All You Need is One Old Silk Screen
It’s amazing how many great ideas involve accidents or trash cans… (stay with me here). When I sat down to talk with John Kulick about the story behind Blue Ridge Graphics it all circled back to the early ’70s and an art department trash can.
As fate would have it, it started when John went to pick his mother up from the high school where she taught. While at the school, he noticed an old silk screen lying in the art department trash can. The Egyptian hieroglyphics on the screen got John’s attention; he grabbed it and took it home. Now with a silk screen in his possession, John wanted to do something with it. So he went to an art store, bought some ink, and got to work printing his first t-shirt. And from that first shirt, he was hooked. As John summed up in the interview: “I thought that was really cool.”
Though his interest was piqued, a few more events would need to take place to turn one old silk screen into a screen printing business. One of those events was switching majors in college.
John started at the University of Virginia (Go Hoos!) as an Engineering major, but as your typical college student, he decided to switch majors and decided to study Art History. And it was this switch that introduced him to the pop art movement.
Add a Splash of Pop Art
Art in the early ’70s was a special time for a budding screen-printer. Pop art was beginning to make waves and in his classes, John studied pop artists like Andy Warhol who became famous for his silkscreens. Warhol printed everything from everyday mundane objects like Campbell soup cans to famous celebrities and one of his tools of choice was the silk screen. John was drawn to the pop art movement and Warhol’s use of silkscreens, and this interest became another contributing factor to his future business move.
After graduating from college, John decided he didn’t want to move back to Northern Virginia but wanted to live in the rural counties of central Virginia. For a few years, he set aside his screen-printing, until 1976 when the time had come for the pieces to begin to fall into place.
“In 1976 I was still dabbling in screen printing but I hadn’t done anything in a while. There weren’t a whole lot of jobs in ‘76, especially if you had a degree in Art History. And if you wanted to live out in the country there basically weren’t any. So I decided to try and sell a t-shirt through the mail in Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine.”
The t-shirt he tried to sell? The famous sunflower that now hangs in the office at Blue Ridge Graphics.
Once the first few orders came in John started printing. “I was printing them in the kitchen of our rented house in Aroda and curing the ink in a regular stove oven.”
John printed enough shirts for the ad to pay for itself, but he soon realized he needed a better space to print than his kitchen and house. “I was printing 50-60 at a time and had t-shirts all over the house.”
As luck would have it, his friend Bill Sullivan had an art studio in Orange, Va called the “Pump House”. John moved his self-made printing machine to the new location and rigged up a new dryer to replace the oven. The dryer was composed of six or eight heat lamps that are more often used for poultry than t-shirts. However, John managed to wire them together, construct a metal box, and even put in racks so he could slide multiple shirts in his “oven” at once. Go innovation!
With his screen shop set up, John decided to print more t-shirts. He saw an ad in the Cavalier Daily that the crew team was looking for custom shirts.
In the late 1970s the custom screen printing industry was just taking off and people were beginning to want custom t-shirts. However, no one locally was printing them, except for John. John got the job and printed shirts for the UVA crew team. “I talked to the crew team and printed them some shirts. That worked out well. They were happy I was happy. I made some money.”
John was getting a taste for screen printing. But he was still a few years away from officially starting his first company. In the meantime he would move to Florida, work for a screen-printer there, move back to Virginia and decide to start selling some t-shirts again. John spent his evenings and weekends going around to businesses who might want custom t-shirts. He’d get an orders, print the shirts, and repeat.
“After a little while I decided I was getting enough work that I thought it might be worth a chance to quit my job, buy some real equipment, get a space, so I rented some cheap space in Charlottesville.”
That cheap space? An alley in Belmont, right behind the Belmont Market. At first, John called his company “Side Winders Screen Printing” but soon decided to change the name. And that’s when Blue Ridge Graphics was born. John chose the name partially because he figured everyone likes the Blue Ridge mountains.
In the next few years, John would get his first commercial press, hire an artist, and continue going door to door to bring in business. He also began to advertise in the local papers and yellow pages. “For years and years, I got the most business in Charlottesville because I had the biggest ad in the phonebook. It was that simple.”
During the early ’80s, the shop moved from Belmont to Main Street in Charlottesville. They stayed on Main Street until 1986 when John bought the current location and moved the business to Meade Ave.
At this time the screen printing industry was growing quickly. At one point in the late ’80s and early ’90s, John guesses there were at least ten or eleven screen printers in Charlottesville. However, the competition didn’t slow down Blue Ridge Graphics. “We had very good business relations with customers, so we had a lot of repeat business. That really helped.”
Then Dave Matthews Walks into the Shop
Another thing that helped was the fact that John had friends who were musicians and would get shirts for their bands. Word spread to other musicians and bands and sometime around 1994 Dave Matthews came into the shop to order shirts for his band. In the beginning, Dave would show up to the shop himself. “He would carry one or two boxes of t-shirts and put them in the back of his car. 72 shirts. That’s all they’d ordered.” In the next few years, Dave Matthews Band went from a little known group to one of the most popular bands around. And suddenly John’s biggest goal was to keep up with Dave Matthews Band.
During the late ’90s and early 2000s, Blue Ridge Graphics was printing shirts for many people in the music industry, from Dave Matthews Band to John Mayer, and band management companies in New York and Los Angeles. But by the late 2000s, the music industry was taking business off-shore and Blue Ridge Graphics had to refocus.
John turned his attention to the business he could do locally and continued to maintain good relationships with existing customers. Returning customers have always been a priority for Blue Ridge Graphics. “We’ve always had a good retention rate of customers. Some of the people we started within ’79 are still our customers.”
And it Became a Family Business
In 2010 Blue Ridge Graphics officially became a “family” business when John’s eldest son Will began working there. A few years later, Jackson Kulick came on board and John worked with and taught his sons how to run a successful screen-printing company until one fateful day when John got fired.
John, Will, and Jackson were in Long Beach California at the Imprinted Sportswear Show. John had been talking about retiring for a few years, and the topic was brought up again after a day walking the trade show floor. His comment was met with silence until later than evening when they were sitting having a beer after the long day. Will decided it was time to break the news. “Dad, we have something to tell you.”
John looked between his two sons.
Jackson continued, “Dad, we have to tell you… your last day is December 31st this year. You’re being let go.”
John thought about it for a minute before deciding that getting fired wasn’t a bad way to retire. They raised their glasses and Will and Jackson congratulated him on such a great job. Then they started talking about all the fun he would have with the newfound freedom of retirement.
Of course, John still comes by the shop to say hello to employees and check-in. Thinking back on 40 years of running a business, John says the variety is one of the things he enjoyed the most. “It was always different. Being your own boss, basically, you had to come to work and figure out what you had to do every day. There are a whole lot of variables that made it interesting.”
Today, Blue Ridge Graphics still prints t-shirts (and much more!) and Will and Jackson still focus on customer satisfaction first, making sure the customers that have stayed with us for 40 years will be with us to another 40 and beyond!
A brief interview with the founder:
- Have you always liked wearing t-shirts? Yes. I always thought how lucky I was that I could go to work, make money, and people would be expecting me to be wearing a t-shirt.
- What excited you the most about the idea of starting a new business? Meeting a lot of interesting people. Business owners are pretty interesting. Meeting provisional people at UVA and entrepreneurs. The people you got to work with. Your clients were very interesting.
- What is your biggest accomplishment in starting Blue Ridge Graphics? Hiring a bunch of people and paying them well. Providing a nice environment and a nice place to work, decent money and a way to make a living.
- Finally, what’s your favorite Dave Matthews Band shirt design? It’d have to be Fire Dancer.