AT A NEW YORK STORAGE space some time in 2010, printmaker Pan Terzis was left alone with a friend’s Risograph machine. The friend “told me he got this machine that was like a screen printing machine, but automated,” Terzis says. “I see this weird old copy machine and was like: ‘Where’s the Riso?’ And he said, ‘This is the Riso!’”
Within 24 hours, Terzis had used the machine to print a 50-page book, joining the ranks of 21st-century artists and publishers who are using old technology to make new creations.
The Risograph, a machine that duplicates like a mimeograph but dispels ink like a screen printer, has come a long way from its humble 1958 beginnings in a small home in Tokyo. Originally intended as more of a courtesy to Japanese businesses than a printmaking phenomenon, this ordinary, grey machine’s bulky exterior belies the innovation within. Around the world, the Risograph is now used by independent artists and publishers to create unique, high-quality zines and art prints. Aside from the vibrant ink it uses and the relatively low overhead costs it demands, it insists on the use of both digital and analog printing methods (it prints computer-generated designs but the ink drums must be handled manually), which makes for an equally modern and nostalgic experience.
On the School of Visual Art’s campus in New York City, there’s a printing lab dedicated exclusively to the Risograph; an interdisciplinary space for printing, publishing and the production of Risograph-based printed works. The walls are lined with posters, whose faded ink could be mischaracterized as “vintage” if not for the mechanical murmur of the two machines shooting them out in real time. Some of the students are designing their prints on surprisingly smudge-free computer screens, while their counterparts wield industrial-size staplers around the room, waiting for their zines to dry before binding. In a smaller room that sits just off the larger one, the oldest (yet fully functional) Risograph is occupied by a student soaking up her last minutes of scheduled time with it, watching patiently as the “warm red” ink drum presses her design into life.
Matt Davis, the owner and operator of Chicago’s Perfectly Acceptable publishing house, thinks the relatively short lifespan of Risographs is what allowed them to move from utilitarian quasi-photocopier to a tool for artists. “As far as photocopying technology, [Risographs] don’t age very well,” he says. “So they ended up on the aftermarket for very cheap, which was great for artists who snapped them all up.”
Davis, who got his first Riso for free from a post office in Ohio, says the underground Riso world felt like “the Wild West” when he started his print studio in 2013. As Nichole Shinn, one-fourth of Brooklyn-based publishing collective TXTbooks, notes, the Risograph “was never intended to function as an artistic exploration, but that’s what makes it so interesting to a lot of people … trying to navigate different ways the printer can be used creatively.”
Independent publishing houses like Perfectly Acceptable and TXTbooks are helping turn the grainy likability of Risograph printing into a global aesthetic. The myriad color combinations that are possible (Davis’ favorite being “mint and sunflower, 100 percent,” and Terzis celebrating the mix of “any of the complementary colors, because when you put them together they really vibrate”) makes it seem like the Risograph was destined for artistic flourish all along. But Issue Press founder George Wietor challenges the idea of the Riso’s “look” overshadowing its intended purpose: “The simplicity of the Riso brings a specific kind of arts publishing within reach and allows me to work with ink and paper in a way that I would otherwise have difficulty achieving,” he says, “but I am (only very mildly) concerned about elevating the Riso to something more than it is or, I believe, should be—which is a means of production rather than a specific style.”