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Keeping Tucson Tucson 

Tanline Printing stays flexible to stay afloat in a rapidly changing downtown scene

click to enlarge Jeik Ficker, along with his wife and business partners, have changed Tanline Printing to fit the community’s needs.

Abril Castillo

Jeik Ficker, along with his wife and business partners, have changed Tanline Printing to fit the community’s needs.

Love it or hate it, downtown Tucson's development over the last several years has altered our city. Its increased property values have brought new people in, pushed others out and inspired some serious architectural eyesores. But constantly arguing over whether change is good or bad is boring. It's perhaps more fruitful to engage that change in order to try to make sense of it. For a community-driven organization like Tanline Printing, there isn't much choice in the matter. Changes to the community mean changes to the organization.

Jeik Ficker and Amanda Beekhuizen recently had their own dose of change. The couple who runs Tanline Printing and its offshoots (Tucson Community Print Shop or TCPS and Tiny Town Gallery) found themselves in a new living and working space. The building, located at 1537 S. Fourth Ave.—almost exactly one mile closer to downtown than their former location, has been vacant for years. The graffiti on the walls is an auspicious nod to Ficker's humble printmaking beginnings: as a teenager spray-painting stencils onto shirts.

After losing his job at a commercial print shop six years ago, Ficker, a longtime print enthusiast, decided to go all-in with Tanline. He began to acquire his own specialty equipment, and with help from partner Joe Marshall (his neighbor and fellow artist) the shop grew.

The two went on to start TCPS, and initially there was a lot of community interest. Unfortunately, enthusiasm waned and the project started to lose steam. Newcomers were often frustrated with the printing process, and that frustration acted as a barrier to entry for those who otherwise might think of printmaking as a fun hobby or an empowering way to produce their art.

"If you don't like solving problems, you're not going to like printing," Marshall says.

Beekhuizen has another theory as to why TCPS struggled in the beginning. TCPS started off charging only $25 per month to use the facility, but when people were asked to contribute such a small amount of time and money, she says, they didn't tend to place a high value on the resource.

Problem solvers through and through, the Tanline team was quick to adapt. Asking people to pay a little more made members feel simultaneously more invested in the space, and though they have a smaller membership than before, their members are generally more dedicated.

TCPS officially merged with Tanline last year, after letting go of its nonprofit status, but community outreach is still a part of the group's mission and primarily takes the form of volunteerships. Working at the shop, volunteers learn about equipment and different printing techniques. Ficker and Beekhuizen still offer classes when there is enough demand or when someone has a specific project in mind. Tanline also offers artist residencies, something they'd like to ocus on once they're more settled in their new space.

Though Ficker doesn't like to think of Tanline as a commercial endeavor, some practical considerations cannot be ignored. In addition to filling custom orders such as etched glassware for local bars, band t-shirts, letterpress wedding invites, silkscreened art pieces and much more, Tanline produces work for local artists and sells it at vending machines (located in Che's Lounge and Hotel Congress) and online. The deal is similar to the one that Ficker offered Marshall years ago. Artists get 20% of the run for free. So if Ficker prints 100 stickers with an artist's design, that artist gets 20 stickers, and the rest are sold to help offset the cost of printing. Tanline benefits from selling artists' designs, and artists benefit by having their work produced and dispersed for free.

Tanline is rooted in Tucson, but its reach is expanding. Ellen Wagner and Axel Roessler, a German couple, joined the Tanline community two years ago.

"I was doing a little research," Wagner says, "And it was Jeik's place, Tucson Community Print Shop, that kept popping up."

The welcoming community that Tanline represented impressed the couple. They were so impressed, in fact, that they have no intention of leaving Tucson any time soon. The duo has taken over most of the booking and promotion at Tiny Town, Tanline's affiliate gallery space at 174 E. Toole Ave. Like Tanline, it's still trying to find its identity amidst a changing downtown Tucson.

"We're thinking about what this place should be, making it a connecting space for artists on the same wavelength," Roessler says.

Tiny Town was born as a venue out of Ficker's love for music, and its creation helped fill a void after an all-ages venue closed down. It quickly became more than just a venue, though, showcasing visual art and printing its own periodical: The Tiny Town Times. The Times got its start as a reaction to criticism of the "Keep Tucson Shitty" movement.

"We started [Tiny Town Times] partly to combat Tucson Weekly's attack of the 'Keep Tucson Shitty' thing," Ficker says. "We wrote an article on what 'Keep Tucson Shitty' means to us, which is basically keep things affordable—just shitty enough to where it's not Portland where it costs a bunch of money to live."

It's not hard to sympathize with this sentiment, especially if you remember the way downtown Tucson felt as little as six years ago—or how much it cost to live there. Things have changed, and they are changing quickly. But that change is complicated, and there's something paradoxical about a specialty print shop taking a negative view of it, however community-focused and well intentioned it might be.

This inherent contradiction presented itself when the conversation turned to community support for TCPS. Ficker pointed out that, "Portland has nine community print shops, but Tucson can't even support one." There are many possible explanations for this—Portland has four major universities and at least three art schools—but Ficker highlights another difference between the two cities.

"Land is cheap here. Everyone can afford to have a house and have studios," he says.

It would seem that most Tucsonans either have the means to support their own artistic process, or they lack some combination of time, money and desire to prioritize an esoteric craft. There are, of course, people who fall somewhere between these two groups. They tend to be young, educated, artistic and of limited means—the same demographic that flocked to Portland and helped transform it into the city it has become: a city full of incredible book stores, top-tier restaurants, socially conscious everything, streetcars and light rails, nine community-run print shops, high-rise condos and skyrocketing rent.

Ficker's observations about Portland present a duality, but they're also accurate: certain elements of what make Portland Portland are desirable, and others aren't. The question then becomes, can you have one without the other? Is it possible to shirk commoditization, support your community, resist nonprofit status, bring a niche art form to town, tout anti-commercial sentiments and make a living at it? Can you stay true to the Tucson you love while also welcoming in what or who might make it less, well, shitty?

Change is bound to be a part of any dynamic community, and the trick is to become a positive force within it. Tanline's willingness to stay flexible—to quickly disassemble and rebuild, to shift course, but stand behind their principles—means that they are well on their way to doing just that.

To get involved with Tanline, submit work or request a custom project, check out the website at www.tanlineprinting.com.

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