The Little Black Egg is a screen printing shop I started with my wife and partner after many years of working for other shops. Following is a bit about my history and experience in this industry and the roundabout way I came to be a shop owner.
PART 1 (Buffalo Origins)
My introduction to the world of screen printing happened when I was a young punk growing up in Buffalo NY and one of the only places that hired us young punks was The New Buffalo Shirt Factory which was on Main St. in Buffalo at the time. 75% of the staff there were musicians! Here’s an older Printwear Magazine Article on NBSF.
My introductory tasks were probably the same as anyone getting a foot in the door at a print shop, folding shirts! NBSF at the time boasted 6 Challenger autos and 3 three long dryers (Eliminators if my memory serves). I stood at the end of the dryer catching shirts and burning the tips of my fingers for roughly 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for a good year or so before leaving to travel to New Orleans and beyond…beyond led me back to Buffalo 8 months later!
Upon my return NBSF had moved to bigger and better digs in Clarence NY (a suburb of Buffalo) and I got back to working there. They had purchased 6 new Autos and bigger and better dryers and expanded the roster to include exclusive licensing for NBA/NFL/NHL/MLB and a couple of up and coming ‘New Country’ artists Garth Brooks and Brooks and Dunn, we also ran Janet Jackson tour shirts for her 1994 world tour.
I began again as a catcher/QC guy but quickly moved into the ‘Press Packer’ position. My station was behind the big table that processed the shirts coming off of one dryer that cured the shirts coming off of 2 presses! So two simultaneous press runs at a time! Keeping a neatly stacked pallet of finished sealed and numbered boxes usually 6-7 boxes high.
Playoff season was insane with our major league sports contracts, I’ve been in those scenarios where we would have 6×14 color autos set up with both teams designs ready to go and when the final outcome of the game was determined 3 of those presses were off and running the winning teams t-shirts while the other 3 were quickly broken down and re-set with the winning teams logos to maximize output. I’ve handled and processed 10’s of thousands of shirts!
After 6 months or so as a ‘Press Packer’ I started to dabble in the ink dept. helping our main ink guy with mixing some colors or simply weighing out inks as per pantone specifics. Jim, the ink guy had a muscle the size of a golf ball between his thumb and forefinger and when he made a fist it would pop out, it was like some weird party trick we used to make him do from time to time! Eventually they switched to electric mixing devices which I’m sure saved Jim from some major issues later in life.
During this period I also got a bit acquainted with screen set up and break down, everyone did time at the tank, peeling tape and cleaning used ink out of screens that were to be filed for later or reclaimed for future jobs. The chemicals got to me, so I wasn’t too eager to become a ‘Screen guy’, but I picked up the basics as well as some tricks of the trade that benefitted me later on in the industry.
I got itchy to travel again and to re-attempt my journey to California which was my intended destination the first time I left, only to end up in New Orleans for 6 months eventually returning to Buffalo (another story for another blog!) Thus ended my first experiences in screen printing.
PART 2: ‘California Screening’ (LA Chapter)
It was somewhere around 1996/7 that I arrived in Los Angeles via Greyhound bus with very little money and not many possessions. I had no real plan and was just following my inner compass. I had no intention of getting a job at a print shop and I actually worked part time in a pretty reputable independent record store for 6 months or so when I realised I’d have to supplement my income in order to function in Hollywood. My roommate at the time had been folding shirts at a small shop on Vine St. called ‘Mosquitohead’.
They were looking for another potential printer and I managed to get a foot in the door with no resume or application based on my acquired knowledge of printing back in Buffalo. I had never seen or operated a manual press before! Actually they did have a small 4 color at NBSF but I had never seen it in operation.
I feebly attempted a couple of simple 1 color designs only to be found out that I was really not experienced at pulling a squeegee! They relegated me to cleaning screens and then cutting dress patterns for designs they had set up for the ‘flocking’ process…a few people left after they started flocking and I was close to bailing as well when they decided it wasn’t worth it and moved into other processes of garment decoration.
One of the people that bailed was the in house tagger. I had no clue as to the existence of custom tags but quickly learned how to properly remove tags from the shirt neck by popping the stitches with a ‘clown nose seam ripper’ and replacing them with the Mosquitohead custom tags! I sat in a tiny room in back near the bosses and tagged shirts for months. I loved it! It was mindless enough that I could sit there with my tunes and drift while plotting my Hollywood takeover. I didn’t have to breathe in dust from flocking and I didn’t have to clean screens!
The workload ebbed and flowed and eventually I wasn’t staying busy enough to sustain my basic essentials, so I went and got another record store job as a manager of a store up on the Sunset Strip, this place was only there for a few years and not worth mentioning (again, another story for another blog!)
That job lasted a year or so before the place went under (never try to open a small retail shop on the upper part of the Strip, there is very little foot traffic during the day!
I got a tip that a screen printer was hiring over on Melrose and I rode my Schwinn Cruiser right into the back alley entrance of the shop and was hired on the spot after a brief introduction and a bit of selling myself and my experiences in the industry. This was where I ended up working for a few years as a catcher and I managed to pick up the technique of pulling a squeegee quickly enough to make myself a much utilised worker at this new shop called Chaser which has since gone the boutique route. When I worked there it was owned and operated by Dave Nazworthy who started the shop as a way to do t-s and merch for his band The Chemical People as well as his many friends in LA punk rock scene including Black Flag who’s quintessential and very recognizable logo was our most popular seller and a print that I really cut my teeth on being that it was a rather large black ink logo on white t’s. I probably printed 5000 of those over the few years I worked there!
Our roster also boasted other SST bands such as The Descendents, All, Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, Minutemen and more. We also had licensing for The Misfits, English Beat, Selector, The Adicts, The Hives (Sweden), Radio Birdman (Australia) and Devo!
This was a pretty straight forward operation with one manual press and a few employees which was nice since we could switch on and off between the various tasks as to not get too burnt out on any one job.
Dave moved the shop from Melrose to hotter than hell Van Nuys where we commuted daily, sometimes I had to take the very limited LA Subway to the end of the line and then hop a Van Nuys Bus to the end of that line when my coworker had the day off.
One day out of the blue Dave decided to inform us that on that coming Friday, which was a few days off, the shop would be closing as he had sold it to a guy who we used to contract out big jobs to somewhere way out in the burbs. We were offered the option to go with the shop to the new digs with a pay cut! Ha! Nobody took that offer and I had been getting burnt on the gig anyway and the commute to Van Nuys from Silverlake, where I lived at the time, was getting old as well and I wasn’t about to accept an even longer commute for less money!
Thus ends this chapter
PART 3: ‘California Screening’ (San Francisco)
After a year of floundering unemployed in LA and watching my once affordable and richly cultured neighborhood of Silverlake get swallowed up by the recent dot bomb transplants, a musician friend and I took a road trip up to the Bay Area. Since I had just been evicted from my flat, I had nothing keeping me there and took the spontaneous drive in an old boat of a car that eventually broke down in Hayward CA, an hour or so from SF. We had company following us in a rental car so that was no biggie, we did have to abandon the car over night and get it later on.
In the meantime I got dropped off in SF for a day of wandering and musing where my life was gonna lead me next. While musing on these things in a small coffee shop on Valencia, an old girlfriend of mine from Buffalo walked in and immediately noticed me after many years of not seeing each other. It had been years and this was one of the few people very dear to me back home. She was working as a bartender at the time and invited me there to introduce me to some folks after I told her I was desperate for some kind of potential work that I could come back up for after I secured my loose belongings in LA, namely my record and book collection as well as important musical instruments.
I went and hung out for a while but didn’t really meet anyone that could help me. Spent a night at my friends and the next day went back the bar and met Max Fox who owned a print shop in The Mission district. We made a plan to meet up the next day and I again was hired on the spot. This was another old punker with a shop who had been in a bunch of bands and fell into the industry via those connections.
This is where I really cut my teeth as a printer, I learned a lot working there as I was pretty flexible and could do almost anything from counting in complex orders to packing boxes to mixing ink and actual printing. My first attempts at printing simple one and two color designs went so well that I started getting more complex set-ups of 5-6 colors. I got really good at eyeballing ink colors and mixed all of my own colors for the jobs I printed as well as for other jobs. Eventually I was dealing directly with clients and setting up test runs etc. with very little restrictions from my boss.
Again this business was moved and eventually absorbed by the parent company and shortly after I left it disappeared altogether.
PART 4: ‘California Screening’ (Oakland interlude)
I spent a short while working at a brewery before my next stretch in a print shop that was to inform my ultimate decision to start my own shop.
I won’t say much about this last job as it was not a very pleasant experience. There was a commute from SF to Oakland involved and it was one of those scenarios where I was the sole employee and I kinda knew more than my boss since I’d had experience in so many various aspects of the job save one: screen work!
I’ll say this, I never had the desire to do screen work after seeing so many other guys do only that and how miserable and wet they were all the time. I did learn how to reclaim and burn screens at this shop but again I’m sensitive to the chemicals and had to shy away from it. The shop was always cold with the front door opened for ventilation and I did do plenty of reclaiming and burning to obtain the experience and knowledge, but other than that it was never busy enough to warrant the commute and we parted ways after a couple of years.
PART 4: ‘California Screening’ (Back in SF!)
The time I spent working downstairs at the shop in Oakland, mostly alone, gave me plenty of time to think about what I was doing and how I somehow became a professional screen printer, this was never what I saw myself as over the years. This was just a skill I had developed to get me through while trying to work in bands and on other musical endeavors. The printing industry did put me in front of some people in the music scene, so it was a big positive in that respect.
During the last six months or so at that last shop (this was around 2010). I watched as the tech industry began rapidly changing the landscape (literally) and the living situation has since gotten out of control in SF with skyrocketing rents and such limited space. Working, maybe 30 hours a week and spending the better part of $10 a day on the commute for $15 an hour was beginning to make little sense and I had to make a break. It was a little messy as I did not discuss this with my wife, but I had to go when I had to go and in the long run we are much better off for it.
Fortunately a close family member was looking for an investment to make and we were his chosen investment! With the knowledge and experience I had in this industry, why not start my own shop? We moved into a small house on the East edge of SF with an entire downstairs that was already wired for a workshop the landlord had there, and even the landlord encouraged us to use that space as a small work shop!
And The Little Black Egg was hatched!