January 4, 2011
Portland, Maine's Show Poster King
Kris Johnsen is Portland, Maine’s Rick Griffin. Just as Griffin translated 1960’s San Franciscan psychedelia into imagery for local bands, Kris renders all that is Portland East into screen printing ink and poster stock. His art and typography, all hand done, introduce bands from the four corners of the map to the city of beards, boots and summer salt air.
How did you get into the show poster business?
I came up here to Portland for art school. I wanted something small, and this was a small school in a small town. That was after I went to school in Boston for a year and decided I didn’t really like the school, so I took some time off.
In Boston I’d just design show posters for shows that weren’t promoted very well—I wouldn’t even get permission. You know when you’re a kid and you draw your favorite band’s logo on your notebook? I basically just did that a couple of times and that’s how I started doing it. Mostly just collages, sticking text on paper, all black and white. I got the password to the copier—the teacher’s copier, which I wasn’t supposed to and I could print off as many sheets as I wanted—and that was that.
Do you remember the bands you started out doing posters for?
It was all really bad hardcore bands—like scream-o bands—stuff that I guess I’m glad I listened to but I don’t really listen to any more.
Did you ever get any recognition for doing that stuff down there? From bands or venues?
No. Not really.
Everything just came together here in Portland?
Yeah, I guess. I started working at Space [Portland’s local non-profit arts venue] the same week I got the studio, which was by chance. I was like ‘let me do a poster’ for some random show and they were like ‘well, do an image and we’ll see.’ And it worked out.
You screen print all of your posters by hand and your set up is pretty DIY, but it definitely makes them stand out. Was that an intentional thing?
No, I took one screen printing class when I was in Boston, but it was basically by accident. I didn’t really even know what it was but we had to pick classes one semester and I was one short and my friend was going to a class, so I tagged along with her. And then I ended up staying in it and loving it. I went to school for graphic design, but I used the print making facilities and three of my best friends were printmakers so I would hang out there a lot.
Then I got out of school and didn’t really do anything. I was like, ‘I need to do something.’ So me and a friend were going to open up a studio together and he ended up kind of bailing on me, but we scored all of this screen printing stuff on Craigslist for really cheap.
So why posters for bands?
Show posters are just good to work with because you have the band name or other stuff that’s been done for them, so you can kind of get ideas. I mean, you’re not going to put something totally different, but then sometimes you can and it works—it’s weird.
It doesn’t go off just what their name is, more like who they are and would fit in with that. Like if it’s fun poppy rock and at the same time I’m into drawing these mix tapes, that’s perfect. I’ll do something like draw references into the mix tapes—basically just listening to the band, feeling them out and making it work.
What’s your actual process like?
All the ones I’m doing now I sketch them out. And then I’ll scan them all in and I’m mostly coloring on the computer now. I pretty much get a finished piece on the computer, print out all the transparencies and then it goes back to doing it all by hand—printing it all by hand. It kind of goes from hand to computer back to hand. I just don’t like sitting on a computer for that long.
You’re generally a calm guy, pretty laid back, so it seems like your method and the medium—hand sketching and screen printing— are complimentary in terms of making the most of imperfection.
It’s tricky, but I pretty much know that what I draw won’t get burnt [onto a screen] perfectly. I’ll just take this thing out of my sketchbook and make it black and white and it will be kind of grainy but I kind of like that. Lately I’ve been paying more attention to what will come out clean and what won’t, because I guess as a printer you strive for excellence. I actually hate it when it doesn’t come out clean, but that’s the thing I hear the most from people—‘that’s why I like screen prints, because it’s not perfect.’
What’s your goal with all this? Is the ideal result of a poster having a band be psyched about it and having a successful show here in town? Or are you developing a little cottage industry for yourself on the sly?
I kind of just like doing it—being around great people here and being active but also getting my stuff out there on the internet. Blogging sometimes is awesome—I love being local but you have to get out there.
In some scenarios, it’s actually happened where I have set up the show for the band in the first place, too. We know we want people there and posters are one way to make that happen. One time I was just like ‘I’m going to make 100 of these posters’ and I totally wasted money, but I really wanted the show to do well and it actually did. The bands were psyched and they ended up asking me to do a poster for a North American tour. I did 150 7-color posters for that and they sold out.
Who knows what that turns into, but there are artists out there today who do one print a month and they sell out in like minutes—like 550 copies. That wouldn’t be bad.