VinoSangre Screen Printing’s founder Mikee Parker talks to Mark Ludmon about tattoos, hard work, and building a print shop with punk rock attitude
Mikee Parker expresses himself, and his work ethic, through his tattoos. ‘Work Hard’ is inked across his knuckles – it’s an ethos that has driven him to set up and grow his own print shop, VinoSangre Screen Printing, over the past 10 years. With its key market of live music devastated by the coronavirus, Mikee’s determination has helped VinoSangre survive and thrive during this difficult time. “’Work hard’ is my life motto,” he says. “We just go out and do it.” His approach to life and business has also grown out of his passion for music, punk rock in particular. As a drummer and bass player, he has performed in bands for 24 years and started out by running his own music label, Boslevan Records. Based above a tattoo studio in Walsham near Norwich, he began printing T-shirts for his bands and other musicians.
“I started with a home-made rig: just a couple of clamps that you put a frame into on a desk,” he recalls. “Very DIY.” He enjoyed it so much that he gave up plans to become a tattooist and went into printing full-time. After relocating to his bedroom at his home in Norwich, he then crossed England to set up in a shed at his parents’ house close to Penzance in Cornwall.
He picked up some “bits and pieces” of second-hand equipment and created a print shop in a barn near Land’s End, translating the name of his events business, Wine Blood Productions, into Spanish to create VinoSangre. “It was just a stupid and dumb name that I couldn’t find on the internet,” he admits.
The business grew as word spread of Mikee’s skills through the world of punk and three years ago, he moved into his first commercial unit, back in Norwich.
Having previously remained exclusively loyal to manual screen printing, as more work came in he invested in his first automatic, an M&R Sportsman, with eight stations and four colours. “It meant production became a lot faster.” VinoSangre continues to use this machine alongside a six station/six-colour Printex manual carousel. “There are certain things you can’t do as well on an automatic, such as split fountains and the more arty stuff,” Mike explains. “It [the manual] gives you more versatility.”
About a year and a half ago, he was joined by Sam Currie, who previously ran DTG and automatic screen print operations. He is also a former pro inline skater, which has opened up the skating world for VinoSangre. “We instantly became best friends and business partners,” Mikee says. “That was great for alleviating the stress of trying to do everything by myself. I’d had friends come to help me but never had a full-time person working with me.”
The duo became a trio in January this year when Max Oughton came on board, also from a more commercial printing background. “I’ve been a manual printer for years so, having Max and Sam come in, I’ve learned stuff about printing from them,” Mikee adds. “I had never done CMYK process prints before so I learned how to do that, and I’m showing them how to do stuff. Together we have been streamlining the shop, making it faster. It’s been progressing slowly for seven or eight years and then in the last few years it’s suddenly kicked off and gone up a level.”
In March, VinoSangre relocated to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Norwich, nearly doubling its space from 750 to 1,400 square feet, with a mezzanine for the company’s first separate office. It has added an M&R NuArc MSP 3140 screen printing exposure unit which has also been “a real game-changer”, Mikee says. “Instead of three minutes for a screen to be exposed, it’s half that time and then some.” He has also invested in a Vastex Econored II 30 conveyor dryer and a Vastex Dri-Vault screen drying cabinet. “In the old unit, we were drying screens in the sunshine or with a little air heater. Now we can dry a screen in 10 minutes.”
The latest addition is a second-hand Rutcure Master 22 tunnel dryer, bought through Pressure & Ink Screenprinting in Germany, which has helped to source much of VinoSangre’s equipment as well as providing valuable advice. “We trust their judgement on its quality etc to meet our requirements, and we can also get in touch with them easily with any questions,” Mikee adds. “It’s a much bigger dryer and we will be able to work much faster with that.” It was installed in July with the help of Screen Print Essentials’ director, Tony Wardle, who has also been a longtime supporter of the business.
They managed to complete the move on the day that lockdown started. “Our main thing has been the music industry. The fortnight preceding lockdown, we lost all of our work as people figured out what to do. All the tours, all the bands coming over from America, got cancelled. We saw this as a good opportunity to move.” It proved lucky as, after a brief hiatus, work started to “trickle back in and build momentum”, and, thanks to the larger unit, the three could continue operating with social distancing measures in place. At the start, the biggest challenge was the shutdown of most of the garment suppliers as VinoSangre holds little stock, but turnaround times are returning to VinoSangre’s standard seven to 10 working days.
Bands and music venues started to move merchandise online instead of selling it at gigs, while more work came in from other sectors, especially tattooists looking for an alternative source of revenue. Tattoo studios such as Tooth and Talon in Manchester started selling T-shirts, tote bags and other products with their designs on. “People were seeing that on the internet and word spread that we were still open,” Mikee says. “The loss of live music has been detrimental. It’s affected us but not as badly as it could have done. It’s not back to normal but we are busy again.” Further revenue came from VinoSangre’s own online store carrying merchandise with its own designs.
The company’s survival owes much to the reputation that VinoSangre has built up, Mikee points out. “Because we are not a conventional print shop, people were wanting to support us as we are an independent. Our whole ethos has been about supporting the bands and we’ve been doing that for years and years. People were really lovely and giving back to us.” Mikee is proud that, despite its growth, VinoSangre still has the “DIY culture” of the independent music scene.
“We provide a slightly different service from a more formal print shop. It’s just myself, Sam and Max being ourselves, being as good printers as we can, but being as approachable and informal as possible. That has been our ethos. Everyone is equal. That’s the reason people like to print with us.” Because of its reputation, people often expect VinoSangre to be a bigger operation with a team of back-office staff. “There’s been a common misconception we are a big business, but we’re just three guys working hard to get it out the door,” Mikee says. “Even though it is stressful at times, it doesn’t feel like a conventional job. I work hard but I also get to hang out with two friends.” For him, the “punk rock” attitude comes from running a successful business “on your own terms”.
Being sustainable and eco-friendly has been core to VinoSangre from the start. “It was always something that’s been important to me personally, as a human being and a vegan,” Mikee explains. “It’s been pivotal to me throughout my life and I’ve transferred that across into the business.” Only eco-friendly inks are used, sourced from specialist supplier CCI, and there are no “crazy chemicals” that would harm the environment. The business uses carbon-neutral companies for shipping and recycles wherever possible.
Its suppliers include Ralawise, BTC and Gildan, and it also offers sustainable ethical brand Stanley/Stella, plus the No Sweat range of shirts and hoodies. The latter is produced in Bangladesh as part of No Sweat’s work to fight sweatshops and support workers’ cooperatives. “We’re trying to help people be aware that there are alternatives to the norm,” Mikee explains. “It’s about educating people and raising awareness.”
Requests for sustainable garments have grown over the past two years, especially on the punk scene where bands have long been hot on ethics, including the Punks Against Sweatshops campaign. “You are paying more money for the shirt, but the quality is better and you can sell them for more money. It means it’s less throwaway than it used to be.” While Covid-19 makes the future uncertain, Mikee hopes VinoSangre will continue to grow, expanding to larger premises with bigger machines, possibly split across one site, with one set-up working on long runs and quicker turnarounds and another doing more technical, specialised jobs. But he does not want to lose what makes the business special.
“We don’t want to branch out into embroidery or DTG. We are a screen print shop and want to focus on that. We don’t want to become a huge 50-person team like some of the other print shops. That works for them, but it’s hard to have that personal approach that we have when you have lots of staff doing lots of different stuff. We know all our customers. It’s not a robot system where you get an automated response. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise that by turning into a huge business. We just want to focus on being really good printers.”