Diving into the letterpress printing realm sometimes starts like an archaeology adventure: layers of beautiful history and technology are uncovered, past projects are found as remnants on the tympan paper of newly discovered (and obtained presses), and and entire chasm of knowledge is revealed when the printing press starts to clink, buzz, and whirl to life. London Bellman knows this thrilling adventure all too well. The creative virtuoso has been been discovering new ways to apply his innovative passions from past endeavors such as a toy sculptor, painter, and tattoo artist into letterpress printing. His command over line and layout in his tattoo work has translated breathlessly and beautifully into letterpress printing (and it’s quite easy to be enraptured by it all as well). We caught London in both of his ink shops to see how the printing journey started and where the creative momentum has taken him.
INKING UP PAPER AND SKIN I’m a guy who married an awesome lady who puts up with all my scattered visions. We walk a lot, garden, cook, live simple and enjoy the hell out of each other. I’m very thankful and fortunate to have Steph in my life. Career-wise, I have been in the tattoo world since 1991 and that is my primary income stream. This last year I shifted my focus on what it is that I want to convey in my work tattoo wise and personal art. I was a toy sculptor for about five years before I entered the realm of tattoo. The company I worked for did prototypes for the toy industry such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, McDonalds give-aways, Garfield, Felix the cat, etc. I learned a lot there but also realized sitting in a factory type environment was not for me. Tattooing gave me the life I have now and I owe so much to it. Almost every person I am acquainted with has been through artistic or tattoo endeavors. I also started painting and now sculpting again is in the works.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT Letterpress seemed like the simplest way to reproduce my art with the least amount of equipment and is the least toxic. That’s what I thought. 😉 Compared to screen printing (with lots of solvent fumes) which a close friend of mine does. I like that you can use soy solvents and not lose a liver over it.
I started reading Briar Press’s blog and was going crazy with all the information. Learning the difference in presses, how they worked and performed different tasks. Searching, searching, searching for the right press. In the beginning I would buy a press, dismantle it, clean it and test print primarily. It was a slow process. At one point I drove to San Francisco from here in Portland, Oregon straight through, loaded up a Pearl No.1 and drove home. My wife thought I was press crazy. I’ve had them shipped, get broken, repaired them, all to just find the right fit for my needs. When I would realize a press was not for me I would look for another one and start all over. The movement and mechanical beauty of the machines themselves is a big part of the magic of letterpress. The history of these machines is a big part as well, and where they have been & what they have done. A few times a press has come with boxes of type, quoins, all the extra printer’s goodies and there would be remnants of past projects. Sometimes layers of past projects still on the tympan paper. That part was a fun kind of archaeology. I have not printed a ton of projects, it took me most of the time gathering my equipment and momentum.
OREGON’S VERY OWN My home and studio are one and the same. I like to call it Atomic House. The actual business is Atomic Art Tattoo Studio and that’s the basement of my home. The main floor is where Steph and I live and the attic space is where my presses and paper cutter reside. I am a hobby printer at this point and really enjoy it when I do print. The best thing about my home, shop, and studio is that it’s all right here and at my fingertips whenever I want to make something — I don’t have to leave the premises to make it happen.
THE CREATIVE FLOW I would say I design for tattoos and my personal art whims but I don’t design for peoples’ personal projects. I am very low tech as far as designing goes. I play around with some small sketches, decide whether I like the composition, and let it rest in my stack of images. If I like it enough to proceed to making a print, I’ll redraw the design, ink it, and have a plate (or plates) made. I keep a sketchbook going daily and have lately been going back to my past imagery and borrowing from there.
FUTURE PRINTING As I mentioned before, I am a hobby printer but would love to make more images and find a market for my art. I have been pushing towards that lately. I haven’t fully figured it out but I have some ideas in the works.
PRINTING FEATS I am proud of what and where I am at this point in my life. I’m rich in love, imagery, where I live, whom I am surrounded by and the country I was born in (I mean this in a not crazy patriotic kinda way). I feel lucky in general when considering the state of the planet as a whole.
BOXCAR’S ROLE Boxcar Press is awesome! I have not used you for a ton of services but you did make me a couple really cool base plates for my presses and your online video tutorials are indispensable.
PRESS HISTORY I’m not sure which was my first press? I’ll try and go down the list, which are mostly tabletops. I’m sure I’ve had a couple Kelseys 5×7’s; a Sigwalt or two have arrived broken; Three Pearl No.1’s: basically a tabletop with cute cabinetry below; my largest was a 10×15 Craftsman (unfortunately I let it go but it was a beautiful beast); and one Pilot 6×10 old style which I sold. Currently I am printing on a Craftsman 6×10 and I have a Craftsman Monarch 9×12 made out of aluminum.
SHOP TIPS I’m still learning and always will be. My advice would be: don’t rush, take your time, walk away and come back to it later. If you screw it up… re-run it and print it again. I did this just the other day.
WHAT’S NEXT This time last year I started a letterpress project based on Bio-Mechanical inspired art. The artists in the first set of five prints provided me with a design of their choice in the aforementioned genre. I printed 120 of each image mailed them to the artists to sign and number.
Once they send them back to me I collate them into sets and each person gets 20 sets of prints to sell, gift, or whatever they want to do with them. I am onto a second and third set currently. I recently printed a few images in the same vein (Bio-Organic) as an off shoot of Bio-Mech, but it leans more towards nature-inspired forms. I would like to increase my inventory of prints, nature-inspired stuff primarily, sticks and stones, mushrooms, bones, landscapes etc. I have been offered a couple opportunities to show so hopefully more of that will happen in the near future.
An exceptionally large round of thanks and applause out to London for letting us get a larger glimpse of his creative world!