Chicago’s Prince of Prints

Rapha Chicago has opened it’s doors, bringing rides, coffee, and race viewings to 1514 N Milwaukee Avenue. Rapha enlisted local poster artist Jay Ryan to help celebrate the opening, commissioning a limited edition poster in Ryan’s unmistakable style. For more than 20 years, Ryan has been producing prints and posters for the great and good of Chicago’s music scene (and cyclocross races) from his studio in Skokie, Illinois. Ryan took a few minutes out of his day of designing and printing to tell us about himself, his studio, and riding in Chicago.

An interview with Jay Ryan

Let’s start with an easy one: who are you?

My name is Jay Ryan. I’ve lived in Illinois most of my life, and for the past 21 years I’ve made screenprinted concert posters. I started at the now-legendary Screwball Press, and then (starting in 1999) at my own shop, called The Bird Machine. I’ve worked with a ton of bands, including Andrew Bird, Shellac, Hum, The Melvins, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Fugazi, and many more. I play bass in a band called Dianogah which is less active right now, but has released four albums and toured all over the place, and gets played between news segments on NPR all the time. 

You’ve described your style as “putting silly little animals in ridiculous situations” – is that part of the success of your studio?

I think at this point my work is just known because I’ve been stubbornly continuing to do it for so long.

How do you design and make your prints?

I start each print with a pencil drawing which gets scanned in, usually retaining some amount of the character of the pencil work. Sometimes I just print a black and white film of my drawing, and then hand-cut a different kind of film called Rubylith to define the areas where the different colors will go.

The films get used to burn screens which we use for printing. The burning of screens is a photo-exposure process with a light-sensitive emulsion which coats a silk screen and is exposed and washed out, leaving a template for where ink will go through the screen and onto the paper. 

We usually print four-, five- or six-color prints, though I have done a few with more than 18 screens, and one with 25 screens. If we’re printing, for example, 300 posters, we set up the press and put the first color on all 300 pieces. We change screens and add the second color to all 300 pieces. This goes on, usually for a couple days, until we have finished prints which get signed and numbered.

You’ve produced a number of prints to promote cyclocross races around Chicago, and it’s not uncommon for bikes to make cameo appearances in your music posters. When did you start getting involved in cycling?

I was never much of an organized sports guy, so my childhood time was split between my bike and my skateboard. In 1988, when I was 16, I went on a 500-mile unsupported tour through the Canadian Rockies with a group called the Student Hosteling Program, and I came back pretty focused on biking as much as possible.

And what’s the chance of seeing you on a bike these days?

I try to bike as much as I can, which right now is expressed by using our local bike path with my five-year-old daughter.

I bike for many reasons. Of course there are the environmental aspects, but I also enjoy experiencing places in a way that allows me to hear what’s going on in a way that you can’t from inside a car. I certainly need the exercise and the mental space which biking gives me. I never regret getting on my bike.

For those of us unfamiliar with the windy city, what should we expect in Chicago?

Chicago is a great place to work and live. It feels like the people I know here are generally oriented towards a heavy work ethic and keeping their head down and focusing on whatever they do. There are lots of active bike communities, and the city and surrounding areas are continuing to improve bike infrastructure and accessibility.