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Sun, Surf, and Screen Printing: A report from la zona serigrafica

(September 2004) posted on Thu Sep 16, 2004

Discover Mexico City's most densely populated graphics-production district.


By Andy MacDougall

click an image below to view slideshow

The Zone is the thriving hub of a large and healthy screen-printing industry in Mexico that services the needs of this growing country of 106 million people. Major centers of screen printing include Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, and Monterrey. Typical applications range from circuit boards to Corona bottles to ceramics, with lots of outdoor advertising and other display graphics. The T-shirt and textile trade part of it feeds not only domestic needs, but also a massive tourism industry that buys up a never-ending supply of shirts, dresses, shorts, and other specialty printed items as fast as the vendors at the beach can display them.

I am told each tourist purchases an average of three imprinted or embroidered items per trip. Mexico gets 20 million foreign visitors per year and the same number or more in domestic travelers from interior cities like Mexico City and Guadalajara, which have populations the size of some countries. There is a mass exodus on the weekends from the cities to the beach resorts. That's a lot of tourists--and even more T-shirts.

Octavio explained that the number of larger automated screen shops is relatively small. Most printing businesses in Mexico, unless they're in-plant operations for major manufacturing corporations, are smaller scale, with only one or two workers. Many of them would be classified as home-based businesses--or more correctly, apartment-based. There are more than 20 million people crammed into Mexico City. That doesn't leave a lot of room for a two-car garage, basement, or a separate studio.

One design company we visited was located in an apartment building and had three people working at individual workstations in the kitchen, all on modern computers. The Mexican equipment and standards of work are much the same as small shops everywhere, with a few exceptions. Short runs, and even long ones, are handled on many different versions of manually operated presses by workers who can churn out 300 or more quality impressions per hour on some pretty questionable printing rigs--all by hand. These men and women are fast and know their business.

Having all parts, supplies, services, and materials in one area has its advantages. It enables these smaller printers to minimize stock and supply inventories, which saves valuable production space. Delivery from suppliers is as easy as walking down the block. And instead of dedicating a portion of their already small work areas to an exposing frame, light source, and washout booth combo, many of the printers in the Zone take their screens and films to service bureaus for reclaiming, coating, and exposure. Other printers mix up their own emulsions using formulas and chemicals, allowing for small, economical, batches on an as-needed basis.

Some of the suppliers sell brands that are familiar to screen printers worldwide. However, there is a booming Mexican manufacturing industry that makes a wide range of one- to six-color manual presses, racks, dryers, and all manner of accessories. Because labor costs are very low, many of the small, simple presses for textiles, round bottles, and flat graphics are incredibly cheap when compared to typical European or American equipment. Unfortunately, quality standards on much of this equipment also are low. Regardless, there seems to be a variety of small-scale, entry-level equipment options at very economical prices for the screen printer, which accounts for the proliferation of micro screen shops clustered around the Zone and throughout Mexico.

Character and convenience

I left Mexico City and La Zona Serigrafica with admiration and respect for the enstrepreneurial spirit and inventiveness of the Mexican printer and the entire trade. This is a very unique place that overcomes that universal feeling all North American screen printers experience from time to time when they need more ink, or a part for their press, or some specially ordered supplies. Invariably, a shortage of something in the screen shop calls for a courier, or the delivery truck, and a long wait. We can't just run down to the corner store and grab it. But in a special part of Mexico City, they can!


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