When asked, Mitch Putnam will give his title as ‘art director,’ but in the full scope of what he’s accomplished in the world of posters it might be best to refer to him as a patron of the arts.
Through his online store Posters & Toys he’s brought unique and inspired posters to the collecting masses, as one of the art directors at Mondo he’s played an integral part in the crafting of incredible pop culture posters by some of our greatest illustrators, and with his poster imprint Pwints, he’s raised the level of what family oriented art is. Now, with his venture The Vacvvm, Putnam has enlisted a wealth of talented illustrators under one banner to create boundless, and without limits.
The following interview was recorded and transcribed during the first weekend of SXSW 2015. Mondo hosted Jason Edmiston‘s solo show ‘Eyes Without a Face‘ which brought Mitch into Austin from his home in Sioux City, Iowa, so with both of us in town for the opening we arranged to meet up during the long stretch that was the following Saturday afternoon. Nothing formal, just a chat to discuss his many sites and businesses, and his seemingly neverending stream of ideas.
The following conversation took place Saturday March 14th 2015 in Austin at the start of SXSW.
ETDC: Are you helping anyone out at next weekend for Flatstock?
MP: Nah, I’m not helping anybody, just checking everything out.
Wish I was sticking around, but I’m flying home tomorrow. Bummed, I wanted to see a bunch of folks, like Landland for one.
Yeah, Dan and Jes are coming in. Jes is flying in, Dan’s driving.
How long have you known those guys, Dan and Jes?
Honestly, not terribly long. Three or four years?
Really? I had the idea you guys knew each other from school.
Haha, I don’t know anyone in this life from school.
No one knows what I do for a living.
That’s insane, but I know the feeling.
I figured that you and Dan and Jes knew each other from way back, and Aaron Horkey too.
No, but Jes went to Arts High in Minneapolis with Brandon (Holt), which is the same arts high school that Aaron went to a couple of years earlier.
You didn’t know them then?
No, I grew up in Iowa, they were all in Minnesota.
It was just a coincidence?
Yeah, I knew Aaron’s work when I was in high school, and we went to some of the same hip-hop shows back then, but I didn’t know him personally. This was like sophomore year of high school. Around 1998.
At that point you guys weren’t talking about anything specific? No posters?
No, no, not yet. In fact, I don’t think I even started talking to him until like 2005-ish and it took me awhile to figure out who he was. I didn’t know he was Abuse, which is what he was going by in the ’90s.
Is the first thing you did OMG Posters, in terms of that poster stuff?
No, PostersandToys.com was first. I started that in 2006, then started OMG Posters in 2007. At that point, there were no poster blogs. None. It seemed completely foreign at the time. That’s pretty early in the blog culture anyway.
This was also the beginning of posters selling out instantly, and I sort of did it just to keep people up on what was coming out at that time. I got lucky and attracted a lot of readers pretty fast. I looked up recently how many posts I’ve done on that site, and it’s an exhausting number. I do like 3 to 7 posts a day, so I think I’m at around 9,000 at this point.
It doesn’t seem like the format’s changed much since you started it.
No, I keep it super simple. In fact, last year Kevin (Tong) was picking apart my writing style, and ever since then I’ve condensed it down to just the facts. I don’t even really comment on stuff.
What happens is when you’re writing about the same thing in a short format, there aren’t 9,000 different words, so you end up saying the same thing over and over again. I eventually just decided to just boil it down. I should probably just put up a picture up with title, artist, edition and price. Bullet point it.
You could probably create a form where you upload a jpeg and fill in title, date, and link. Save yourself the work and keep it clean.
Maybe I’ll do that, but I don’t know. I can’t decide if I think people read the paragraphs or not. I don’t think most do. I think they scroll through the pretty pictures and click.
I used to try to do a lot of interviews, etc, but at some point I changed what I thought the site should be. I’ve decided the site should just be a curated list of prints that are out (or coming out) and not be a destination where you spend a bunch of time. I don’t need that from it, readers don’t need that either.
It’s like the first site that you check at work and then move on.
Yeah, that’s kind of what I want it to be.
Instead of having various sites, why not you keep it all under one banner? With OMG Posters, OMG Vinyl, and Pwints, couldn’t everything be under the Posters and Toys banner?
I don’t know, I have that itch to start new websites often. I know what you mean, because it’s a hard decision every time. I guess it’s because I believe in directly branding something as well as you can instead of selling something under an umbrella. The Pwints thing was originally made to be marketed outside of the typical poster scene, and so rather than trying to get parents to come to my poster website and dig through everything to find what they wanted, the idea was to have the family-friendly prints in one place.
Most artists that you or I know have a few prints that are made for families and for kids’ rooms. The idea was to bottle that into one place. It’s also much easier to approach potential partners when your site is specifically targeted rather than, ‘Hey, these are buried somewhere in a concert poster website.’
Then your cassette label, Sweat Lodge Guru, is that still going? I think I looked at it and it hadn’t been updated in a while.
That’s pretty dead. We quit that a while ago because neither of us had any time.
Who was that?
I did that with Spencer, my friend that runs OMG Vinyl now. Cassettes kinda blew up. When we started, it took about two weeks to get a batch of tapes made.
When we quit, it probably took over three months. There’s this factory in Missouri that makes all of them and does all the dubbing and their business has grown exponentially. They’ve had to double and triple their equipment.
When you first wake up and start your day, what do you do? What’s your main focus in terms of work? Does it change day-to-day?
Kind of. Usually the main focus on a day-to-day is Mondo. That involves a lot of collaboration, so a lot of my day is spent emailing, chatting, or taking phone calls about Mondo, and then I sort of use off-hours to pursue my sites as best I can. I mostly handle shipping late at night.
Where’s that stuff, is it in your house somewhere?
It is in my house right now. I’ve had a separate space before, but once I had kids I just didn’t get down there much. My setup right now isn’t ideal though, it’s pretty crowded down there.
How far in advance are you guys working on stuff at the gallery at Mondo?
We usually try to do it a year at a time.
A year at a time? Right now it’s March, so you’re planning 2016?
As of this minute right, we are just starting on 2016.
But 2015 is pretty much planned out?
Yeah, pretty much.
Do you plan the single poster drops that far out too?
We do it both ways. Some are planned out really far in advance, some just happen when artists get time slots open. We used to do very little explicit planning, but now we’re already talking about SDCC and MondoCon and figuring out releases for that.
No matter how much planning you do, you end up with a week where something fell through or something works better, so things get shuffled a lot. You can only plan so much in this business and things get changed often.
Are you guys paying much attention to the other people putting posters out?
I do pay attention, yeah. I’m not above finding out about an artist via another company doing a poster It’s also interesting to see others going through things that we went through early and figuring everything out, because everyone sort of comes in guns blazing and thinks they’re going to change the game and invent new rules. They learn pretty quickly, ‘Oh yeah, this is why things are done this way.’
But I do try keep up on all of it pretty well, and you’ll notice on OMG if it’s a legit poster and it’s good, I’ll cover it. I have no issue with that. What I try to promote through coverage is doing things right way. If people are going out and getting licenses, or at least doing things as officially as they can, and if they’re providing effective art direction, I’m more than happy to recommend them. I think the more great companies there are doing this, the healthier the scene is. If it’s just us and ten places that are really shitty at it, it makes the whole scene look bad.
So the idea is that if they’re shitty at it, people will just not buy their posters and they’ll go away?
Sort of, but it also has the potential to give the scene a bad name. I always relate it back to vinyl toys where no matter how great the products that KidRobot put out were, you had to look at the 20 other companies putting out really bad vinyl toys. At that point, the average person then just thinks vinyl toys are all getting pretty shitty. They don’t understand that the really good ones come from one company, they just think, ‘I’m tired of these, every one I see is bad’ and they get over it. They move on.
That’s why I actually like to promote companies that are doing posters well. If releases are well thought out and if the art is good, people respect the scene as a whole and keep being interested in it versus thinking ‘Ugh, there’s so much shit, I’m burned out.’
For OMG, how many emails are you getting a day for people trying to get you to promote their stuff?
I would say I cover 25% to 50% of what I’m contacted about. Typically if an artist emails once or twice and if it doesn’t show up on the site, they move on.
Are you letting them know if you’ll post it or not?
I provide almost zero feedback.
Even if I’m covering something, I don’t say anything. If it’s OMG-related, you send it to me as a one-way email. For one thing, I don’t like hurting feelings, so I don’t want to be like, ‘I can’t cover this’. That said, if an artist sends me a press release and it doesn’t show up on the site, they should continue trying.
I run into situations all the time where an artist will email me for six months and they’re not quite there yet, but eventually their work gets better and they start getting covered.
Even just that alone is a conversation. Your non-response and then action.
Right. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they shouldn’t email me. I have people that are just starting out, just doing their first or second poster ever, emailing me. It’s still interesting to look at.
Not everything can make it on the page, and OMG has never been that type of blog. There are poster blogs that cover almost everything they’re emailed about. Part of the pride I take is in trying to curate it down. To have it be like, ‘Hey, with all these releases it can get kind of noisy in the poster scene, here are the five a day that I think are important for you to look at.’
Still, that’s only a minute of your work day.
Yeah, exactly. That’s why I started it originally. Back when I first got into posters, if you wanted to find out what was coming out, or was new and for sale, you had to troll through GigPosters.com, Expressobeans, etc., and there was really no source of release news. I realized it was a full time hobby just keeping track of new posters.
Totally, it’s so weird. It’s still not that big, because I think about when I get home from this trip, no one’s going to know what I was doing here.
Yeah, it’s not big. Of active people that know about this stuff and that buy posters regularly (outside of casual Mondo buyers, because there are a lot of those), you’re probably talking about a couple thousand people.
It’s been really interesting to watch the spread of Mondo though. More and more often, I see Mondo posters hanging in non-collector’s spaces. That didn’t used to happen very often pre-Mondo. It was pretty rare to see somebody that didn’t know anything about this scene with a poster hanging on their wall that was screenprinted, and that you recognized. I think the Mondo reach has helped spread the idea of what a screenprinted poster is, which is good for everyone.
For sure. Before that you were getting gig posters, which is a totally different world too.
Sure. I don’t even know if most people that were buying screenprinted gig posters knew knew what they were getting.
They just liked the band or that was it or they were at the event.
I know when I was in high school I bought some screenprinted posters and tacked them to the wall. It was just a poster. I wasn’t around the Kozik and Jermaine days, but even back when I was doing it, it was fairly uncommon to see posters at shows, so it’s just so weird how prevalent the whole culture has become.
You added THE VACVVM to your list of things to do…
Yes, that all came about because Aaron needed a new online store. We wanted to break him off of PostersandToys, and we were like, ‘Hey, Brandon doesn’t have a store, either.’ ‘Hey, maybe Vania (Zouravliov) would be good to ask, he doesn’t really have anyone publishing his stuff.’ And we sort of thought about these artists that don’t have dedicated online stores.
(Mike) Sutfin does have an online store, but I’ve always felt like Mike’s stuff should be seen by more people. In Jes’ case, she has a great setup at Landland, but not many people know her for her personal work, so I thought we had something to offer her as well. When we were putting it together, each artist just kind of made sense in their own way.
And Aaron didn’t have a website, right?
Nope. He’s had almost no online presence for his entire career.
What would you call yourself in terms of career wise?
That’s a really hard question. I was just on a podcast recently and said the reason I’ve never had a business card is that I don’t know what to put on it. I don’t know.
Doesn’t Mondo give you a title?
Yeah, I’m an Art Director at Mondo.
Apart from your work with Mondo, from an outsider perspective, what you do is more like an agent or an art broker…
I do something between art direction, curating and just being an art dealer, you’re right. I do most of my ‘agent’ or ‘manager’ things on the side for friends. I have a number of artists that I advise and help with negotiating deals and scheduling, but it’s mostly just because I see easy ways they could simplify and improve their businesses.
I also just enjoy helping artists with their email and seeing what comes in, sort of keeping track of how healthy the market is for freelance illustration.
Are you planning on having THE VACVVM take a bigger role in your time?
Mondo is always the priority. The thing with THE VACVVM is that it’s completely dictated by the artists.
There’s no pressure whatsoever for them to have any kind of output frequency, so if one of the artists wants to only do two prints a year, I’m here to help them. If one of them wants to do ten prints a year, I’m more than happy about that, too.
I’m just trying to help those guys produce whatever they want to get out. I don’t know, it’s so hard to know with those guys. Some of them are inevitably going to spend a year working on a show. Another artist may be completely open that year.
That’s the other thing about what I do is I can’t possibly tell you what part of my job will be popular in 2 years.
Is that why you have so many different jobs?
No, I think I just always want to keep trying things.
Are you going to be doing other stuff through Posters and Toys? Like art prints that you’ve art directed and saw through the concept phase?
Yeah, I want to do more and more publishing for PostersandToys. It used to operate completely as a website in which I bought posters wholesale from artists and sold them at retail or whatever, and I don’t really do that anymore. I’ve made one wholesale purchase in the past year.
The site exists now for me to handle fulfillment for artists on their sales, or for me to offer exclusive products.
How many of those have there been?
In history? I don’t know. I think I published my first art print for PostersandToys in 2007, so there’s been a decent amount. I had also done a couple of exclusive colorways of Aaron’s posters back in the day. It is something I want to get more into when it makes sense.
It’s hard these days to go to an artist with a cold call saying, ‘Do you want to do an art print?’ because most of the artists that I would be interested in working with have a pretty full slate of work. You have to be more creative with your projects to work around artist schedules and commitments, plus most are already set up themselves. It wasn’t always that way.
That’s why THE VACVVM is such a good idea. It’s so obvious now, of course, these people don’t have an outlet for this type of work, so let’s do it. How long have you been with Mondo?
‘09. I came in when Tim Doyle left the company. At that point it was just Rob (Jones, fellow Mondo Art Director) doing posters and he had no idea who to bring in when Tim left. Justin (Ishmael, Fellow Mondo Director) was there, but he was working there in a different capacity. He wasn’t a part of the posters at that point.
Rob asked a couple of artists, I think Todd Slater and Tyler Stout, and they both recommended me. I was really scared. When I started it was just us two curating and getting the posters made. Pretty early that year, or within that year, Justin started working with us more and more. He locked down the Star Wars license and that’s sort of when the three of us became the creative team behind Mondo.
At that point, how did you know Tyler Stout and Todd Slater?
From doing OMG and PostersandToys. I had already been selling both of their posters for quite awhile, I think. Rob was like, ‘I need somebody who will know which artists to hire’, and because I was doing the blog at that point, they recommended me.
Before that, what was your day job?
PostersandToys and OMG.
Oh really? That was paying your bills?
Yeah, but back then it wasn’t much. But I probably went full time a year before I graduated college.
You went straight from being in college to being an entrepreneur, working for yourself?
For my whole last year of college, I was doing almost the exact same thing I’m doing now. It was actually really hard to finish because I was already doing what I wanted to do, but I sort of just kept pushing through as a Plan B and got it done.
You never had a boring office job or anything like that?
Oh, I had plenty of jobs, believe me, but all pre-college. I had a lot of jobs. I think I probably had over ten jobs in high school alone. I hated all jobs until this one though. I really did.
The one you made for yourself.
I guess I had a few jobs where I lasted a little while, but my average length of job was 3 months before. Since then, I’ve never been bummed out about what I do once. I’m very lucky in that way.
How can it be bad? You’re looking at posters all day.
Everything has its bad parts, but even if I weren’t a part of the art scene professionally, I would still be completely immersed in it personally. I’d still be reading comics all the time; I’d still be collecting art, etc., so to be able to do this as a job is really great.
Are you also involved in finding people? In terms of finding new talent?
Yeah, I would say one of my biggest jobs at Mondo is searching for and bringing in new talent. Having OMG really helps with that, as I’m often a pretty early set of eyes on a new artist’s work.