Sometimes the ending of one thing becomes the beginning of another. Nestled away in a ruin of an old grain silo on the University of Minnesota campus at the end of the ’90s, a group of zany characters all loosely connected through graffiti and art were in that sort of transition. Soon the ashes of one of the weirdest magazines ever to be produced was going to become the fertile ingredients and opportunity for the creation of Burlesque Of North America, a design and print shop.
I spent the day with Mike Davis, one of the partners of BRLSQ and with Ben LaFond, one of the talented screen printers behind many of their prints. The experience that these two and the rest of the squad have is remarkable and is almost impossible to showcase here. But some funny facts were shared and tales told.
Mike Davis, partner and dog whisperer.
Hey Mike [Davis]. What the hell is Burlesque anyways?
Burlesque of North America is a creative studio based in Minneapolis, MN, specializing in graphic arts and screen printing. I think we started in the early 2000s as a side project for the crew that was working on Life Sucks Die magazine at the time. Which was a graffiti magazine that sorta pushed the envelope for what a graffiti magazine could be, as far as incorporating weird other crap. It wasn’t hip-hop based, it talked about some hip-hop, but punk rock, metal, the weirdo art side, pictures of roadkill, porn... weird.
Copies from some of the issues of Life Sucks Die, a hyper-weird graffiti magazine from the late ’90s, early ’00s
Was that the same squad that became Burlesque?
Yeah. Sorta. The main people that were involved in LSD that would go on to be part of Burlesque starting were Wes Winship, who’s still working today. We’re partners. Todd Bratrud and George Thompson, who pretty well-established fine artist and graffiti dude. Paints with The Seventh Letter guys.
He’s AWR/MSK/HM right?
Yeah. And Skye [Rossi] was helping a little bit with the magazine and the starting of Burlesque. I don’t know too much about his involvement with the magazine though. But, the basic idea was that they were working on the graffiti magazine, teaching themselves how to use Photoshop, page layout, graphic arts. Wes was getting into screen printing. He had built his own print studio in his basement with his dad and this was back when people would see the magazine, and people were like, “Wow, I love what you guys are doing with the magazine, would you design my album cover? Would you layout this poster for this Rhymesayers show that’s about to happen?” There was a lot of local support for the magazine and that grew into these local design clients for the early design work. Then I’d say around 2001-2002, the magazine died down. Everyone moved on to do other things in their life.
Bills to pay kinda thing?
Well, whether it was focusing on their music careers, or they’re having kids, you know, it’s a full time job. I mean, doing a magazine is a full time job. And no one working on it had that full time to dedicate to it that it really needed. The nice thing about that though is it focused more on doing this whole design-for-hire thing. At that point I was living in St. Louis and I met the guys from the magazine through graffiti in St. Louis at a festival called Paint Louis. We became friends, I’d help them with the magazine, and then in 2003 I moved up here to start working with them.
Back then you guys were in the building at the U of M campus right where they did porn?
No… I mean, there was an escort service though. I wouldn’t put it past that building to have been, ugh, I hope for any actors’ sake that there wasn’t porn filmed there. It was a disgusting building.
Files upon files for all the Dre Day celebrations that Burlesque has put together.
Is there anyone else that’s involved now with Burlesque?
So, in 2003, it was me, Wes, George, and Skye. And then George moved to California about a year later. And Skye went to go full time with Rhymesayers. And todd was in California already helping long distance. We were just starting to p out what we wanted to do. Focusing on the screen printing of concert posters, doing a lot of stuff with Aaron Horkey.
You were already printing at that time?
Right. When I came in, Wes had already started doing some screen printing of concert posters. We just started to do mail order through the life sucks die site, transferred that over to Burlesque and killed the life sucks die site. So then, in 2005 things had built up and we brought Ben LaFond on. He hit us up out of the blue, “I’d love to help you guys out. I love posters. I want to learn about printing. I love what you guys do.” And we were like “yeah, we need some help”. That’s when we were starting to do design and print work for Arcade Fire. Which required us to print more stuff and more frequently. So we were happy this guy wanted to help out and learn. And then in 2006 we moved to this building. Just in the basement, different space then now. We didn’t have this gallery space then. And in 2008 Jodi Milbert began working with us to do mail-order, office management stuff.
“Fuck you, pay me” box cutter by BRLSQ. Jodi Milbert, General Manager.
Uhhhhh, yeahhhhhh. Which we needed severely. And we’ve had a few people come and join us since. We’ve got Sarah Schatz who’s working with us now. She’s doing printing. She’s been with us for 3 years or so.
So printing business is such that you need 2 full time printers all the time?
Yeah, we’ve got 2 presses that are sometimes running on the same day. It’s pretty much Ben’s press on one side, sarah’s on the other.
Your business is pretty much split 2 ways?
I’d say there’s 3. Three main things we do. Design, there’s design and print and there’s just print. After that we do have the gallery. Which, we moved into this space up here in 2010. and this is CO Exhibitions.
Is that because it was originally with another group?
It was a cooperative, collaborative spot. And that group has since moved on to do their own gallery. Now we’re running this spot as our own. It’s been a great place to show our work and other work from people locally and nationally.
Wes Winship, co-founder and partner in the kitchen.
What sorts of design work do you usually find yourselves doing? I know the posters are a big part of it.
It’s usually music-based stuff. We like to do things that we can screen print: Music posters, concert posters or art prints. We’ve done a lot of stuff with Arcade Fire. We like to do fine art prints also, work with artists that we really look up to. We work with John Baizley a lot, he’s the lead singer and guitarist for the band Baroness. And he also does all their visual artwork plus artwork for other metal bands like Black Tusk, Skelton Witch, Kvelertak. And we’ll work with him to take that art and turn it into fine art prints. Like 15-20 color screen prints. It gets pretty wild. And those start as flattened water color paintings. Wes will break them up in Photoshop and p up how to build them back up again color by color.
Is that the bulk of your print work?
No. The bulk of it is the print-for-hire stuff. Designers will come to us and need a movie poster printed. And movie posters are huge right now, it was concert posters 5-10 years ago now it’s movies. All the rage. It goes in cycles. Just a lot of artists are like “hey, I’m a painter and wanna try to do some prints to have something smaller. Inexpensive to sell. Here’s the art” We print it and send it off, never see it again.
Is there an ideal situation or clientele?
I mean, every time it’s different. Every artist has their own style. And we’ve got to work with a lot of artists that we like. We see a lot art that’s not our favorite, but it’s interesting work.
The check clears?
Yeah. We’re happy to take on the print work and do it. All of it.
Sarah Schatz, one of Burlesque’s full time printers.
So when you guys find yourselves when there’s free time or print space, is there someone here that’s in the mix that’s calling people up saying, “We’ve got some time this month.” Or are they coming to you?
It’s people hitting us up for the most part. Probably 90% right now. Saying, we’ve got this project. Other than that there’s occasionally we hit up a band; I can’t say who it is cause it might not work out. (shows me photo of some work that is top secret on his phone) We know a guy that works with the guy...how do we make something happen for you? That sorta thing. And the manager puts us in touch with the band, then one of the guys in the band has seen our stuff...it works out sometimes. We’re really fortunate where we’re in a spot where bands and people we look up to are hitting us up. We got hit up by Chromeo late last year and got to do a poster with them. That was awesome.
You guys did the Sylvan Esso the other night here at First Ave right?
Yeah. They hit us up. We did that tour poster. We have got to work with tUnE yArDs and a lot of that is people kinda hitting us up. We like to think that every poster we get out into the world is like handing out a business card. Eventually someone is going to see it that is allowed to make a decision for a band, or label or event we really like.
I know you mentioned that it was a co-op space before. What sort of purpose or direction are you taking it now?
Basically we have this 2,000 sq. ft. space that we just really wanna see cool shit happen in. Whether that’s an art show where we’re highlighting the work of one artist or if that’s a group show featuring a few local artists that do different things under a theme. Or a craft fair. Or get a bunch of record dealers in here or do a movie night. We have been renting the space out for weddings. We’ve done 5 here, mine was the guinnea pig! We just want to see cool stuff happen in here to make it worth having. So far we’ve done a lot of super fun events that let us be creative and showcase other’s creativity. The community has responded really well.
In-between shows at Co Exhibitions, the gallery space that Burlesque occupies.
Do you guys have any plans to do anything besides what’s currently being done?
We’re always trying to do big things we haven’t done yet. Wes and I are trying to do more fine art stuff. To being able to showcase more of our own work in here. Always hoping to ramp up what we do and launch bigger and better projects. Keep working with people we love and get our work out in front as many people as we can, take on the projects that are going to allow us to be creative.
That have a personal merit? You gotta be able to connect with the projects right?
There’s nothing worse than getting excited about a project and it turns into just grinding gears. When you’re not even enjoying it anymore. Just having bad client relations. We can tell right off the bat usually now, if this is gonna be a good one or nah, red flag. The client will ask for something dumb and there’s more on the way. I’m getting quicker to turn down jobs if I think it’s gonna be bad; if it seems like it’s going to be 10 rounds of revisions, if there’s red flags. If someone hits us up you’d think they’d want us to do creative work based on the creative work we’ve already done? But if the client wants to get their hands in it too much, I mean, they have to have it look like their vision. But, you hire us because you want us to do our best work. And you let us do our best work when you tell us what you want, step back and just let us be creative. When you start saying, “Move that thing over to the right, make it bigger, add a picture of a chicken, turn the chicken upside down, make it blue, make the logo bigger,” you don’t need us. Hire an intern!
Tiff Wolff, who just re-joined the squad and is helping with the gallery.
Downstairs in the printshop with Ben LaFond: How did you p out how to mix all this shit? You didn’t screen print before you were here did you? This is a bonkers set up here, kinda overwhelming to walk into I imagine?
No, I didn’t print at all before. I was in school for graphic design. And I knew about these guys (Burlesque) and caught wind they were doing screen printing. A dude I went to high school with, Aaron Horkey, was a mutual friend of ours. I bought some stuff from them and soon after I got the first email newsletter ever and I was sitting on the front porch and thought “I wonder if they want some help?”. I was bored doing the graphic design thing and sitting in front of the computer, I wanted to be more hands on. I got a response right away.
Like, “Sure we’ll have you work for free!”
Well, I worked for free for a little over a year maybe. I was still in school. All my free time was spent racking and reclaiming screens. Wes and I definitely pulled some crazy hours back then.
He kind of mentored you almost?
Definitely. I was taking a couple color theory classes too, that helped a little.
You worked under him for a year or so and then he cut you loose? Was he still printing?
When I started he was printing by hand still. After 9 months or so for me here we got our first semi-automatic press. I started learning that with him. Then we moved into this space, he printed a little bit and Wes got super busy doing Arcade Fire design stuff...started having issues with Carpal Tunnel too from all hand printing. He became so busy I just took over.
Otherwise there hasn’t been a lot of employee turnover really at all, right?
No, not really. We’ve had maybe a couple people help out when Letta left. But, not really. Jodi came in and helped organize us all. I think I was the first person from the outside to come in really. It was kinda intimidating. With that Life Sucks Die snark ya know, walking into this.
I could see that for sure. Especially with these dudes as notorious as they are. There’s an opportunity to go cool guy with it for sure. [pause] Oh man, all these smells! I’m sure you’re pretty immune to it?
[no answer, possibly fume related non-response]
Ben LaFond, Burlesque’s first full time hire and print dude magician.
What do you think was the most ambitious print you’ve done here? I know you guys do some crazy fine art prints.
Aaron Horkey’s Whale Bone Grove print. Right when I started. There’s 3 different color versions. And they’re 16,17 colors each. In 2008 we did a 18 color screen print for David Choe. When we were doing all those Obama posters for Upper Playground we got to do one for David. [Showing the archives] Let’s see here, here’s all the Obama ones. Ron English, Cody Hudson, Wes did one, here’s the Choe one (below). And the original painting of it was hung up in the White House for a while. Then, apparently he sent one of his friends to pick it up till Obama started doing a better job.
So I was super geeked on doing that one. Sam Flores, Date Farmers, all kinds of shit. Obviously love Choe’s stuff. When I finished printing it, I sent an email to his website general email, “Hey dave, just finished these, hope you like em’,” I got an auto -eply saying like, “Sorry there’s no more email, check the blog,” or whatever. A few hours later I get an email “Dude, give me your number, I want to call you.”
Oh shit. From him?
Yeah, we ended up talking for like an hour on the phone. He was blown away that we screen printed one of his paintings.
David Choe did a portrait of Ben when he came through town last right in the print shop.
Wait, did he not know?
No. He didn’t believe Upper Playground that this shit could be screen printed. He got pretty geeked out by it. In that conversation, he was telling me he was about to finish this painting and he wanted to have us print and publish it. I’ll fly out and hand embellish them all. Split the $$$.
So this is 18 colors?
Then he went in and all of them have paint and shit drawn in and so forth.
How do you guys split [the colors] up?
Magic. Wes is definitely a beast at that shit. Rebuilding it.
Do you guys do proper documentation for your achive too?
We probably should. Or will. We have a lot of stuff to catch up on. We’ve been really busy.
Chances are some of your favorite tour posters of the past 10 years have come from Burlesque. Check out all their printed goods and sign up for their weekly update emails here.