Dave Gardner is considered something of a legend amongst screen-printers. He printed his first T-shirt in his bedroom at 15 (a Kiss design, naturally) and went on to shake up the industry with the simulated process print 8 years later. With his passion for print undiminished, he gave us his thoughts on process, inspiration, and printing as an art form.
Looking back at your work over the years, what do you think makes a good print?
I'm going to say something that a lot of printers don't necessarily want to hear… it's not about print quality! You can come up with a great idea and print it poorly and people will buy it because they connect with the idea. The perfect print for me is fabulous artwork, something you’re proud you created, but the idea connects with people.
Can you think of a print of yours that really caught people's imagination in that way?
I can't think of a specific example, but I had a guy who was buried in his favorite shirt and his family sent me a photo of it. To me, that's worth more than selling a million T-shirts.
How does it feel when you see someone wearing your designs?
The idea of somebody seeing something you've created and saying, 'I want that', there's no juice like that… you think, 'there's a bond there, I connected with that person on some level'. And to me that’s what it’s about.
You've created many classic print designs across biking, band merchandise and sportswear. With such a diverse range of genres, where do you look for inspiration?
I look everywhere for inspiration. I started out before the internet existed, which I think was a real advantage for me because now it’s so easy for people to say, 'well this is my subject matter, let’s just google it and see if I can find something interesting’. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but I do think it makes it harder to do something unique.
And have you got a favorite print?
Well, that’s a hard question for me to answer. I have about 1000 pieces of original airbrushed art (created by me and the people who work at my studio) and not one piece is on my wall. I lack the ability to look at something and not see one thing I did wrong! It’s funny because I’m not a perfectionist, it’s more that once I’ve done something I tend to move on. Once you slow down and start to rest on your laurels you stop moving forward, and I've never wanted to do that. So here’s my answer; my favorite piece is the one I’m doing next. That’s the truth!
A screen-printed T-shirt is as American as a pair of blue jeans
You encouraged your first screen-printing studio to take on the Harley Davidson license and later helped New Buffalo Shirt Factory move into licensed sports merchandise. It's clear that you have a flair for entrepreneurialism, but do you think that talent for business has been as important than your skill as an artist in your career?
A lot of the gambles I took as a younger person I wouldn't take now. You've got to be aware from an entrepreneurial sense what's going on but I don't think that's one of my greatest talents. In a sense I'm too much of an artist, I think, 'oh I need that new piece of equipment' and not even think about how I'm going to pay for it! I was a reluctant entrepreneur, really I just always wanted to be an artist.
You've called screen-printing a 'truly American art-form' do you think that the rest of the industry sees it that way?
Ok, let me qualify that, screen-printing has been around for millennia, but the idea of wearing a screen-printed T-shirt is as American as a pair of blue jeans. You throw on a pair of jeans and your favorite printed T-shirt! I think that the rest of the industry sees it as an art form but I think it might take some time until people outside the industry will look back at screen printing and see it that way. But it's like that with a lot of 'commercial art'. It's only with time and distance that people can look back at someone like Norman Rockwell and realize how influential he was. If 50 years on people look back at what we did in the 80s and 90s in screen printing, and they're not putting it up on walls and recognizing it, then that's crazy. But I'm confident it will happen because we really had an effect.