My First Time: An Art Director's Tale of Attending Rock Poster Convention Flatstock

Greetings citizens: I don't usually do this, but at the request of our intrepid music editor, I'm compelled to give an account of my virginal visit to the phenomenon that is known as Flatstock.

For those not as obsessed with design and poster printing as I am, Flatstock is a rock poster convention created by the American Poster Institute and it's been operating at different festivals all over the nation since 2002. The American Poster Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the art form of rock posters, and was formed to protect the spirit of the music and cultural landscape portrayed in the work of gig poster artists, just as the iconic rock posters promoting shows out of venues like the Fillmore West did in the 1960s. Showcasing its artist members, API and Flatstock has been something of a sleeping giant for nearly a decade now, serving as a secret Mecca for lovers of music in the graphic form, designers who love music, and followers of a craft that is slowly gaining momentum with more mainstream audiences.

As a designer and closet collector of gig posters myself, it was long overdue for me to attend a Flatstock exhibition and get the face-to-face experience with the artists themselves.

This week, I got my chance. Flatstock 29 took place at South by Southwest, running between March 16 and 19, opening Wednesday evening and concluding Sunday evening of that weekend. Appropriately smack dab in the middle of the music portion of the festival, and located within the air-conditioned walls of the Austin Convention Center, more than 80 artists from all over the country and world (showcasing artists hailed from everyone from Brooklyn to London to Germany to Portland) were present, with tons of combined stock to display and sell to the wandering public.

In other words: I've been to heaven, and it is screen-printed.

Flatstock has been a part of SXSW since 2003, so I've obviously had plenty of opportunities to make the journey down south from Dallas to check it out. But alas, bad luck and previously scheduled engagements have always kept me from attending. Not this year. My sole reason for heading down to the deluge that is Austin in the thick of South By was to visit Flatstock for the first time -- and hopefully to come home inspired (and a few posters heavier).

After deplaning an early flight and renting a car, I was focused on getting breakfast and a good parking spot downtown. I was lucky enough to score a corner lot location across the street from the convention center. This was already promising to be a fantastic day.

All I knew of the location of the exhibit was that it was on the first floor of the convention center and that it was, in fact, free. Yes, free. There was no trading in some corporate tchotchke for entry or some secret hidden fee. No, it was absolutely free to visit.

At first, I was uncertain as to what end of the convention center it was located -- the Austin Convention Center is a big place -- but thanks to the unassuming, almost invisible SXSW signage pointing the way to the various trade show booths, et al, I was able to realize that it was actually right in front of me, behind a couple of convention room doors. There wasn't a whole lot of buzz or fanfare for what was revealed to be the combined A, B and C Halls of the building, which were completely full of artists tables and display walls, ranging from modest to rock-star quality.

I felt like an Old World explorer in search of the City of Gold, and then just one push of a palm frond aside, there it was.

The air was saturated with the smell of heavy paper stock and ink. My eyes were bombarded with rows and rows of colors, illustrations, mottos and mantras, all screen-printed, all wooing me to open my wallet. The design nerd in me squealed, and I didn't know where to begin.

I started at the beginning. Visiting each table, aisle after wide aisle of artists and their amazing wares, I was entranced by the amount of raw stuff on display. There were posters, no doubt, but it didn't stop there. The more established artists and studios had other goodies, like self-promoting T-shirts, stickers, caps, postcards, buttons and even mugs. Some had calendars; some even had pillows. Some displays were simple and small, showing off only their hard work, ready to sell to enamored collectors. Others had double-wide booths, with extra tables for their goods and their own customized display racks and bins, with giant banners hanging and featuring their studio name, emblazoned for all to recognize. Some of these vendors even supplied their own faux-wood floors and furniture to really make it comfy for their visitors. No matter the difference in how the work was displayed, all the work itself was exemplary; it all spoke for itself, and louder than any fancy display could.

It took me roughly three hours to make the full run of all the exhibitors, prolonged by my stopping to chat with some of my favorite artists, learning their origins, interests and promising to come back on my second lap, this time with cash and a tube in hand. Needless to say, there was a good representation of Texas artists -- many from Austin, such as Animal Rummy, Clintprints, Empire Press, The Decoder Ring Design Concern, Industry Print Services, Kollective Fusion, Nakatomi, Vrooooom Press and Rural Rooster. It was especially nice to see our friends Magnificent Beard in attendance, making their first appearance at Flatstock themselves. They were very excited to be there, and were anxious to visit the other booths -- a sentiment shared with many other artists who were chained to their respective booths. Their exhibitor neighbor, Nevada Hill of Denton, was also in attendance and garnering lots of attention with his unique poster styles.

One thing that was especially great to see was the good will in the community of artists. Every now and then, I'd overhear an artist who snuck away from his or her booth to make a quick, "I love your work" greeting to another booth artist, undoubtedly leading to a poster trade.

Another, unfortunate thing I noticed was the amount of people who unwittingly discovered the confab while stumbling around the convention center. Lots of "Whoa!" and "Is this free?" utterings came as people entered the hall. I would have thought that SXSW, producer of one of the most popular music festivals in the world, would aim for more awareness (at least on-site) of the free exhibition of rock and roll posters that the same music fan attendees would be thrilled to visit. I was only there for the full day of Friday, so maybe things picked up over the weekend, but according to some of the exhibitors there, it was a slow start, and usually is. Nevertheless, the crowds came and went as the day went on, and particular prints were being sold out, much to my regret and the regrets of others I overheard.

As I continued on one of my trips around the exhibition, I spotted, off in the corner, near the main entry, an older, wiser-looking fellow operating a press set-up, complete with a vacuum-powered printing platen and a drying rack. I was pulled in -- I love watching people work -- and this demonstration was the only one in the entire hall. We spoke at length, talking about the convention, other Flatstocks and the state of the craft, and how there's a definite resurgence in not only the art of screen-printing, but in hand-made arts in general, both in the actual creation as well as the appreciation.

This is quite evident with the rise and success of Dallas' own shops and groups like Oil & Cotton, Bows & Arrows, Etsy Dallas and, of course, We Are 1976, who were also in attendance that day, scouting for new art to carry in their store -- I wasted no breath in recommending to Vynsie and Derek Law what artists I would like to see carried in their shop. Hopefully, their chat with the esteemed Dirk Fowler of F2 Designs will lead to more great work available at their boutique. I'm keeping my ink-smeared fingers crossed.

Anyway, the demonstrator, Andy MacDougall, of and author of the screen printer's bible, Screen Printing Today: The Basics, has been integral to the core of Flatstock, and demonstrates his process at many of the Flatstock exhibitions that take place all over the world. In conjunction with artist and curator Sam Coronado of Coronado Studio in Austin and progenitor of the Serie Project, they spread the gospel of the screen-printing craft, and teach folks young and old how easy it is to start up your own studio, ranging from DIY simple press set-ups to more ambitious, professional studios.

Andy and I were on the same page with the importance of passing down these skills to any and all who are interested, lest the art truly become lost. And, there at Flatstock 29, other than the trouble of finding it, the art was very much in full bloom. The trading of small pieces of paper printed as currency for larger pieces of paper printed with evocative images inspired by the sound of music was in no danger of becoming lost.

Print is not dead, but alive and well in the hands of the American Poster Institute and Flatstock.

See you next year.