Masters of Disaster

Through skill, determination, and sometimes luck, screen printers have a knack for making the impossible possible.

Sometimes, all we can do is shake our heads, get back up, and keep moving forward. Life seems a bit like an out-of-control pitching machine: Even though we’ve dropped the bat, it keeps hurling strikes. Elsewhere in this issue, more learned people than myself are giving us a glimpse into the future to help you with your strategic plans, but here we’ll stick with daily chaos. A rip in the space-time continuum seems to run right through Shop Talk, and I’m guessing through all five loyal readers’ businesses as well.

As long as I’ve been in this game – as an employee, boss, and interested observer – it seems day-to-day activities and unplanned interruptions conspire with the universe to derail our plans. What I’ve noticed is the true believers amongst us – those five readers, and probably most others in this crazy specialty printing industry – somehow have developed a skill set that is equal parts blind faith, dumb luck, and a steely eyed resolve and aversion to panic that allows us to progress one day – or catastrophe – at a time. In a business that is an unrelenting wave of deadlines and dropped balls, we have evolved into masters of disaster. Things that would stop a normal person tend to deflect off screen printers.

Carlo Vivary, a designer and poster artist from Leipzig, Germany, decided to attend a poster exhibition in Mexico City in November. He purchased a ticket and gave himself a few days to travel and settle into the urban zoo that is Mexico City, a place originally built on islands in a lake by the Aztecs that now has a population larger than many countries. After arriving at the airport in Germany and presenting his passport, it was seized – it had been reported stolen, even though he had never lost it! 

The police said it was unfair, but rules were rules. Carlo rushed back home and the next day had secured a temporary passport, then found a second flight via Cancun that would get him to Mexico City in time. It required a five-hour train trip to another city in Germany, but he made the flight.  

After he arrived in Cancun, bored customs agents decided he should pay $250 in duty on the posters he brought for the show. This presented a big problem, as he had used all his cash for the new ticket, and whatever credit cards he carried wouldn’t work. However, the next fellow in line, a Canadian who had watched the showdown with the customs agents unfold, offered to pay the duties. Carlo made his connection to Mexico City with 20 minutes to spare.

The story just proves some simple truths: 

1. When plan A doesn’t work, go with plan B (or C – don’t give up!).

2. Sometimes, luck (or in this case, a Canadian) comes your way.

3. And just when you think nothing else could go wrong...

I met Carlo after all this went down, at the shop where I was working and getting ready for the Afiche Fetiche III print fair. Carlo had a last-minute two-color print for a band to finish before we loaded the trucks Friday night with all the supplies for the festival. We got the first color down, and were on schedule to visit Arena Mexico for the Friday night Lucha Libre spectacle. As we were setting up for the second color, we realized the film, and the stencil, were 3 centimeters smaller than the first color. I have never seen a sadder screen printer as Carlo tried to align the print. Disaster. Plus, it was after 6 p.m. and the film shop was closed. 

So were we defeated? Screen printers? Nah. One of the Mexican crew members said they knew another film place that could do it on Saturday; another said he could make a screen and bring it to the festival on the metro so we could print the last color on-site. Turns out the band didn’t play until Sunday. We got the film resized and the poster done, and it all worked out.

Last I heard, Carlo made it back to Germany. I returned to Canada, and the world continues to spin. Out of control or on some predetermined path? Who can say? 

I’m not advocating having no plans for future endeavors, or total anarchy. Structure and steady modification, much like the engine on my BMW motorcycle, leads to efficiency and incremental improvement. At home. At work. In society. In general. 

But there is nothing quite like the satisfaction a person feels when a disaster is averted by quick thinking, experience, or just dumb luck. 

For more of Andy MacDougall's insights, check out other Shop Talk columns. Read more from the December 2018/January 2019 issue

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