Unplug & Get Your Hands Dirty

Unplug & Get Your Hands Dirty

It may not have the status of “industry,” but it’s more than a scene. How making posters became a business in the Twin Cities.

For about 10 years, it has been something of an underground or at least under-the-radar phenomenon. But it achieved main-street status last September, when Big Table Studio opened at Lawson Commons’ Wabasha Street retail space side in downtown St. Paul.

Now office workers and other downtown denizens can walk through a glass door and into the realm known mostly to music fans and (mostly) younger culturati. Big Table is an art studio, a gallery, and a retail store. There you can buy greeting cards and other items made by local designers. But what Big Table spotlights are posters, particularly those that local artists have created for bands and concert venues, and which cover the pale walls of the well-lit space. The “big table” that gives the place its name is in back, surrounded by art supplies and screenprinting apparatus. Also prominently displayed—and regularly used—is a 1927 letterpress owned by one of the six members of the studio, Bill Moran.

The City of St. Paul, which owns the ramp and retail space, originally asked Big Table founder Peet Fetsch to open a poster gallery. But “we realized that a gallery wouldn’t be a good business model by itself,” Fetsch notes. Inspired by the example of Lunalux, a Minneapolis letterpress studio, Big Table added a retail component to its new studio space.

The poster market isn’t huge: Local poster artists, who all seem to know (and help) each other, often do other design work to keep bread on their tables. But what started out for many of them as a hobby or creative side project has bloomed into a moneymaking enterprise.

The poster business interweaves a cultural confluence of music, art, local history, beer, bicycles, and a desire by its (mostly) younger practitioners, most of whom were trained as graphic designers, to get away from their computer screens and make something. By hand. Poster making has a craft element, but the predigital techniques that have drawn in these designers also have a manufacturing aspect. You’re making more than one print of an “edition”; in some cases, you’re making hundreds.

How big is this business? No one seems to have measured it yet. One thing’s certain: The number of local poster designers has boomed in the past decade. And many of these designers have been able to parlay their reputations into national and international sales, as well as new opportunities to turn artistic expression into commercial reward.

Why has poster art flourished in the Twin Cities? John DuFresne, chairman of the graphic design department at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul and who has taught many of its practitioners, notes that the Twin Cities has a history of “highly illustrative graphic design.” A number of local designers, such as Joe Duffy, were designing T-shirts and posters for bands early in their careers, 30 and 40 years ago. But starting in the 1990s, DuFresne notes, graphic design schools “starting steering students to the computer.”

From a professional standpoint, that adds up. Designing graphics on a computer is the equivalent of taking photographs with a digital camera rather than using film—zeroes and ones are the coin of the media realm. But for the growing number of local designers who’ve taken to screenprinting and letterpress work, it didn’t quite satisfy. “A lot of people got into graphic design because when they were young, they spent their time drawing and making things,” says DuFresne, who himself teaches his students hands-on techniques including iconography and inking. Designing and making posters by hand, he says, allows young artists to “reach back to their roots.”
Dan Ibarra, cofounder of Minneapolis design shop Aesthetic Apparatus, started making posters in the late 1990s for bands coming to Madison, Wisconsin, where he then resided. Poster design, he says, “was just an excuse for us to not have to lay out another sandwich ad or bike catalog.” Holding a poster in your hands, “you can immediately sense that it is a physical object,” Ibarra adds. “It’s not just ink on paper. You can sense there is something manmade about that.”

It’s that handcrafted quality, Ibarra and others believe, that has made people covet poster art. “I think that parallels with the larger craft movement, where people are returning to knitting and sewing,” he says.

The Twin Cities’ high-decibel music scene also has made for fertile ground for a new generation of poster artists to blossom. That scene lured Ibarra and Aesthetic Apparatus cofounder Michael Byzewski from Madison in 2002. Rising from its beginnings in a St. Paul basement, Aesthetic Apparatus now runs its studio in a charmingly nondescript industrial building in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. (It also has added a third member, Jonathan Schuster.) Besides local bands, it has designed posters for national performers, including the Hold Steady, Cake, and Spoon.

Music is just one theme in the local poster boom. “You can’t separate the thriving success and raging glory of the Minnesota poster scene without looking through the lens of printing, advertising, and design,” says Jeff Johnson, founder of Spunk Design Machine in Minneapolis and a financial backer of Big Table Studio. “They’re all married in a swirling vortex.

“And this goes back 200 years. White folks show up; there’s all this cheap lumber. That means cheap paper. And when you have cheap paper, you have to print something on it. Advertising and design are the beneficiaries of those resources.”

In addition to thriving printing and advertising industries, artists also cite local schools, notably the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the College of Visual Arts, for sustaining the design community. A little farther off, Moorhead State University (rebranded Minnesota State University–Moorhead in 2000) has been a factory of designers to the Twin Cities, including Byzewski, Jeff Johnson, Haley Johnson, Sharon Werner, and eminence grise Tim Larsen.

That said, many poster makers didn’t learn screenprinting in school. It’s not hard to learn, though true mastery takes time. “You can make a screenprinted poster with two-by-fours, a screen, a staple gun, and a piece of cardboard,” Ibarra notes. “Not very well, but you can do it.”


Burlesque of North America's poster for Arcade Fire; Miss Amy Jo's design for the Fargo Film Festival

Posters began having a renaissance at roughly the same time that the music industry began to fragment, thanks to file sharing and digital downloads. Making gig posters is how Burlesque of North America, a print and design shop located in an industrial building in Northeast Minneapolis, got its start. Burlesque cofounder Wes Winship’s mother had a collection of 1960s poster art and music fliers that fascinated him. As a teenager, he bought a small screenprinting kit and made prints in its parents’ basement. Winship later produced posters for Minneapolis’s First Avenue music club.

Making posters became more than a sideline for Winship in 2004, when a friend in Chicago asked him to make a poster for a Windy City concert. The band was Arcade Fire, just starting its ascent into stardom. The band members liked the poster, and met Winship when they traveled to Minneapolis to perform at the 400 Bar. A few weeks later, Winship started designing and screenprinting posters regularly for the band.

He still does, though he deals with its management rather than its members. These days, Winship notes, with record sales down, established bands typically are looking to build up their “merch”—the stuff they sell at their concerts. That includes posters. That also means that for these bands, poster artists aren’t just doing it of their own volition—the band commissions them.

“The bands are really conscious of the revenues they make off of their merchandise, not just what they get paid for playing live,” Winship says. “There are ‘working bands,’ as far as touring goes—they tour a certain amount of the year, and they usually have their merchandise stuff really all together.” Bands are much more conscious, he adds, of being “businesses or brands.”

Within about seven years of its informal birth, Burlesque has grown from art collective to business. Burlesque now employs five, not only producing in-house designs but also those of other artists both locally and internationally.

Adam Turman, another Minneapolis artist whose reputation has grown beyond Minnesota, prefers to stick to a one-person operation (though he recently added a part-time helper). An illustrator by profession, Turman joined the gig poster scene around 2003 when he encountered the work of David Witt (“DWITT”) and other members of local artist collective Squad 19 at a poster show called Plaster the Town.

Turman soon was making posters for First Avenue and the University of Minnesota’s Radio K. His first jobs paid not at all. “This was just about something that was cooler than what we were doing at our day jobs at the time,” he notes. It started off simply “as a fun, cool thing to do,” Turman says. “Then I started making money at it.” The shift from fun to profit began in 2006, when he took a booth at the No Coast Craft-O-Rama show in Minneapolis.

“I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll make between $500 and $1,000,’” he recalls. “And it was a lot more than that.” The big sellers were prints of three grand old Minneapolis images: the Gold Medal Flour sign, the Grain Belt sign on Nicollet Island, and the Pillsbury “A” mill in St. Anthony. “Afterwards, I felt all nervous and sweaty,” Turman says, “and I was like, ‘I’ve got to get an accountant. I’ve got to start keeping books. This is not a hobby anymore.’”

Turman still operates his shop adjacent to his St. Louis Park garage, next to his extensive collection of bicycles. He is making fewer gig posters, finding that his art prints and event posters, most of which incorporate cycling and Minneapolis themes, keep him busy. (He also designed an outdoor wall mural for a new downtown Minneapolis restaurant, Butcher and the Boar.)

“I love Minneapolis and I want to keep doing art prints that are Minneapolis based,” Turman says. “However, I would like to go and get more of a national audience. I’m trying to figure that out.”

The work of Turman, Aesthetic Apparatus, and Burlesque (and not only them) has put the local poster business on the national map. “Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco all have a long history of flyer and poster art,” says Geoff Peveto, president of the Austin, Texas–based American Poster Institute (API). “But they all had distinct eras that finally tapered off after the Seattle scene slowed down” in late 1990s. Founded in 2002, the API promotes poster art primarily through Flatstock, an exhibition that’s now held in five cities worldwide. About the same time, a website called gigposters.com came on line.

Because of these sites, “people started realizing there was this group of truly underground artists doing the same thing all over the country,” Peveto adds. “This allowed cities like Minneapolis and Chapel Hill, which were great music cities, to realize there was a lot of like-minded work being done outside of these markets that had longer histories.” This discovery, in turn, “helped artists to grow and become more creative and business minded. Relationships were built with bands and venues, and the different cities with thriving music scenes now had poster scenes that went hand in hand. All the artists started pushing each other to be better, and that pushed the scene forward all over the world.”

There isn’t a Minnesota Flatstock, but the Twin Cities has sprouted its own exhibitions. In 2003, Jeff Johnson launched the Poster Offensive, which has become a biennial exhibition for local artists to produce politically charged work. A bigger show, which arose from the Poster Offensive, is Artcrank, first held in 2007.

“Artcrank was a project that grew out of the fact that all of the people that I rode bikes with at a certain point in my life—around 2006—were art directors and designers who worked either with the agency I worked with or another agency,” Artcrank founder Charles Youel says. “And when we weren’t riding bikes, we would hang out and do what people do when they’re not riding bikes, which is bitch about their jobs.” Artcrank “evolved as something that we as creative people put our energy and efforts towards that didn’t have anything to do with clients or budgets or schedules, but about something that we were really passionate about, which was cycling.”

A marketing copywriter and creative director by trade, Youel was thinking that Artcrank would happen just once: “I thought we’d throw a good party, maybe 50 to 100 people would show up, we might sell some work, we might not.” That first show was held at the One on One bike and coffee shop in the Warehouse District. Youel stepped out for a bite just before the show was to begin: “By the time I came back for the opening, I couldn’t get in.” Thanks largely to Youel’s connections in the marketing, design, and cycling communities, there now are editions of Artcrank in nine cities, including London.

Aesthetic Apparatus for 2012 Kills concert; Bill Moran for Poster Offensive show

Poster art, Aesthetic Apparatus’s Ibarra says, is “this strange crossover between self-expression and design communications.” The art also expresses something social—people buy posters because they love certain bands. But though they are mass-produced items, posters also are art—art you can buy at a reasonable price, generally around $30 to $40.

Poster designers have been able to sell their creations outside Minnesota through websites like Etsy and gigposters.com, as well as via their own online stores. “The Internet made distribution a whole new thing,” says Jeff Johnson, who credits Minneapolis typeface designer Chank Diesel as being one of the first local craftspeople to discover the power of the Net as a marketplace for creative endeavors. That market didn’t slow down much during the economic downturn. “To actually design, print, and make it beautiful enough, compelling enough, to put it online and sell it in the worst capital recession since 1929—that’s amazing,” Johnson says.

The Minneapolis poster artist who goes by Miss Amy Jo sells her work both on her own website and on Etsy. She and her husband, Dale “Tooth” Flattum (also a poster artist), run Who Made Who, a “design studio and screenprint emporium” in a small Northeast storefront. She has made posters for clients in Portugal and Croatia and has sold her prints worldwide. Still, she makes most of her sales in an analog fashion, at art shows and craft events including No Coast and the Stone Arch Festival.

Amy Jo came to the Twin Cities in 2000 from Fargo-Moorhead, where she was a student at the university she still prefers to call Moorhead State. Largely self-taught as a screenprinter, she mostly made music posters at first; she has since expanded into art prints and other design projects, including promotional items for Peace Coffee and labels for an Oregon winery.

“I would say that gig posters make up about a quarter of the work I do now,” she says. “In the beginning, it was probably 75 percent or more. It has been a natural progression that the posters have led to other types of design work.”

Posters also have become a smaller part of Aesthetic Apparatus’s portfolio. The studio has increasingly engaged in what cofounder Ibarra calls “entrepreneurial, self-authored projects,” including glassware, T-shirts, and typefaces. “That’s very much fueled by this idea that begins with posters,” he says. This approach to design work, Ibarra adds, is “based on the revolutionary idea of a designer not just feeding off client feedback, but actually delivering their own feelings about how the world works.” Aesthetic Apparatus, he notes, “is kind of in that weird no-man’s-land between being artists and designers.” Most designers work for brands; in a sense, Aesthetic Apparatus itself is a brand. “The beauty of it is,” Ibarra says, “whatever we make is what we want to make.

Last year, Apparatus served as Surly Brewing’s first “guest artist” for the Brooklyn Park company’s “limited edition” beers. Aesthetic Apparatus created promotional posters for the beers in 2011—the designs were then also used on the bottles. Surly founder Omar Ansari chose Apparatus because it was clear from the work he’d seen that “they love beer,” and that “they were creative, smart, pretty intense, and different.” Apparatus was also one of a select group of U.S. artists commissioned by Absolut to create work inspired by the vodka maker’s distinctively shaped bottle.

Whether or not by design, studios including Aesthetic Apparatus have been positioning themselves for a post–music poster future. “We hate to admit it, but there may be a bust someday,” Burlesque cofounder Mike Davis says. “So we just want to see what else we can do, and just want to be prepared for whatever, and step outside of that world.” Burlesque is designing more art prints and posters unrelated to music. Davis’s business partner wants to make prints about Twin Cities history. Winship is curious about the history of buildings and why train tracks were laid in certain places. “It’s a chance to nerd out and learn about the history and try to put that back into the art that I create,” he says.

Back at Big Table Studio, Fetsch says that retail sales are going well, and have come largely from a surprising source. “We get more people from Ecolab and Travelers and other businesses coming in during their lunch hour” than from nearby McNally Smith College of Music, he says.

Still, making money isn’t the only driver for Fetsch and other Twin Cities poster artists. “In making posters,” Big Table member Jeff Johnson says, “you are motivated to make something beautiful on this [expletive deleted] planet before you croak.”

—Gene Rebeck

Yes, there are many more…In addition to those cited in this story, these local poster artists/designers are worth checking out. By no means a complete list:

Ross Bruggink cargocollective.com/rossbruggink
Landland (Dan Black and Jes Seamans) landland.net
LovelyMpls lovelympls.com
MouseSaw mousesaw.com
Kelly Munson/Winterborn Studio kellymunson.com/Winterborn-Studio
Punchgut Studio punchgutstudio.com
Steady Print Shop steadyprintshop.com
Steve Tenebrini stevetenebrini.com
Lonny Unitus lonnyunitus.com
David Witt dwitt.com
Nick Zdon cargocollective.com/nickzdon