Drive-By Press

Printmakers Make A Lasting Impression

April 17, 2008

MIAMI—It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and the two-man crew known as Drive-By Press is busy setting up their 800-pound wood block printing press in the balcony of The Fifth, a swank Miami Beach nightclub. It might seem an unlikely place to make art in a 14th century fashion, but that’s one of the kicks Joe Velazquez and Greg Nanney get from their work.

photo by Derek Slaton

“Printmaking contributed to the advance of Western civilization,” Nanney says. Velazquez adds that there’s a democratic aspect to printmaking and that they enjoy breaking out of the museum and gallery box by bringing their art directly to the people in an unexpected way. That the end result of their work is a fine art T-shirt, certainly adds to the everyman quality. For every man and every woman loves a T-shirt.

Let’s be clear. Drive-By Press doesn’t make just any old T-shirt and Nanney and Velazquez aren’t just preserving a 600-year old process called “relief.” They put great care into every step of their process to make something new. Velazquez served four years in the military and he still insists on quarter folds. Looking at the neatly arranged stacks of shirts ready to be printed tonight, Velazquez says simply, “It’s an efficient way to do it.” Given that the pair will create 300-plus custom printed T-shirts for those attending tonight’s dance party, efficiency is a must.

This isn’t like a normal silkscreen, Velazquez says. “The ink on a normal silkscreen sits on top of the fabric. Our oil-based ink sinks into the fabric and becomes part of the fabric.” Velazquez puts black ink on a metal plate and begins to work with it. “Oil-based ink is very stiff. Its resistance to flow is too stiff right now. Its legs are a bit short,” Velazquez says, making full use of the lexicon of printmaking. After he gets it just right, he declares, “Those are the legs we want!”

“People call us print missionaries,” Velazquez says. Part of what’s appealing in this realm is something Nanney calls “the power of the multiple.” Nanney and Velazquez both have fine art backgrounds and consider themselves fine artists. But they’re intent on liberating art from any sort of ivory tower where it may be kept. “The idea that I can spread it all around drew me to printmaking,” Nanney says.

The romance of the road is also something Nanney enjoys. Drive-By Press has been on the road for two and a half years, making presentations and getting their work out there. “I love the lifestyle. I get to see all these different places and different people. I’m pretty private about my studio (in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago), but here, I bring it directly to the audience,” Nanney says.

At 9:45, the line for Drive-By Press T-shirts is 30 long. Hipsters in dresses and other carefully put together outfits wait patiently and look intently on the process unfolding in front of them. Velazquez and Nanney are working fast, breaking into a sweat even in this air-conditioned room. The T-shirts are being provided for free to Camel smokers tonight. Everyone likes free and everyone likes a T-shirt, but there’s something more going on here. Imaginations are running, curiosities are stoked and appreciation is paid.

There’s much to appreciate. Nanney and Velazquez hand-carve their original designs into wood blocks with sharp hand tools. They work with ink like master chefs with food, roll in just so onto the blocks (in a move Velazquez calls “Crosstown Traffic”), place one of the wrinkle free T-shirts onto “Hank the Tank” and run it under a 200-pound roller that applies 2000 pounds of pressure per square inch. A piece of clean newsprint is then placed on top of the design, the T-shirt is folded and bagged with a care sheet and given to a happy customer.

There’s instant gratification here. “The ability to share my work right off the block did it for me,” Velazquez says. He also likes the dance, play and happy accidents in this decidedly analog art form. “You can’t press “Control P” and do what we do,” he says.