“It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it.” These words, which close out punk band The Desperate Bicycles’ 1977 song “Handlebars”, epitomise the urgency and simplicity of DIY culture, and are more relevant than ever four decades after its release. Out of all methods of DIY art, screen printing may just be the easiest and cheapest of the lot.
Screen printing has given artists, designers and activists a chance to get their messages and designs onto banners, posters and clothing efficiently and on a budget. According to many printing professionals, the practice has “revolutionised the t-shirt industry,” but the impact of screen printing itself stretches even further beyond the ability to get your own slogan on a t-shirt.
A brief history of screen printing
The screen printing process has barely changed between its 10th century inception in China and 1907, the year it was patented in England by Samuel Simon. Originally, the practice of screen printing was done to add patterns to textiles, with printers in Japan later manufacturing the mesh from hair.
The process was named renamed silkscreen printing once it came to Europe in the 18th century, as silk was the primary fabric used to create the mesh at the time. By the early 1900s, silk was replaced by newer, more affordable synthetic fabrics, allowing the process to become more affordable and, therefore, more widespread, in the design of curtains and wallpaper.
Rauschenberg and Warhol: Screen printing goes pop
When you think of Andy Warhol’s most famous and iconic works—his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, the shot of Elvis drawing a gun or the empty electric chair—you may not realise that all three were screen printed. At the same time, Texan pop artist Robert Rauschenberg was working on the first of his Retroactive pieces, overlaying screen printed blocks of colour atop newspaper cutout images.
These two art provocateurs almost single-handedly brought what was once a humble, affordable way of duplicating images into the world’s galleries and auction houses in the early sixties. The practice also served to blur the definition of what “real” art could be—if a work of art could be made by such a simple technique of image reproduction, was it really still art?
Using the medium to revisit some of his former pieces (such as the Campbell’s soup cans), he justified his use of the controversial technique in typically perverse style: “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” Thanks to Rauschenberg, and Warhol and his Factory workers, screen printing has achieved a lot more than a mere fifteen minutes of fame.
Paris, punk and the present day
While Warhol’s prints were drawing attention in the US, the late sixties saw screen printing grab headlines for an entirely different reason in France. On the 16th of May 1968, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts was commandeered by members of staff and the student body, forming L’Atelier Populaire (the Popular Workshop).
This group used the institution’s screenprinting facilities to design and manufacture some of the most enduring political art of all time, which formed the visual backbone of the city’s student demonstrations that month. Its slogans and imagery have been influential for creative artists and demonstrators ever since, while others have drawn a direct link between the work of L’Atelier Populaire and the “sardonic art” of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The ability for instant turnover is part of the reason that screenprinting has been a hugely important part of reactionary protest art movements, particularly in punk and DIY culture. The Clash’s video for their debut single “White Riot” featured the band performing in front of a “screen-printed backdrop of the Notting Hill disturbances” which inspired the song.
Screen-printing also galvanised marginalised groups within the punk scene across the country, enabling the easy, cheap production of concert posters, t-shirts, backdrops and fanzines. Community-run centres such as DIY Space For London continue to run their own workshops to allow individuals and groups “aiming towards radical social change” to create their own printing projects using the Space’s materials.
As an accessible entry point into making art, putting your political message across or simply getting the design you want onto a t-shirt, screen printing remains as revolutionary now as it ever was. It’s still easy. It’s still cheap. Go and do it.