Jay Ryan, artist and owner of The Bird Machine print shop, talks about his designs, his inspiration, and his future. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
STORY / T.J. Annerino
Sadly, these days, preserving memories digitally is commonplace. But there are still an ardent few of us who appreciate the visceral experience of listening to vinyl, or saving ticket stubs to concerts or playoff games because paper tickets are rare, or buying that hand-numbered item from an artist. It’s even more special when that tangible piece of art is the physical memory of a great experience.
The Bird Machine print shop has been a fixture of the Chicago music scene, preserving live music memories since the 1990s with its recognizable, mischievous-yet-lovable characters depicted on concert posters and other screen prints (computers aren’t used during the design process). After working on a custom tap-handle project, I dove a little deeper with the visual artist behind these cute bike-riding animals, Jay Ryan.
T.J Annerino: Tell me about the name the Bird Machine.
Well, when I started my own print shop, I wanted to come up with something, and I was checking what URLs were still available in early 1999. I wanted to call the shop IBM, but that was already taken, and then I tried the Catholic Church, but that also had already been taken, so the Bird Machine seemed like sort of a good third choice. Part of it was that I had just finished reading a book by Haruki Murakami called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Another part of it is that my wife is sort of a noted amateur ornithologist, to one degree or another, and so birds seemed like an obvious thing to include. And this was way before Fred Armisen’s “put a bird on it” and all that. But more specifically, I didn't want the shop name to be something that was real specific if five years down the line I was just going to be designing book covers or still doing concert posters or it would have turned into a bakery or a day care. I wanted it to be something that was, like, relatively loose and left people scratching their heads to some degree, and I think that bit succeeded.
You obviously have a natural talent for drawing, but how did it translate into concert posters?
Man. Well, let’s see. I grew up outside of Chicago, thinking that I was going to be an architect. I went to school in Champaign, the University of Illinois, and ended up in industrial design there. I changed majors to painting because there was a cute girl in the painting program, and then I finished school in ’94 with a degree in painting. But as I’m sure you remember, at that time in history, not a lot of the major fine art painting corporations were hiring, so I lived across the street from the Goose Island Brewery on Fulton, and I was doing a couple of different jobs.
Wait, you lived across the street from Goose Island on Fulton Street? Is that what you said?
Yes. The fall of 1994, I moved to 1837 West Fulton Street, second floor. After we were there for a little while, Victory Records went in on the first floor starting sometime in ’95. I was paying $400 rent at that point. That was my half.
That’s crazy. I had no idea there was such history on this block.
Oh yeah. So I was rotating through building houses, demolishing houses, doing antique restoration and custom woodworking, and this whole time I’m playing music in a band [Dianogah] and doing drawings for my friends’ bands who needed T-shirts or flyers.
After I got out of school, a friend of mine got asked to design a poster for Supersuckers, Rocket from the Crypt, and the Wesley Willis Fiasco who were playing at The Blind Pig in Champaign. This friend was named Andy Mueller, who ran a little design company called OhioGirl Design. I was doing freelance illustration stuff for them at that point, and he and I had designed this poster together and took it over to a screen printer at the corner of Fullerton and Western, a couple doors north of where Quenchers was. Steve Walters was running Screwball Press out of there. I didn’t know anything about screen printing, but basically Steve and I hit it off, and over a couple of months, I started working there slowly and started printing Steve’s stuff, printing my own stuff, printing other people’s work. I was there working with Steve in that space for about three years before opening my own shop.
I love it. How do you define the recognizable Bird Machine style?
I don’t know that it’s necessarily one thing to be defined. I think of the mammals that I draw most of the time sort of more as actions than specific animals. It’s not like this specifically needs to be a bear or a wombat as much as it’s somebody who’s riding a bike, or it’s somebody who’s camping or making cupcakes. I think that I like the fact that people can look at these animals and be able to project whoever they want to see on there. Stylistically, it all comes from drawing ottomans. I was drawing ottomans in college, and I got a degree in that. Yeah, it’s weird.
I am excited to hear where this is going.
Yeah, I have no idea where this is going, so me too. I was drawing ottomans for a while, and then the ottomans got little buttholes and then tails, and then they became, like, fat, wide little dogs and it sort of developed from there. A lot of the time it’s a lot more fun just to have a couple of mammals riding bikes, carrying giant tacos. Being able to convey what’s going on with these messy little yellow mammals on bikes, holding their giant tacos, and everything is okay in their world.
And that’s why I love your shit so much. I’m familiar with the Bill Graham– commissioned posters at the Fillmore back in the ’60s, and some of the memorable stuff in the ’70s and ’80s from the Ramones, Black Flag, or Minor Threat. I started going to see live music in the ’90s, and all I can recall are the poorly designed photocopied flyers. I didn’t start appreciating screen-printed posters until maybe the mid 2000s. Can you walk us through some history since you have been in the game?
I mean, I started doing this stuff in ’95 and was in the first crop of bands that were playing at the Fireside Bowl after they started having shows there in ’94 and ’95. I think the role of the screen-printed poster has changed over time. From ’95 to 2005, the advent of the internet went from something that was more exclusively for university students emailing each other to everyone living their daily lives on it. Of course, that’s a broad generalization. But in 1995, there was a preponderance of photocopied flyers that were taped to telephone poles and five across, taped above the urinals in the bathroom at the Fireside. The screen-printed posters would get more prominently displayed in the record store window or over in the coffee shop or bookstore window.
And beginning in the 2000s, you also started to see a drop in physical record sales because people were moving to digital media. So there’s been sort of this swap in roles, where the poster is becoming more important as a merch item that’s specific to a particular show. Its role has changed, to a small degree, because I make these posters. I don’t know that too many of any of them are getting hung up in record stores ahead of time anymore. A poster becomes a little more about a commemorative piece to take from the show or collect after the show and less about hanging it up ahead of time. And with a couple of clicks on Facebook, you can get invited to every concert that’s happening in Illinois in the next three weeks, so we don’t really need the posters to perform that duty in the same way that we did.
We don’t require the same type of physical things for the things that we do, but, then again, everybody walks away from the show having held their phone up and watching, whether it’s the baseball game or the concert or whatever. They’ve got eight minutes of having held their phone up to videotape the whole thing, and that’s what we take away to prove that we were there. Posters are sort of a specialty item. There are only so many of them. They’re only made once. They’re for a fan of the music or of the image.
And just like putting a needle on vinyl, it’s kind of a cool thing, I think, for certain people.
Yeah. It’s a specific experience. It’s a very small experience, but you’re in a physical place that’s in your home. You go over next to the bookcase and you put on your record, and then you’ve got to stay where you can hear it. It’s not your Bluetooth speaker that’s going around with you around the house.
Throughout the show-poster history, do you have a favorite artist or style?
I’m aware of the history, and I’m thankful that it all happened. But I’ve never really spent time studying that history as much as I have maybe looked at some of the same influences that some of those guys were working with. I don’t know, I feel like I pull from stuff that happened after that whole psychedelic period with Stanley Mouse or Victor Moscoso, which was established in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I went from some sort of interest in new wave to punk to—I don’t know—a post-punk, indie rock sort of route. I never really had a foray into the ’60s culture–type imagery as much as I have an appreciation for the fact that those guys worked miracles visually and totally did some amazing stuff. I feel like I’m more influenced by somebody like [children’s book illustrators] Richard Scarry or Shel Silverstein, Derek Hess’s posters from the ’90s, Art Chantry’s graphic design or David Carson’s when he was designing TransWorld SKATEboarding magazine in the ’80s. That’s stuff that I feel like is more of a direct influence, a straighter line to what I’m doing.
Beyond screen-printing posters, what’s the next thing for the Bird Machine?
We’re working on a mural literally today that’s made on panels and is getting installed at Backlot Coffee in Evanston. I’d like to just continue to make art prints and expand that one way or another. Maybe larger, more intense, more detailed, more collaborations with other friends who are established illustrators. Get a bunch of this work that I’ve been working on for a while into a particular story and put together as a book, get another collection of my posters into book form; we are probably due for another one of those in the next year or two. I've just got to remember to keep waking up in the morning and get to drawing.
Well, Jay, I really appreciate your taking the time out of your day to chat.
You’re welcome. I’ve got an owl I need to get back to rendering, I need to finish rendering this owl.
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