Old machines can learn new tricks: Artists find creative purpose for copiers

Old machines can learn new tricks: Artists find creative purpose for copiers

By Miranda Manier

Over the past decade, screen printing artists and zine makers have started using a nontraditional machine for their creations: the Risograph. 

Also known as RISO, it is regarded as an affordable alternative to a traditional photocopier. Unlike photocopiers, RISOs print one color at a time, which can create an imperfect and handmade quality that artists find attractive. 

On April 26, the Chicago Design Museum will partner with Hallagan Business Machines, a local RISO distributor, for a one-night-only pop-up gallery to showcase works by artists within this genre. 

“Typically, we’d been marketing [RISOs] to churches and schools,” said Sarah Lentz, marketing director at Hallagan. “In the past couple years, [though], artists have latched onto them as this eco-friendly alternative to screen printing. What people are doing with this machine is super cool, innovative and new.” 

According to Lentz, the pop-up will feature the work of students from the University of Texas, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and submissions from independent artists such as Clay Hickson, a freelance illustrator in Chicago who uses RISOs to print zines for his company Tan & Loose Press. 

“I love the quality of [RISO printing]. I went to school for printmaking, [but] after school, I didn’t have print facilities anymore,” Hickson said. “I started seeing people using RISO printers [and the prints that they were making] had a nice handmade-looking quality. There’s a lot of weird quirks about them, they’re pretty flawed from a printmaking perspective, but I like those flaws.” 

Some of the flaws, however, bother Hickson. For instance, the ink never seems to completely dry, meaning it might drag or create track marks when going through the printer while another color is added. 

Still, he appreciates the ephemeral look RISO-printed works have. He also appreciates that the materials are cheap, so artists can easily mass-produce products when on a budget.

Edward Witt, founder of Northside Comic Artists, an accountability group for Chicago comic artists, said he has seen RISOs used for everything from comic book covers to entire comics. The machine’s affordability and ease of use prompted Witt to host a workshop for members of Northside Comic Artists at the Chicago Resource Center, 858 N. Ashland Ave., April 14 to encourage the use of these printers to produce zines for the Chicago Zine Fest in May. 

The results of a RISO-printed work reminds Witt of screen printing, he said, because artists can play with the layering and opacity of colors and come up with creative solutions to the machine’s  various  restrictions. 

“There’s a handmade quality to them,” Witt added. “You can quickly produce a lot of copies, but they’re all going to be a little different. Even though you’re printing a lot of them, each individual copy that you give to somebody is going to be slightly different than what someone else got.” 

Lentz said she would like to see the pop-up promote understanding of how different artists use these printers.

“It’s pretty cool to see all these artists from all over the world [have] different interpretations of how to use this machine,” she says. “I hope people can see all the artistic potential of what [RISOs have] to offer.”