Perspectives on the Inkworks Festprint Collection

by Michael Rossman



        This essay is updated and slightly revised from the version commissioned in 1999 for the poster-book celebrating Inkworks’ 25th anniversary, published eventually as Visions of Peace and Justice (Inkworks Press, Berkeley, 2007; ISBN: 978-0-930712-01-3). Just before publication, this essay was purged from the book for political reasons. My view of this incident, as well as of why it should not be buried silently, appears separately. The Inkworks Collective did promise to feature a link to this essay in their online promotion of the book; I trust that my honesty will not lead them to retract this promise.

        Announcement and order information for Visions of Peace and Justice are visible here .  Reviews are accessible here . At present, I don’t think any of its printed text is available online. Nearly its entire graphic contents are visible here , due to the kindness of its main graphic editor Lincoln Cushing. Readers seeking illustration of my dry observations may find this site quite useful for its chronological organization, even though categorical sorting of these images is not yet possible.


The character of the collection
(The printshop and the economy of political posters)

         This collection of social art has an unusual integrity. Though graceful and powerful images are included, this isn't a showcase of the "best" political posters from this era or the San Francisco Bay Area. Though many movements are documented, it won't suffice to illustrate the history of any, or the breadth of all. Though many artists have contributed, few are well-represented; as a survey of this region's political printmakers, its richness is random and incomplete. A dozen books of these other kinds have already appeared and many will follow, exploring the wealths of a domestic movement of social art whose documentation has scarcely begun. Among them, this book will stand as the first of its kind, systematically illustrating the work of a printshop in a political community.

         Related books will reveal the productions of the great silk-screen workshops -- La Raza Graphics, Japantown Art & Media, Taller de Artes Graficas, Mission Cultural Center, Mission Grafica -- that enriched the political poster renaissance here during the 1970s and 1980s. Since each served as printshop for a broad, complex community, as well as studio for a corps of notable artists, the story of each will complement Inkworks' account -- but on narrower ground, for each served primarily an ethnic community and politics, for a briefer time. Moreover, these workshops have differed fundamentally from Inkworks, not only in their silk-screen medium and ethnic focus but in being constituted from the first by activist print-makers, and by functioning as graphic shops, dedicated specifically to poster production. In contrast, Inkworks was organized by activist printers, to serve the ordinary printing-needs of community -- which involve mainly texts, with only occasional posters. Over the long term, these have comprised at most 4% of the shop's production, and political posters perhaps half this share.

         In this economic sense, these posters have been almost incidental to Inkworks's main business. But such shops as Inkworks have hardly been incidental to the poster economy. Though a remarkable proportion of political posters in this region are silk-screened (over 15% of archived work), here as everywhere the great majority are printed by offset press, and the groups issuing them depend mainly on printshops of traditional kind. The Bay Area is home to over 300 offset shops capable of printing posters at least 11"x17" in size. Through this vast productive capacity, an annual flow of thousands of political designs might filter and leave barely a trace, if its printing were randomly distributed. Instead, the flow tends somewhat to concentrate through printshops experienced specifically with posters, and sympathetic -- or at least neutral -- to the controversial issues advertised by these activist works. Yet this tendency is surprisingly weak here, perhaps because so many tolerant shops contend for business. As best I can tell, though some exceeded this figure for a few years during the first decade of the poster renaissance, over time no printshop has been responsible for more than one in forty of the offset political posters in this region.

         Given this, it seems a double stroke of fortune that Inkworks printed even this many, and that most of these have been preserved. For it is quite unusual for a general production shop to keep an archive of its poster-work. (The only other example I know printed rock-dance posters during the 1960s, which were clearly targeted as collectible Art, as offset political graphics have not been.) Nor did Inkworks do so all along; for not even the presence of a postermaker in its collective from 1982 on could inspire the shop to archive its work systematically, though it began to think about beginning to do so. This laxness was natural; for as a rule, no activist group has motive and energy to keep more than an incidental, fragmentary record of its graphic work. That this rule extends even to collectives of activist artists is demonstrated by the incomplete archives of the notable workshops mentioned above -- so how could a collective who saw themselves more mundanely as yoeman printers, mainly of texts, be exempt? Not until the early 1990s did Inkworks come to organize its own partial archive and extend this systematically; and the quest to recover (or at least document) the missing work began only in preparation for this book. This slow progress has involved the maturations of a printmaker, a printing collective, and a field of view -- in each case, time bringing change in perspective, an appreciation of history.

         Such dynamics and fortune have brought us this book, including more than half of the posters produced by a general community printshop during its first quarter-century, plus a representative sample of later work. As such, it may well remain unique; for no other offset shop in the nation (save perhaps Salcedo Press in Chicago and Red Sun Press in Boston) has printed as many for so long and retained so much of its production. This categorical distinction takes on more color when we consider that Inkworks is arguably the most successful progressive printshop in the nation, and has served its most active political community over a long and complex era. Such qualities suggest that this is as fortunate an example as could be chosen to represent the role of the community printshop in the economy of political posters.

         Though its other dimensions are rewarding, this collection's purpose and integrity lie precisely in its systematic documentation of a printshop's role in this economy. On the surface, this amounts almost to a random slice of the action. Even taken as such, the collection has coherent and vital stories to tell, as I suggest below. Yet beneath this appearance, the flow of posters through Inkworks' presses has been organized organically by ongoing webworks of contacts, communications, and relations, and dialectics of productive process and competition, originating in the unique context of a collective of workers and extending by many means throughout a large community. To explore these even in summary is daunting; to describe them adequately would require the textures of a novel treating much of life in this community during this era. Yet describable or not, there is an organic coherence to this complexity, inscribed in the posters as vividly as their visual imagery. In effect, the Inkworks portfolio is one face of rich community, peeking through its colorful mask.

Statistical perspectives on the Inkworks collection

         After summing the shop's production, the survey below considers its posters in terms of their social themes. How has Inkworks's production been divided among the various streams of activism? What does this express about the character of the printshop and the community and movements it serves? My discussion begins with the dry statistics and extends to interpretation and surmise. The statistics of Inkworks' production are interesting in themselves, and also by comparison with the general statistics of poster-work in this region -- for Inkworks' profile differs significantly from the norm. One might expect any particular printshop to have its own quirky profile of production, differing from the average in many regards. But given Inkwork's paragon stature and centrality as a community printshop, there is reason to regard the distinctive features of its poster profile as significant rather than random.

         In comparing its production to the general patterns of activist poster-work, I rely mainly on a collection of 16,000 posters from the period 1974-2005, concentrated on work from the S.F. Bay Area, gathered in the AOUON Archive. Though broadly derived, this baseline has its own quirks; but no better standard will be available until the somewhat larger catalogue of the Center for Political Graphics in L.A. comes online. Pending such further study, the comparative statistics below must be understood as provisional. Even the statistics of Inkworks' production are somewhat fuzzy, since much earlier work has not yet been recovered. But in each regard, the samples are large enough to suggest that more complete analysis will confirm their conclusions, with few if any surprises.

Gross productive flow

         In 1983, Inkworks' staff estimated to me that the shop had been producing about 40 designs/year (d/y), amounting to about 400 by then. About two-thirds of these have been recovered in archives so far. During 1984-92, production fell to about 30 d/y, of which about 80% have been archived. From then till 1998, production fell further to some 20 d/y; then and since, over 90% have been archived. From 1999 through 2006, production rebounded, averaging about 36 d/y. Currently (early 2008) it is >50 d/y.

        As might be expected of a broadly-connected general-service shop, these changes in productive flow correspond roughly to the changes in political poster production throughout the region and the nation during this era. Inkworks's first decade was situated in the most intense period of production; its slump from 1993-98 somewhat exaggerates the general decline, for unclear reasons. Its recent rebound seems due to the digital revolution, which has affected all phases of poster production in terms of ease, speed, and somewhat lowered cost.

        These figures suggest that Inkworks has produced nearly 1100 posters of political character during its tenure to date. Though massive, this total includes a remarkably small fraction of the work produced in the most intense locale of poster activity in the nation. Over this period, the S.F. Bay Area has generated at least 45,000 distinct posters for political and social activism -- which means that Inkworks has printed at most one poster in forty, or 2.5% of this flow. This estimate, based on the quantity of work in surveyed archives and their apparent degrees of coverage, is quite conservative. The actual flow has probably been larger, and Inkworks' share even smaller. Even so, it has been consistent enough to provide a bountiful sampling of the work of activists and artists during this era.

International solidarity work

         Over one-fourth (27%) of Inkworks' posters have concerned international solidarity and issues, the proportion going from 35% in the 1970s to 41% in the 1980s to 12% in the 1990s and 6% since then. (This analysis excludes work concerned with the current Iraq war; to include this sharpens the conclusions of this paragraph.) What's notable is not only how this reflects the swell and ebb of activist involvement during these decades -- indeed, prefigured it for South Africa and Central America -- but how large the proportion has been all along. In the general flow of posters since the Vietnam war ended, about 11% have expressed international concerns, waxing and waning in similar rhythm but more widely. So Inkworks has more than twice the average quota of internationalism in its flow -- so strong an enhancement, as to make this the most prominent theme of its printed posters. Moreover, the very place of internationalism in Inkworks' flow has been more constantly maintained than in activism generally.

         More than two-thirds of this solidarity work has been concentrated on Latin America, the focus moving from Cuba and Puerto Rico through Chile to Nicaragua and Salvador before regional resistance ebbed in the 1990's. From its start in 1974 through 1990, over one-quarter of Inkworks' total poster production was concerned with Latin-American solidarity. This remarkable concentration reflects several organic factors -- not only the variety and geographical proximity of the Latin-American struggles, but their cultural proximity in relation to the developing domestic movements of Hispanics in this era, in our region increasingly involved with Mexican and Central-American immigrants. A subtler factor too is involved, deriving from the fertile influence of domestic Chicano postermakers in stimulating the broad political poster renaissance in this region from the mid-1960s on, which made available both artists concerned with Latin-American issues and publics habituated to their graphic ways of bearing notice.

         One concrete factor affecting Inkworks' Latin-American concentration may involve the relation of sister institutions in the metabolism of community. A small but dependable share of its printing has been for La Pena, the remarkable cultural center in Berkeley, whose constant support for Latin-American solidarity movements since 1975 has centered its broadly-ecumenical community service. That activist groups of all kinds who make presentations through La Pena are also likely to print advertisements through Inkworks is evident, and natural. What's less evident is that no other stream of activism has made for itself, in the East Bay, a cultural center as public and enduring as La Pena. The flow and focus of poster-work through Inkworks in part reflect its constancy and influence.

Ethnicity and race

         Among the rest of Inkworks' posters, over one-fifth (22%) have been concerned with issues of ethnicity and race, making this the most prominent focus of its domestically-oriented work. Though the earlier of these relate simply to one or another people of color, from the late 1980's on such posters refer increasingly to issues of racism, multiculturality, and defense of affirmative action, reflecting changing perspectives of activism and community struggle, particularly advanced in the S.F. Bay Area. In this dominant focus as well as its recent dynamic, the contours of Inkworks's production resemble the general contours of activist poster-work during this quarter-century. This is hardly surprising, since this printshop serves a region more diverse in these respects and more active in its diversity than any other in the nation. Yet it does not follow automatically, for the diversity of Inkworks' own staff and their conscious allegiance to diversity values have also been vital to this concentration of poster-work serving peoples of color. The shop has been exemplary not only in functioning as a collective but in its commitment to integration: over the long haul, more than one-third of its staff have been minorities, of all hues.

Ethnicity/race and internationalism

         In assessing what fractions of poster-flow refer to various peoples, one must also consider international work -- for in a sense, any poster advertising a cultural benefit for Latin American solidarity is a promotion for domestic La Raza consciousness, in a region where one-sixth of the population is Hispanic and swelling with displaced immigrants; nor could a white progressive produce or view a poster opposing apartheid in South Africa without awareness of its reflection at home. In these expanded terms, over 40% of Inkworks' total poster production refers to ethnicity and race. Within this sector, the balance is overwhelmingly Hispanic (>50%), with African (20%), Native (14%) and Asian (4%) American activisms far behind. By comparison, in these terms about 27% of the general activist poster-flow here concerns ethnicity/race; and within this sector the proportions are rather different (respectively, 41%, 35%, 15%, and 8%.)

         To cook the statistics in this fashion may seem a somewhat artificial exercise. But such analysis emphasizes and clarifies the centrality of ethnic and racial concerns in the political cosmos expressed through Inkworks. It also emphasizes the differences between Inkworks' body of posters and the general activist flow -- not only the shop's greater concentration on this ethnic/racial axis, but its strong relation to Hispanic-American activism, and by comparison its surprising weakness of relation to African-American and Asian-American concerns. 

Gender concerns

         In the general flow of domestically-oriented poster-work since the early 1970s, women's activism has produced a healthy 8% of the total -- a proportion peaking at 13% in the late 70s and declining ever since, to 5% recently. In Inkworks' cumulative domestic production, fully one-seventh of the posters (14%) refer to women's concerns, ranking this as its second most prominent focus.

         That their concerns should be strongly represented, in shop-work serving a community where women's activism has been so long established and widely expressed, is not surprising. But why should the concentration in Inkworks' poster-flow be nearly double the norm? One reason may be that its staff includes a high proportion of women, fully integrated in its processes of collective decision and most processes of production -- in this regard standing as a progressive model in a trade recently exclusively male and still largely patriarchal. Few are feminist activists as such, and the network of the staff's personal connections is not unusually entwined with feminist activity. Yet the feel of their workplace is woman-friendly; and a novice bringing in a job order will find her complications treated with as much helpful respect by the men. From one angle, such conditions are no more than sound business practice in a sensitive community. From another, they are the very yeast of commonweal. Either way, they invite the service of women's concerns through this print-shop, enriching its poster flow.

         Yet also a failure seems involved in this enrichment. If feminists had had a vigorous network of printshops and sense of solidarity, even so friendly a shop as Inkworks might have gotten only crumbs of their poster business. Several all-female printshops did indeed start up in the S.F. Bay Area in the 1970's, while the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective was spreading its trail-blazing silk-screened art nation-wide. Yet just as no collective feminist workshop sprouted here to extend CWGC's impulse, so these printshops -- and Women's Press, which functioned during the 1980's -- could not make a prospering business from feminist service; and passed on leaving no notable cumulative contribution to the poster archives, so far as I'm aware. 

         Though Inkworks has integrated gay and lesbian staff, no special connection to this activism is apparent, for the proportion of Inkworks' gay- and lesbian-related work is only slightly higher than the norm in this region (3.5% vs. 3.2%.)

The centrality of diversity

         These feminist and gay/lesbian posters extend the panorama of diversity in Inkworks's production. Taking them together with the ethnicity/race-related posters, diversity work amounts to fully 40% of the shop's domestically-focused production -- and to even more of its total production (47%) if Latin-American and African solidarity work is considered too in the sense above. This is to say not simply that diversity is the most prominent theme of the poster-work expressed through Inkworks, but that it is the very mainstream of the cosmos of activism represented here. In this representation, as the figures above show, the shop's production exaggerates and clarifies a central truth of progressive activism in our land and era. Its character is made more visible as contingent by comparison with the graphic work of the Old Left fifty years earlier, in which the even-more-dominant mainstream of image concerned the citizen as working man, the mass economic creature, rather than as an element of spectacular variety.

         No grace attended the eclipse of economic class consciousness, and those now young will find it temporary on this historical scale. Yet meanwhile, as deep truths and hopes have lain unattended or suppressed, others have been brought to light to have their partial day. We are still, after so long, so often absorbed in particular perspectives of diversity struggle, and in facing the difficulties of progress even within them, let alone between, that it is hard to step back and grasp how remarkable and significant this epoch in our land is, on a world-historical stage. This nation was founded as an agency not only of genocidal capitalism, but of a unique dream of freedom, of unity and justice in diversity. Drugged by this contradiction, the dream grew fitfully, woke again in my youth, moves awake in us still. By the early 1970s all its diverse voices had announced themselves, when this printshop formed to help serve their needs for text and image. Thirty-three years downstream, in a new millenium, around the planet the tides of ethnic and racial intolerance are rising for the third time in a century (they've hardly ebbed for queers.) Today our nation, Europe and Asia seethe with ethnic friction as globalization dissolves walls to force human capital to squirt chaotically under pressure.

         In this circumstance, Inkworks's cumulative portfolio of diversity is a precious testament to the embattled progress of a dream still young, and vital to the world. No single image here is magnificent or greatly memorable by itself. Though some fine work is included, the collection's virtue instead is to be ordinary, to record a representative slice of the working metabolism of this dream in community, over a generation.


         After ethnicity and feminism, labor activism is the most prominent focus of Inkworks's domestic production. This high ranking is peculiar. For, from the perspective of a poster renaissance that has flourished since 1965, Organized Labor has distinguished itself by being slow to grasp the potentials of this medium, and half-hearted, erratic, and inefficient in exploiting them. In fair degree, this sorry record reflects the general qualities of a labor movement that had grown moribund through prolonged repression and betrayal; and such bright spots of labor poster-making as have occurred have come generally from focal-points of new (rather than renewed) insurgency in organizing, particularly in service industries. Despite their contribution, during Inkworks's era organized labor has accounted for less than 3% of political poster production around domestic issues.

         Given this, to find fully 11% of Inkworks's domestic posters concerned with unions is noteworthy. Much of this concentration follows naturally from the tendency of organized labor to favor its own; for as only one-quarter of the printshops in this region are unionized, they might expect four times the general average of union work if unions were rigorous in this preference. That Inkworks'sproportion meets this mark may be due to the active pride its collective takes in operating as a union shop. Their commitment to poster-printing has helped promote use of this medium among local unions, contributing culturally to labor's revitalization.

         The proportion of union-related work among Inkworks' domestic posters has increased radically in recent years, from 5% before 1993 to nearly 20% since. This reflects a rising tide in labor organizing, particularly in service industries -- but also magnifies these developments. This exaggeration may well be no more than a statistical quirk of a small and biased sample. Yet as this paragon printshop's posters so testify to the centrality of diversity, and gave early warning of anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity activism, one must wonder also whether their recent exaggeration of union activism is a forecast of central developments.

Odds and ends

         What's prominent in Inkworks' poster production is easier to account than what's subdued or absent. During its first quarter-century, its proportion of domestic posters concerned with environmental and ecological issues was barely half the norm for our region (8% vs. 14%). Since 1999, this proportion has increased sharply to match the increased local norm of 18%. It's tempting to read the earlier deficiency not in terms of something peculiar about Inkworks, but as reflecting something about the eco-enviro movement that set it apart it from other political organizing -- and to read this recent sufficiency as reflecting changes in this movement, bringing it to sharper and more central political focus. This reading is supported by the increasing proportion of posters referring to environmental health concerns, within and beyond the workplace. Here again, this proportion is exaggerated in Inkworks's production, as a forecast of further developments.

        AIDS-related work has been virtually absent from Inkworks' portfolio despite its prominence in this region since the mid-1980s. Here too the deficit seems unlikely to be accidental; but I haven't a clue as to why or what it means.

         One other major feature of Inkworks' production invites notice. Its portfolio includes more than 36 posters advertising productions of the S.F. Mime Troupe, the region's (and nation's) pre-eminent political theater group; one good handful from KPFA, the pioneer community-supported radio station; and another from La Pena, mentioned above. Economically, this reflects the bare truth that prospering firms are good for repeat business. Yet in each case, Inkworks has been supporting and supported by a central and enduring institution of the local community's political culture; and so has taken its place in this web of relations as another such. That this status accrued soon after its founding is shown vividly here by the set of a dozen poster-calendars, from among the forty published monthly by the shop from 1976-79, announcing rosters of events of interest to the progressive community.

Appendix: The Inkworks calendars

         That the texts aren't legible in reproduction is a shame, since they richly portray political-community affairs during the late 1970's. Yet the background images are interesting in themselves, as a gallery of images that the printshop staff thought worthy of reproduction as thematic context for the ongoing schedule of a broad community's affairs. (See #s 17, 37-39, 71, 101-104 in the Inkworks Gallery ) In this sense, this modest body of work is nearly unique not only within Inkworks's production, but within the entire body of political poster-work in our region -- for the general, natural rule is that a poster's graphics are approved by partisans of a particular cause for service of that cause. Though of course Inkworks's staff were sympathetic to the background images they approved, and often individually active in the referenced causes, their approval by a collective body with no specific political affiliation was less-narrowly motivated, resulting in a comparatively "non-partisan" body of chosen images.

         Similarly "non-partisan," cumulative collections of images appear commonly in political periodicals, in forms ranging from marginal decorations to editorial cartoons. They appeared also in the graphic calendars of the Old Left, which formed a distinct medium of its discourse -- the most notable local example being perhaps the annual calendars published by the Graphics Arts Workshop in San Francisco in the 1950s, before its repression-driven de-politicization. In the modern poster movement, so far as I know, this progressive calendar tradition was revived first by "counter-cultural" activism in the late 1960s, and then in 1973-75 by the pioneer silk-screen workshops La Raza Graphics Collective and Kearny Street Workshop (Asian-American) in San Francisco. Yet  such agencies' selections of images were more narrowly partisan. Not until 1976-79 were comparatively "non-partisan" selections published as posters, in Inkworks' own calendars and soon after in the 1978 calendars of Gonna Rise Again Graphics, re-printed by Inkworks from silkscreen originals. This development was indifferently appreciated and short-lived; I know of no comparable bodies of poster-work since then.

         Such collections or sub-collections of images, meant generally to inspirit a general community rather than specifically commissioned or targeted, may be found also among the works of some individual poster artists and workshops -- among those included here, notably Malaquias Montoya and the S.F. Poster Brigade. Yet such bodies of work, in common with all five cited above, have a similar character in being the original work of the artists involved. In contrast, Inkworks's calendar-background images are derivative and anonymous, selectively recycling and reaffirming the poster imagery already abroad in the community.

         In this function, the printshop had a predecessor -- for a significant share of political poster discourse in the late 1960s occurred through the medium of graphic centerfolds in "underground" newspapers serving general communities. Such centerfolds drew as often from published posters as from original artistry, and so became a powerful agency for amplifying selected images in the community -- all the more as papers often re-published work from other cities or from syndicated distribution. Many of the most powerful and iconic poster images of that era were re-propagated in this fashion, though the cheap, thin newspaper and low-quality monochrome printing degraded their quality and impact considerably. Systematic survey of these centerfolds would expose not only a gallery of historically-significant images, but something about how the hegemony of imagery within the progressive community is maintained.

         Though many underground papers published well into Inkworks' era, the custom of poster centerfolds was generally abandoned by 1970. The front pages of some were still occasionally designed as posters, and a few may have reproduced already-published works. But in sum, their role in recyling poster images as posters was done by then. This recycling function was also served in the 1960s, in different fashion and degree, by certain commercial poster operations aimed at broad audience -- notably Marboro -- whose catalogues often included a few re-publications (frequently unauthorized) of popular political posters. Their role in this regard lasted scarcely longer than had the underground papers', fading by the early 1970s. So far as I know, no other agency took to recycling poster images as such until Inkworks's short-lived calendar series; and none did afterwards until the rise of Syracuse Workers Cultural Project and the Northland Poster Collective in the early 1980s -- i.e., of agencies able (as previous commercial publishers had not been) to sustain themselves in fair degree by marketing such recycling.


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