A Week Without Water-Based Inks

A trip to Mexico brings back memories from 1980s-era screen printing that are all too familiar.

“Stinky Solvent Inky” – say that five times really fast. It seems the headlines in the US and Canada have a lot to say regarding water versus oil, and it’s no different in screen and other print processes. I started printing with oil-based inks 35 years ago and vaguely remember washing screens with rags soaked in lacquer thinner – no mask, no gloves, no sense. I say “vaguely” because I know I bent my brain before I discovered water-based inks. I used to go home with a headache, cracked hands, and a dry throat. I’m not blaming that baptism in toxicity for my lifelong love of beer, but I’ll tell you this: a few bottles of Molson Canadian sure made everything a little better after a day in the sign shop.

My story (one familiar to many screen printers of a certain age) was inspired by a week I spent recently in shops using solvent-based inks. Down Mexico way, they still love their ink stinky. Actually, they don’t love it, but they have few other options. Before I left for Mexico, just to get in the groove, I ended up printing some stickers at my studio with solvent inks.

Sur 77 is the screen shop for Mercadorama, a Mexican-based tour merchandise company with a stable of top artists designing tour shirts, jackets, posters, and other items used by bands touring in Latin America. For five years, Ahmed Bautista and his crew have been participating in the Flatstock rock poster exhibits put on by the American Poster Institute, but they’ve long hoped to bring the exhibition to Mexico City. This year, they teamed up with the Corona Capital festival and an international group of poster artists to make it happen.

Part of the fun at a Flatstock show is the live printing. I was honored and excited to be invited to participate in the inaugural “Afiche Fetiche” (literally: poster fetish) with Monostereo from Barcelona, Spain. Together we would do onsite printing demos of original work created by the other artists in the exhibition. In discussions with Ahmed, it turns out most screen-printed posters in Mexico City are done with solvent inks, and water-based products can be tough to come by. We wanted to change that. With generous help from Speedball Art Products, the plan was to bring water-soluble acrylic inks down and work with the printers from Sur 77 to start the pre-printing and learn how to use the new inks. Then we could finish up at the festival, all with water-based inks.

A great plan until Mexican customs got involved. We had a lot of printing to do, so we started in with what we had: little more than an old-school poster ink. One whiff and I was transported back to Edmonton, Canada, 1979.

By the end of the first run I was back in Mexico City, feet on the ground and my head in a bit of a cloud. We sucked fumes during the run, which was done by hand on a jury-rigged table we built the first day. Then, joy of joy, ink and tool cleanup with a thinner-soaked rag. At least we went outside for that part. We dreamt of the water-based inks that were due to arrive the next day.

Well, tomorrow came five days late, and with one box missing. The lesson? Don’t cross swords with Mexican customs. So we ran all the colors, including the onsite prints, with an ink straight out of 1980. It did have a few redeeming qualities:

• It was available. A quick trip to the local graphics zone and there were 10 stores selling ink.
• It looked nice on the paper as a satin poster ink should – not too glossy, not too chalky.
• The paper stayed flatter and didn’t distort.
• Stencils love it.

However, weeks later and back from Mexico, I opened the package of prints and they were still giving off a smell. Same when I use UV inks, but with water-based, not at all. The only water-based ink that smells after printing is discharge, and we don’t use it on posters.

The upshot? I am more convinced than ever that the way forward for many screen printers is water-based inks. Even in Mexico, where the domestically produced solvent inks are cheaper than comparable water-based ones, an economical case for switching can be made. No special thinners or cleaners, and no need to dehaze or degrease the screens. Everything is done with, um, water.

Our Mexican printer friends told us that one of the main issues they face in growing their poster business is that the artists can’t stand being in the printroom for more than 15 minutes. That kills creativity and inspiration. With water-based inks, we don’t have that problem. We can’t afford to. What’s a rock poster without creativity and inspiration?

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