“I think Chicago is the strongest screen-printing city in the nation,” says Dan Grzeca, who has been working with this often eye-popping form for a couple of decades. Grzeca’s beautifully detailed, scratchboard-rendered designs have made him one of the most recognizable screen-printers in the city. He works in a bustling community filled with idiosyncratic artists such as Sonnenzimmer, the team of Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi, whose abstract and semi-abstract pieces befit modern art galleries; the Crosshair collective, helmed by Dan MacAdam, that superimposes band names atop vivid renderings of worn-out industrial buildings; and Jay Ryan, founder of the Bird Machine print shop, who creates anthropomorphic woodland creatures with egg-shaped eyes and bold outlines.
Accessibility is key to the phenomenon of screen-printed gig posters — they’re inexpensive and widely available, particularly in Chicago. They’re also really cool. One reason screen prints are so big here is that Chicago has always been a magnet not just for Midwestern musicians but for touring bands crisscrossing the country, so there’s a lot of shows in town — and shows need posters. And there’s just something about screen-printing that works well with Chicago — it has a texture that has a handmade quality: You can see, and literally feel, the labor that goes into making each print, and in a blue-collar city such as Chicago, that tangibility carries weight.
Steve Walters planted the seeds of the Chicago screen-printing community when he founded Screwball Press in 1991, in the Pilsen neighborhood just southwest of downtown. Walters came of age during the first wave of punk and took on shifts at the University of Iowa’s radio station in the mid ’80s. He’d tried his hand at bass, but stumbled into his contribution to Chicago’s music scene after he lost his job at a grocery store. “There weren’t a lot of jobs out there, so I decided to start making posters for bands — I had a lot of friends in bands,” Walters says. “At the time, there was basically just black-and-white Xerox stuff on the street, and I wanted to do some color to attract attention to ’em.” He gave block-printing a shot, but grew tired of the labor-intensive process — and of gouging his hands with the tools — so he bought a screen-printing kit at an art store and taught himself the basics.
Zissou Tasseff-Elenkoff, who founded Fugscreens Studios in Logan Square 11 years ago, compares the screen-printing process to old manual photography. “You’re exposing a screen that has a photo-sensitive emulsion on it,” he says. “Through that, you’re able to expose — or burn — an image onto that screen. You end up pushing ink through that screen onto whatever sub-screen you want — that can be plastic, metal, wood, paper, T-shirts, whatever.” Layering each individual tone on a different screen allows multicolored images.
Walters gradually expanded Screwball Press, with help and encouragement from now-defunct Lincoln Park hot spot Lounge Ax. “They didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but I always go into shows free, and I usually got a free beer or two out of it,” he says. “They had a lot of good connections, especially once the major labels started sniffing around.”
The sniffing began around 1994: That July, taken by the success of Smashing Pumpkins, Ministry, Liz Phair and Urge Overkill, the New York Times declared Chicago was “striving to be rock’s next Seattle.” And more and more bands began soliciting Walters for his services.
Walters’ work was novel in Chicago, but not unprecedented. Frank Kozik, the iconic California screen-printer, started his illustrious career by making black-and-white show fliers in 1981. And you can trace the work of contemporary poster designers back to the “Big Five,” aka the San Francisco artists whose acid-colored psychedelic posters became emblematic of subversive rock in the late ’60s. But in early-’90s Chicago, Walters was on his own.
Walters’ business expanded enough that he began to hire employees. “I couldn’t pay them much, but I could let them use the [equipment] and take on their own jobs,” he says. He taught his new workers the tools of the trade, a tradition many Chicago screen-printers carried on after setting up their own independent shops. Among Walters’ new employees was Jay Ryan, who not only plays bass in long-running Chicago-based indie band Dianogah but has become the best-known Chicago screen-printer in the concert poster game. Last year, Brooklyn’s famed indie imprint Akashic Books published Ryan’s third art book, “No One Told Me Not to Do This,” which Ryan says “is the third out of three accurate titles for my books.” (The other two are “100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A Decade of Hot Dogs, Large Mammals, and Independent Rock: The Handcrafted Art of Jay Ryan” and “Animals and Objects In and Out of Water: Posters by Jay Ryan, 2005-2008.”)
Making concert posters was a way for Ryan to tie together things he loved in his early 20s. “Because I was actively playing music, actively at shows, all my friends were in bands — there’s a very natural group of people who were, thankfully, interested in my work,” he says. “I lived above the Empty Bottle, spent all my time at the Fireside Bowl, went to Lounge Ax every week.” Odd jobs such as cabinetry, antique restoration, building houses sometimes helped him land screen-printing. After he helped renovate famed Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio, Albini’s band Shellac hired Ryan to do some poster work.
The mid ’90s was a formative time for the Chicago screen-printing scene: In 1995, MacAdam and his three Crosshair collaborators graduated from Oberlin College and moved to Chicago. That was also around the time that all of Dan Grzeca’s friends’ rock bands broke up.
Then Bob Hartzell, one of the first Screwball employees, encouraged Grzeca to get back into the live music scene by screen-printing show posters. “I said, ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ ” Grzeca says. “‘That sounds like an activity that’s not gonna make a lot of money.’ So of course I was interested.”
Hartzell suggested Grzeca pitch his friend jazz reedist Ken Vandermark on making a show poster. In no time, Grzeca fell into a regular gig screen-printing posters for an improvisational jazz series at intimate Ukrainian Village venue the Empty Bottle that Vandermark and critic John Corbett put together in 1996. Whenever Grzeca had questions about the craft, he consulted Ryan and Walters.
Grzeca compares the Chicago screen-printing community to a three-legged stool. “That stool is composed of idiosyncrasy, independence and camaraderie,” he says.
Chicago’s size and Midwestern sensibilities have no doubt helped foster its booming screen-printer community. “Chicago is a big city, but it still has kind of a small-town feel,” says Erin Page, who makes phantasmagorical prints under the name Kill Hatsumomo. “People are friendlier and more intimate with each other than they might be in other cities.”
Page fronts heavy space-rock group Reivers and learned the trade while working for, you guessed it, Screwball Press in 2009. Though she’s one of the few female artists in the scene, Page has nevertheless found it to be a welcoming environment. “If I ever need help, I don’t feel bad about asking somebody,” she says.
The camaraderie that Grzeca and Page cherish extends beyond the people laboring over the art. Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman sees collaborations with poster designers as a way to build on relationships in the musical ecosystem. The Empty Bottle is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Finkelman’s team reached out to screen-printers to help promote the club’s big celebratory concerts, featuring underground leading lights such as the Cool Kids, Pissed Jeans, Black Lips and Big Freedia. “Jay Ryan has been doing posters for us for so long that it was just a natural ask for him to come back and do one of the shows — especially for Tortoise,” Finkelman says. The venue’s online store also has a dedicated tab to purchase posters, which is chockablock with work by locals.
The sense of community remains strong even as the scene grows by generations. By the time Ryan Duggan, who works as Drug Factory Press, began screen-printing in 2006 at the behest of his then-roommate Shiraz Dada of math-rock group Maps & Atlases, he could grow and learn from the large network in his backyard. Duggan started attending monthly Chicago Printers Guild meetings, and made connections with Grzeca and Sonnenzimmer at the Chicago edition of the Renegade Craft Fair.
“Personally, I think Chicagoans have a work ethic that really lines up well with screen-printing,” Duggan says. “It’s labor-intensive, and it’s like hanging drywall, compared to being a painter or something.”
Not that screen-printing can’t be considered fine art. In March, Loyola University’s School of Communications, in Chicago’s upscale River North neighborhood, celebrated the opening of Appetite for Distraction, a show by screen-printer Josh Davis, who makes concert posters under the name Dead Meat Design. He augments photorealistic images with cartoonish, psychedelic flair, which often results in humorously crude, gritty multicolor pieces.
Davis’ sensibilities are more at home in a rock club’s low-lit environs than the walls of an academic institution, so he was surprised when School of Communications events coordinator Genevieve Buthod reached out to him about displaying his art. It’s not only Davis’ first solo exhibit, it’s also the school’s first exhibit of art made for concerts. “He told me, ‘I thought this was a joke at first,’” Buthod says.
Davis’ show features posters for Dinosaur Jr, Matt & Kim, Thee Oh Sees, Twin Peaks, and dozens of others — there are about 40 posters on display. “We’re always looking for ways to engage with students — we wanted to do something that wasn’t unattainable esoteric art,” Buthod says. “I like the idea that it’s accessible and cool.”
Zissou Tasseff-Elenkoff, who moved to Chicago from London to attend School of the Art Institute of Chicago, appreciates how screen-printing can reflect Pop Art. About five years ago, he co-founded Galerie F, the city’s first art space dedicated to gig posters and street art. He’s no longer involved in the gallery, and owner Billy Craven recently moved Galerie F into a storefront a block north of its old haunt in the rapidly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood. Craven cherishes the accessibility not only of the art screen-printers make, but of the people involved — he traces his knowledge of the form directly back to Walters. Tracing that history, and being able to easily reach out to the biggest players, certainly helps the city’s screen-printing reputation. “Chicago printmakers and the community are recognized globally,” Craven says.
That’s also where the bands come in. While virtually every major Chicago screen-printer launched a career with assistance from friends, many have gone on to land gigs with big, internationally known bands. Tasseff-Elenkoff made art for Muse, Grzeca printed posters for the Black Keys, and Ryan hooked up with My Morning Jacket. And nearly every screen-printer I spoke with has worked with the legendary Washington state proto-grunge band Melvins. “We’re really open to poster artists wanting to be involved,” says frontman Buzz Osborne.
He doesn’t deal with the details of hiring artists, but that goes well with the band’s hands-off attitude. “Let these people decide what they want to do and let them have their moment of freedom,” Osborne says. “It’s sort of like hiring someone to do a painting of your wife and then standing over their shoulder and telling them what it should look like. If you believe in the artist, then you should just let them do their work.”
Likewise, after cult ’90s emo band American Football regrouped in 2014, they picked Landland co-founder Dan Black to design posters for their ongoing reunion. Drummer and trumpet player Steve Lamos admires the thoughtfulness that went into the art. “I love the graphic representations of what this music means,” Lamos says. “It means the world to me to see.” And hiring a Chicago screen-printer can still retain an ongoing sense of community: Landland went on to design the first two album covers for bassist Nate Kinsella’s experimental solo project Birthmark and even designed Kinsella’s wedding invitations.
For some screen-printers, the job remains a way to be involved in music after the passion for playing live fades. “I, over the years, realized that I enjoyed making the posters more than playing the show,” says Duggan, who came up playing in a handful of brash punk bands. “Posters, you don’t have to load back in the space at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Dan Grzeca isn’t a musician, but music remains vital for him, even when he isn’t working on a poster for a band. “I just have a huge passion for the emotion that the music brings out in me when I’m drawing,” he says. “I’m 48 years old and I still get extremely excited about what I’m listening to, and it really feeds what I do.”