LIMITED PAPER #5: Interview with John Davis of Poster Mountain, the Poster Community’s Miracle Workers

     June 20, 2012

For this week’s Limited Paper, we’ve got something really cool for you guys.  In fact, we have information that might be flat-out priceless to you one day (especially if you’re new to the poster-collecting world and have never heard of John Davis, Poster Mountain, or what those guys are capable of).  Meet me after the jump to find out how Poster Mountain could save your favorite screenprint from total destruction one day…

If you’re new to the poster/screenprint-collecting game, you may or may not know of a place called Poster Mountain.   I’d been collecting prints for many, many months before I heard the name for the first time, and I recall being very skeptical of the things I heard during that conversation:  I was told that “Poster Mountain can perform miracles”, which—let’s face it—sounds a little hyperbolic.  One guy told me, “I heard they can repair rips…big ones”, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a couple of guys in a big-ass garage might perform that particular magic trick:  how would somebody un-rip paper?  And why did so many people tell me that Poster Mountain “soaks the prints in chemicals” in order to fix them?

At the time, I was convinced that the information I’d been given was either A) too good to be true, or B) the ravings of a coked-up, poster-obsessed lunatic.  Months passed before I finally had a reason to contact Poster Mountain, but—on that occasion—the poster I wanted to send them for fixing wasn’t utterly trashed:  the piece had a few dings and bends along the edges (clearly it’d been tossed from one coffee and dining-room table to another over the years), but it wasn’t going to be the kind of project that Poster Mountain might use their blog to (rightfully) brag about.  No, that poster would come along even later, and the work Poster Mountain did on that piece convinced me beyond any doubt that all those seemingly hyperbolic things I’d heard so many months before…weren’t all that hyperbolic, after all.  See this?

That looks like a pretty hopeless situation.   Or is it?!

Wow.  Guess the Poster Mountain guys really can work miracles.

But how does this work?  Pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to.  Let’s say you have a screenprint.  Let’s say it’s got some value to it—we’ll call it $500, just to have a nice, round number —and let’s also say that you come home one day and find a stranger banging on that poster with a hammer (happens all the time) .  Now your favorite, $500 print is dented all to hell, and after a good long cry you decide there’s not much that can be done:  poster’s gotta be chalked up as a complete loss, right?

Well, not exactly.  A poster that’s been beaten into a non-frameable coma by the average hammer-wielding psycho is precisely the sort of poster that Poster Mountain and its employees love to come across:  it’s gonna be a challenge, but they are confident they can restore that print to its former glory.  So, you mail your print to what is currently Poster Mountain’s only location—in California—and you wait.  John Davis and the rest of the Poster Mountain crew, meanwhile, break out their magic wands and get to work…

Depending on how damaged your print is (and how many other critically-injured posters are already getting rehabilitated when yours arrives), the whole process could take anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks, but once it’s completed you’ll get an email telling you that the patient survived the procedure:  you’re going to be able to get that super-expensive, glow-in- the-dark Curly Sue poster framed, after all.  You get online, pay Poster Mountain an extremely reasonable amount of money, and a few days after that, your print shows up on your porch.

And when you open it up…holy crap, it’s entirely restored, not a scratch on it.

It really is just that easy, and is—more or less—the experience I had with Poster Mountain when I send them a print for the first time earlier this year.  If you’re anything like me, the first thing you’re going to think upon seeing that newly-undamaged print is, “So, did Poster Mountain’s owner only sell his soul to the Devil, or did everyone on the staff agree to fight on the side of Darkness in exchange for these glorious powers?”

I sat down with Poster Mountain’s John Davis to get to the bottom of all this:  I wanted to know what the average “refurbishing” process actually involved, if the company plans on opening any other branches, and if there has ever been a job deemed to be “too much for Poster Mountain to handle”?  (Oh, and speaking of “too  much to handle”,  I learned that a friend of mine had recently sent his most enormously damaged print to the Poster Mountain guys for fixing:  would that be the one that stumped the Poster Mountain team)?  Click on to page 2 for the answers.

Page 2

First, here’s some highlights from me and John’s interview:

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  • Poster Mountain’s remained the leading  poster-fixing company in the country for a long, long time:  After learning the ropes at a similar joint back in the early 90’s, Davis eventually struck out on his own, and founded Poster Mountain in 1994.  How’d he manage that?  Says Davis:  “I worked really hard and learned all aspects of the trade while I was there…I was ambitious, and thanks to some luck, I was able to start my own business (Poster Mountain, obv) in 1994.”
  • Think you know everything about Poster Mountain?  Well, how ‘bout the name:  whatta ya know about that, smartass?  Betcha didn’t know this bit of trivia: “…The name Poster Mountain was a play on words derived from the fact that I was ‘mounting’ posters.”
  • Granted powers by forces beyond our understanding?  Miracle workers?  Flat-out geniuses?  Nope, turns out it’s just some brilliant process involving lots of stuff you and I will never understand that John tells us is called “the Isinglass resizing process”, and it turns out that it’s not all technical work:  if, for instance, the poster’s been ripped, the paper itself has to be painstakingly put back together, and then: “…once the larger areas of damage have been dealt with, we do detail work with watercolor paint and pencils. I employ a highly trained staff of artisans and in many cases they are able to cover the damage so well that you would never know it was there.”  So, John, what you’re saying is…your team can do a passable Martin Ansin?  You guys taking commission work right now?
  • Lately there’s been talk of Poster Mountain “stamping” the prints that have been sent to them for repair with a little logo on the poster’s backside.  The issue’s been divisive amongst collectors, but Davis clarifies which prints can expect to leave with a stamp…and which will remain unmarked:  “For silkscreen posters, we have only put a stamp on the back of posters that have had any kind of restorative work, not the ones that have just had dents and creases.”
  • And finally, John tells Austin when the city can expect to get its very own Poster Mountain.  Bad news is, it might be a minute (“3-5 years”);  good news is, John says the location will be “specifically dedicated to working on contemporary screenprints and silkscreens.”

So, you can buy your print at the Mondo Gallery, get a big ding in it while putting it in your car, and swing by Poster Mountain: Austin to drop it off before you go home.  Sounds worth a 3-5 year wait to me:  shipping back and forth to Los Angeles is going to start adding up if this hobby persists.  Anyway, let’s do this.  Read on for me and John’s chat, presented specifically for your infotainment:

Collider.com:  Tell me a little bit about how Poster Mountain came about, your role in the company, etc.

Poster-Mountain-John-Davis-Working-3John Davis, Poster Mountain:  I started at the bottom in the early 90’s, working in the premier poster restoration studio at the time. I worked really hard and learned all aspects of the trade while there. I was ambitious, and thanks to some luck, was able to start my own business in 1994, of which I am the President and CEO. The name Poster Mountain was a play on words derived from the fact that I was “mounting” (linen backing) posters. We started off working in a small space that a friend gave me in the back of his warehouse in North Hollywood. 18 years later and we have our own 6000 sq. foot studio, a great reputation and a global client base.

I imagine the standard job is just a screenprint with a few dings and bends:  what’s the standard process in fixing that?

Davis: For the purpose of this interview we’ll discuss treatments for contemporary silk screen prints as that topic is most relevant to this particular audience. We begin by testing the piece to make sure that none of the ink is water soluble. Once we have determined that the ink isn’t going to wash away, we put the prints through a process that I developed called the Isinglass resizing process. The first step is to wash or humidify the piece to soften and relax it, once the paper has relaxed I often use a special type of gelatin mixture and a little black magic to allow the poster to dry in it’s relaxed state. The process relies heavily on Chemistry and science, and not so much on virgin sacrifice (as some have suggested). Paper naturally softens and expands when exposed to moisture and as the print dries, held in place by the gelatin, it tries to contract and as it does, most creases usually pull themselves out.

And let’s say– as was the case with my friend’s MUMMY print– that the damage is more severe.  That Mummy had 3-4” tears all over it:  how can you guys possibly get a poster with that kinda damage back in working order?

Davis: With a piece that has more extensive damage, I put it through the Isinglass process then send it back to my team in restoration. The first step is to prep the area that is damaged. This may include adding in paper, filler or glue before burnishing the area flat so that while you might still see the damage, you won’t feel it if you ran your fingers over it. Then depending on the amount of damage, the piece may need airbrushing. This involves masking off each block of color before laying down carefully matched airbrush paint. Once the larger areas of damage have been dealt with, we do detail work with watercolor paint and pencils. I employ a highly trained staff of artisans and in many cases they are able to cover the damage so well that you would never know it was there.

Poster-Mountain-Lost-Fixed-1

What’s the worst case of damage you’ve ever seen?  And were you able to fix it?

Davis: We do a lot of old silent film posters that have been used as insulation inside of walls for 70 to 80 years, many of them are moldy, badly stained, torn and water damaged. In cases like this we put countless hours both in conservation and restoration into getting these posters back to their former glory.

Do people give you, like, ridiculous explanations for how the damage got there in the first place?  What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard?

Davis: The strangest excuse I’ve ever heard for a damaged poster was that their cat peed on it.

(Laughs)  Have you ever encountered a job that was beyond Poster Mountain’s…considerable powers?

Davis: Generally, old things that are mounted on masonite are beyond our help.  But for the most part, we can fix almost anything.  And we do love a challenge!Poster-Mountain-Lost-Fixed-4

Hear that, people?  Send these guys your worst posters!  They can’t wait to look at ‘em!  The other day on Expresso Beans(LINK: www.ExpressoBeans.com) (the glorious, wretched hive of scum and villainy that many poster-collectors and Poster Mountain customers frequent whenever they’re not standing in line at gallery openings), I saw you discussing the possibility of putting a “stamp” on the back of any prints that had been sent to you for fixing…

Davis: Yes.

Well, how would you decide which prints get the marking/stamp/what-have-you?  Do you think the marking should be included on all prints, or just to denote that a print was once a lot less “mint” than it appears after being processed by you guys?

Davis: To this point, for silkscreen posters, we have only put a stamp on the back of posters that have had any kind of restorative work, not the ones that have just had dents and creases. After some controversial discussion on EB we have decided that our stamp will be added only upon the request of the client. We wish to respect client privacy as well and if someone asks us not to publish information on our website about a particular project we will gladly keep those files private.

Are there currently any plans to open up branches of Poster Mountain in other areas?  Perhaps in Canada, or on the East Coast?  Maybe Austin?  How about Austin?  Have I mentioned Austin?  You know where’s good?  Austin.

Davis: (Laughs) Well, we actually do have plans to open up a branch in Austin in the next 3-5 years.  I’m from TX and I have lots of family in that area, I’ve been in LA far too long and I really want to move back home. The Austin location will be specifically dedicated to working on contemporary silkscreens. And someday we may open a branch in the UK. I will also continue to maintain the LA location as well which will focus on vintage ephemera and fine art.

That’s awesome.  Alright, here’s your last question:  let’s say someone’s on the fence about sending one of their beloved posters to you.  What would you tell them in order to convince them to let you guys take a crack at restoring that print to its former glory?

Poster-Mountain-John-Davis-Working-5Davis: We have worked really hard to build our reputation and part of that is being honest with our clients about what we are able to do. We love working with private collectors who prize their pieces not just for their monetary value, but for the pieces themselves. So, if someone is on the fence about sending us something then my advice is to not send it.

Now, that was supposed to be the end of our chat, but I’ve got one last piece of commentary—and it’s one I think people will be interested to hear—from John.

During our little Q&A, I didn’t get around to asking John what he thought of the poster community’s current crop of leaders (I agree that the word “leaders” seems a little loaded there, but “the poster-community’s current batch of celebrities” seemed worse, as did any phrase that employed the word “popular”;  let’s just stick with “leaders” and agree it’s not perfect).

“Y’know:  the artists (guys like Martin Ansin, Tyler Stout, and Olly Moss) and companies (Mondo, Gallery1988) who have recently seemed on the verge of being greeted with the same kind of rock-star-level welcomes that some Hollywood fixtures and actual rock stars get.  Having spent the early portion of his career involved primarily dealing with a sort of “movie poster” that’s massively removed from the kind of thing that grabs everyone’s attention these days.  His response follows:

After having spent some 18 years conserving and restoring high-end vintage posters of all descriptions, and believing that superlative poster design and execution was a thing of the past, along came these amazing gig posters, then Mondo posters and small specialty printers and artists, and the whole community seems to be growing exponentially every day. These new collectors are every bit as passionate as the old collectors, but the vibe is completely different because these posters are accessible by everyone! They are affordable and plentiful, so there isn’t that pervasive sense of greediness that I’ve become so used to dealing with for so long. I feel so fortunate that I have the privilege of handling many of the ISO posters like all of the Stouts and Ansins, just the same way I feel handling old Mucha’s and Lautrec’s, original King Kong, Dracula and Douglas Fairbanks silent film posters, Picasso, Dali and Chagall prints (and original art). For me it may just be daily routine, but it never gets old, I’m always learning new tricks and I love my job. More so now that I know that the best posters are still yet to come!”

Poster-Mountain-Mummy-Being-Repaired-3And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my time with Poster Mountain’s John Davis.  Some pretty interesting stuff in there, no?  Listen, guys, we were planning to save this interview (and the big-ass “DrScott Seal of Approval” I’m about to drop on John and his company) for the next Limited Paper installment to feature a “Thing Worth Getting Excited About” section…but after looking over the photos featured above (specifically:  the before/after shots of that Mummy restoration), and considering just how impressed I’ve been with the work John’s team has done for a few pieces in my collection…I realized there was no reason that Poster Mountain didn’t deserve its very own numbered edition of Limited Paper.

Fact is, even if you’re the most overly-cautious poster collector in the world, there will come a day when the tragic occurs:  someone will brush the side of a print as you carry it through a room, your “cat” will “pee” on it, a forest fire might wipe out your entire city and everything in it, or maybe it’ll just be a guest who manages to spill a drink directly onto one of your prints—whatever it is, it’s impossible to expect your prints to remain unscathed forever (case in point:  I opened a drawer on my flat file today and discovered a print that had somehow become bent almost completely in half…and I treat things going in and out of that file like vials of nitroglycerin).  The sooner you accept this possibility, the easier it’ll be for you to deal with it when the time comes.

But cheer up, Charlie:  Poster Mountain’s existence means there’s hope.  When I first discovered the damage on each of the posters I ended up sending off to Poster Mountain, I was heartbroken.  But for an insanely reasonable fee (prints with a “normal” amount of dings, bends, or soft corners cost about $100 to fix) a surprisingly quick turnaround time, and the pleasant surprise that came with discovering that Poster Mountain ships every one of their posters flat…I can assure you that they’re the people to go to when your posters aren’t looking their best.

Quick, ingenious in their methods, and never the type of company that’ll back down from a good challenge, Poster Mountain carries itself and does business in a way that many in the poster-collecting community could benefit from observing.

In case you missed it before, Poster Mountain (link:www.postermountain.com)’s website can be found at that first link, while their blog—which has a ton of photos taken during some of their more…challenging projects.  That’s all for now, but stay tuned for news on Gallery 1988’s upcoming Arrested Development-themed show, some news from the frontlines at the Alamo Drafthouse’s Summer of ’82 screening of The Thing this Friday, and much, much more.  As always, you can hit the comments section if you’ve got anything you’d like to add to all this!

Special thanks to the Poster Mountain crew, John Davis, the ExpressoBeans.com community, and—last but certainly not least, to my good friend William “It Puts The Lotion in The Basket” Garrett, whose Mummy print was featured prominently in the above article.

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