From Small Beginnings
Print is far from dead for these ever-expanding screen printing operations.
We’re lucky people, getting to play with squeegees all day. Returning to Austin for the Flatstock 65 concert poster exhibition at SXSW in March, I was surrounded by screen printers and screen printing – and yes, even a bit of digitally printed stuff. An enterprising local sticker shop cut deals with the poster artists and offered DTG shirts printed on the spot: Pick your shirt, pick a design. The artists got a fair royalty and people got some unique art reproductions exclusive to Flatstock and not from one of the online scammers. No worries, though, silk screen fans: The digitalians were surrounded by 99-percent pure screen printed posterage.
For yours truly, the show was great, but it was time I spent at two similar but unique Austin-based screen shops that made the trip memorable. Together, these shops provide about 40 examples of why this is a great business to be in (40 being the approximate number of people now working at the two companies).
Industry Print Shop and Kong Screen Printing are examples of the DIY ethos that permeates the process. And the beautiful studios they occupy today are testimony to the lessons learned and applied as they grew. It’s a story that is repeated by screen printers around the globe, and it’s endlessly fascinating to watch a garage or bedroom screen shop morph and expand outward and upward, the skills soon outpacing the equipment. The leaps of faith an owner must take to expand and follow opportunity are exceeded only by the knowledge they rapidly acquire as the scale and footprint of their operations increase.
The first time I set foot in Kong, they were running shirts through a homemade dryer that could very well have been wood fired, with a steam-driven belt – a relic of Rube Goldberg’s short career in the screen printing equipment design game. Ryan Burkhart, who I knew previously as a university printmaking professor, was half covered in plastisol, dragging a squeegee across a wood-framed screen, pumping out “Welcome to Austin (now leave)” SXSW novelty shirts while partner Bruce Braden, who had founded Kong earlier in 2011, madly packaged shirts with his soon-to-be wife as the orders exploded. Later that day, the WWII vintage Quonset hut they were in got completely flooded by a genuine Texas tornado. I left after water started cascading through leaks in the roof and pouring out of the light fixtures. Somehow – like screen printers everywhere – they managed to get things under control. Doors and drains were upgraded, the roof was patched, the dryer went to the junkyard, and three years ago, they moved into a new, climate-controlled space with two dryers, two automatics, some manual presses, and a nice, inviting front end that includes foosball, picnic tables, some taps, and a few bottles of moonshine. Their motto: “We print stuff on things.” They do just that.
Braden started Kong in January of 2011 after leaving a customer service management job at Rackspace. He had printed shirts at a college job and wanted to get out of the office and return to printing. Burkhart has an MFA in printmaking and design from Texas Tech. He taught at the University of Central Florida and ran a nonprofit printing company, Flying Horse Editions, from 2001-2008 before leaving to pursue business opportunities. The two joined forces in 2011. Along with eight employees, they serve a growing customer base that is about 80 percent central Texas and 20 percent national.
Ryan says, “Our philosophy is ‘Work hard. Be humble. Make people happy.’” Seems to be working.
The other Austin company, Industry Print Shop, is known for hosting the annual Flatstock BBQ – which is actually self-serve tacos for 100-plus oddballs like me. (Two years ago, I ended up with a tattoo after the event, but that’s a whole other story.) Every year, I see incremental changes, expansion, and new activities at the company. It’s an exciting place. Some of my good friends from the flat stock/gig poster movement work there. Jared Conner runs the art department, and Bobby Dixon is the art director. The company motto, “Blood, Sweat, and Mostly Tears,” sums up their growth from a small space on the east side of Austin in 2007, where founder Tony Diaz and his wife, Jennifer, started printing shirts and posters. They added some automatic textile presses and great people, and moved a couple of times as they built the business. The present location in north Austin has seen them continue to expand, recently taking over the rest of their building and adding a dedicated area for art prints and posters, run by Brian Maclaskey. With over 30 employees, Industry Print Shop is a major force in the Austin market, and expanding nationwide. Their other activities include live printing at events and design; they even offer a hand to smaller shops that need screen making and assistance with ink, art, or other growth challenges.
Remember, this sector of the industry has been written off by the experts, supposedly replaced by digital printing, and yet these companies continue to grow. They are prime examples of the opportunity that awaits if you’ve got the drive, desire, and creative spark. The team mentality of the employees is refreshing, and a big part of the success. The other magic ingredient is the customer base. Supported by good design and great products, these shops are expanding as their clients’ businesses grow.