Sun, Surf, and Screen Printing: A report from la zona serigrafica
Discover Mexico City's most densely populated graphics-production district.
In most parts of the USA, it's a given that a week or two in midwinter spent relaxing on a sunny beach is a good thing. It's not much different here in Canada, where everything gets covered in the white stuff around November and most people join the bears in a state of hibernation until the ground reappears in April. The lucky ones make like the birds and flock off south, heading for Mexico--Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, or Cancun.
The Pacific and Caribbean beaches annually draw 20 million pasty-skinned gringos to Mexico for holidays that involve sun, sand, surf, beer, tequila, more sun, more beer, and maybe a swim--just about everything that has nothing to do with screen printing. Sure, you might pick up a screen-printed T-shirt or two on your trip, or a funny bumper sticker, but squeegees, mesh counts, and exposures are the last things a person thinks about while on holiday in Mexico. Well, just about everyone.
"You want to go where?" my long-suffering partner of the heart inquired, with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. "How far is that from the beach?" Her bubble of joy, which had swelled at the suggestion of a mid-winter getaway, popped quicker than a 40-N/cm screen brushing against the business end of an X-Acto blade. I had mentioned the "S" word in the same sentence as holiday.
Trying my best to sound convincing, I replied: "Cuernavaca and Mexico City. We'll go visit Juan and Octavio and check out this cool place in Mexico City where screen printers and suppliers line the streets with racks, T-shirt presses, and other equipment on display and blocking the sidewalk. It's amazing!"
"I'm not riding buses for three days just to go look at screen-printing equipment," she said.
"I'll rent a car!" I quickly blurted out. "It'll be fun!" Meanwhile, my mind conjured up a disturbing vision of a cliff, a car racing toward a jagged seascape, and a bunch of cows all over the road. "We'll spend most of the time at the beach," I assured her.
"Well, in that case, I'll need new luggage," she said. I knew the trip was on!
So we made plans to include a visit to La Zona Serigrafica in Mexico City.
A few weeks later we landed at Zihuatenejo-Ixtapa airport on the Pacific coast, rented an awful car with a two-squirrel-power motor, and headed for Cuerna-vaca 650 miles away to join our friends Juan and Octavio Toledo, a father and son team who run TOC Maquinas Industriales. TOC is a well-respected Mexican graphic-equipment manufacturer that supplies screen and offset distributors and printers in Latin America with large-format presses, exposure systems, UV dryers, and other products.
Into the Zone
Octavio had agreed to take us into the south central part of Mexico City to visit the screen-printing Zone located in Colonia Algarin and Colonia Obrera so that I could get some pictures and tour a few of the shops. We would go to what I can only describe as the most unique area I've seen on the planet when it comes to the graphics trades. The Zone covers about five city blocks, including portions of Isabel La Catolica, Jose Toribio Medina, J. H. Davalos, 5 de Febrero, and Peon Contreras. There you'll find literally hundreds of shops involved in businesses related to screen, pad, and offset printing, as well as diecutting and other finishing processes.
Dealers sell machinery, inks, and supplies, plus services like embroidery, engraving, film production, and screen reclaiming. This concentration of print equipment and services has, in turn, attracted suppliers of printable materials to the area who sell shirts, hats, work gear, advertising novelties, and graphics substrates such as paper, cardboard, plastics, and vinyls.
In between, behind, and over top of these commercial operations--and for blocks around--are printers of all types, many of them small operators working out of apartments and sheds. This symbiotic neighborhood defies conventional urban-development logic and exists as both a throwback to medieval cities with their specialized trade districts and as an example of another possibility--a future where small, independent shops locate side by side with their suppliers, bringing just-in-time delivery to a new level. One-stop shopping without a mall. What a concept!
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!