were not, but they were enough to get Plante started on his way. Everything since then has been trial and error or research on the Internet. "I thought it was magic," Plante, who now does printing full time, says. He's the guy behind some recent promotional posters for Neighborhood Theatre. "The idea that anybody would want me to do this for them was weird. Unless I get to design it myself, I usually just send them to a print shop. For the last year, I started to understand that I have a style and that's why anyone asks me to do anything."
For a recent concert poster of King Tuff with Ex-Hex, Plante says, "the wavy amp came from their use of tremolo and trippiness. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. When I was asked to do one for Pharmakon — it's a noise project. It can mess with your eyes a little bit. It can be lines all over the place like cables."
The two posters Plante references each convey a sense of motion without hitting the viewer over the head. The undulating Marshall Stack gives you that melty grunge vibe, suitable for King Tuff. The frazzled appearance of Pharmakon works well with their noise rock. You can only wonder if the bands view themselves in the same light.
Robbins' path to screen printing was slightly different from Plante's. She and friends used to make shirts via stenciling while they were in high school. Years later, after learning about screen printing, the shirts and posters she makes go hand-in-hand with Self Aware Records, the label she runs with her husband, Joshua. They often joke that sales from the printing side of the business keeps the music side alive.
The work Robbins has done is usually more simple, but to the point. She uses simple graphics to let the focus be on the bands' names — whether it's a series of overlapping green, salmon and light blue circles for a show by The Sea Life and Couches or a simple blue and green snowflake for a concert including her own band, Alright.
For Hurdle, screen printed posters were a way for his band to raise money to record an album. In his designs, he prefers using classic imagery and, as a graphic designer, is conscious of the way posters are put together — from the photos to the fonts. "I like to make things on the computer that look like they weren't made on a computer," Hurdle says. "It bugs the shit out of me when someone tries to make something look like it was from a certain era, but then use a modern font with it."
Hurdle's posters have an aged Americana feel to it. Comic-style people dominate a large portion of his work, though each one conveys a different sentiment: from the crying redhead promoting the Weekenders show to the Luchadore promoting Del Rio.
While the Reclaimed exhibit is music-focused, it's also meant to show the range of experience that screen printers have — from the most basic to the mind-blowing.
"I have to turn down work because I can't do it," Plante says. "There are people who can make photo-realistic screen prints. I know I have limitations with my setup, but when I see other people's work, I get inspired to get better."
As for the future, Robbins and Plante both want to sell albums as posters with a download link on the back. That way, fans can get the music they want and still have something tangible to hold on to while they listen. They've also talked about starting a class to teach people how to get started with screen printing.
"I want to teach people the way I learned — give them the basics and let them figure it out," Plante says. "Just do it. The DIY aspect is the most important thing."
Back at Ink Floyd, the Reclaimed poster is being finalized. Freve and sales manager Eric Leaf look at how the two colors have overlapped. Leaf notices some stray gold ink over the blue on one poster. He points out a misalignment of millimeters on another. Leaf looks up at me. "It doesn't have to be perfect," he says. "That's why people love it."