Like many unfortunately-coiffed DIY-minded youths in the early ‘00s, I found an undeniable allure in designing my own t-shirts. The ability to emblazon self-designed images, jokes or political messages on one’s own clothes seemed a bit like modern-day alchemy. I was already familiar with the easy but flawed methods: stencils, which didn’t allow for fine detail, and printer t-shirt transfers, which flaked off after a couple of washes. The preferred method was clearly screen printing, but how-to books and online FAQ’s were mystifying. Finally an artist friend taught me the basics, but it took months of trial and error before I really got a feel for the process. Which is why screen printing co-ops are such as the Austin Screen Print Cooperative (ASPCO) and Chicago’s Spudnik Press are a brilliant concept.
Photo via the Austin Screen Print Cooperative website.
As I learned, going it alone can be an expensive, frustrating and wasteful experience. Aside from the costly silkscreens and bottles of photo emulsion and ink (which only come in sizes larger than most casual users can ever hope to use), most home-brewed screen printing setups rely on substandard equipment. In theory, you can expose a screen with a 100-watt lightbulb in the cupboard under a sink, but more often than not you’re going to end up with unexposed screens, wasted materials and hours of lost time. An expensive, frustrating, wasteful, and lonely experience. For a reasonable membership fee, screen printing co-ops such as the ASPCO and Spudnik Press offer classes, materials, space, real exposure lamps and screen washes, and the opportunity to learn and create with other artists in your community. Spudnik’s mission statement frames it in rousing terms:
Founded on the premise that art should be a democratic and empowering medium, Spudnik Press Cooperative is committed to providing a print shop that is approachable and affordable; a space where professional printmakers merge with aspiring students; a space that encourages collaboration and the sharing of ideas. At Spudnik Press, artists create and use printed materials to further culture and engage with their community. Through sharing materials, equipment, and studio space, artists are also sharing technical skills, practical knowledge, and creative processes. By pooling resources and creative problem solving, artists at Spudnik Press are able to create a space that is beyond the means of solo emerging artists. By extending our programming to include exhibitions, classes, free workshops, and drawing groups, we are able to reach beyond the print community and engage with the community as a whole.
Screen printing is more than a way to outfit yourself and friends with custom designs: it’s an opportunity to build community through creation and expression. It's long been an effective tool for disseminating dissent, a relatively affordable way to broadcast unique visual ideas and iconography. It’s also a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding, if you have the right tools and learn how to do it the right way. Is there a great screen printing coop in your town? Let us know in the comments below.