“When I realized that I could create designs and hand print them myself, it all fell into place,” Status Serigraph’s Justin Helton told Paste.
A full-service graphic design studio tucked in downtown Knoxville, Tenn., Status Serigraph started as an idea Helton dreamt up in college, but it would have been hard to imagine just how it’s taken off since. With a focus on concert posters, illustration and branding and identity, he’s built up quite the portfolio over the years, and all as a one man show. It’s no easy feat considering all of the posters are unique and screenprinted by hand.
“I feel as if what I do sort of rides the same line as a carpenter that restores vintage furniture or someone that updates Victorian homes,” said Helton. “Bringing new life to old things is something I have fallen in love with the older I get.”
You may recognize his work from Paste favorites including The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket and Tame Impala, but the list goes on and on, and Status Serigraph is only continuing to grow.
In our first installment of Behind the Design, we ask Helton just what makes his quickly coveted studio tick as well as what’s on his playlist now and what he’s up to when he’s not behind the screens.
Paste: Tell us a little about Status Serigraph got started.
Helton: Status Serigraph started as an idea when I was in college. I had seen the work of Knoxville letterpress studio Yee Haw Industries and loved what they did. I also came across a website called gigposters.com which opened up my eyes to an entire new world of design and gigposters… it was amazing. I had been attending a community college studying graphic design and planned on attending the University of Tennessee for more of a fine art path. When I realized that I could create designs and hand print them myself, it all fell into place. I used one of my independent study courses to team up with a local venue and promoter to create posters for upcoming shows. I would create the designs the promoter would send to the bands for approval and we would print them up for promotion. Eventually the bands started wanting to sell them at the shows and from there it has just grown.
Paste: How did you decide to focus on the music and entertainment industry?
Helton: Music has been a huge part of my life since I was about 11 or 12. My parents divorced when I was 9 and I think as I grew older music was a way for me to escape some of the hard times. As I grew older, friends would influence my music tastes and I found myself hanging out with other people that were super into music. So the music industry has a huge impact on my life. I also worked as the Creative Director for AC Entertainment here in Knoxville for 6 years and learned a ton about the music industry while I was there. So when it came time to make the leap into my own full time studio, music industry work was already rolling in and I aimed to keep it that way.
Paste: From your sought after concert posters to custom wedding invitations and brand development, you do it all, and as a one man show! Do you have a team working behind you?
Helton: I just recently hired my first employee about 4 months ago and he has worked out really well. But as of now he only helps in a small portion of the designs that come out of this studio. His main focus is helping me to run the retail end of the store and I get him in on design when it makes sense. For the majority of what you have seen at this point though, it all came from me.
Paste: You’ve worked with some Paste favorites including The Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Andrew Bird and, most recently, what you called your “favorite band of all-time” Phish. Tell us about some of your experiences.
Helton: I have been incredibly lucky in a number of ways, meeting the right folks and seeing the right bands at early stages in their careers have helped me to grow along with them. I first saw The Avett Brothers in a small bar in Knoxville called the Preservation Pub. The place probably only holds 150 or so people. I loved them so much that I immediately looked up their management on the internet and got ahold of them about doing posters. One of the first posters I did for them at a show in Atlanta, Ga. at the Variety Theater sold out before the show even started… and they were super happy about that. So they had a friend Drew Findley and I start doing posters for every show… its one of the most amazing things that happened to me in my career thus far. They have grown so big and I owe a lot of my studio’s exposure to them.
With Phish, they have been my favorite band since I saw them for the first time in 1999… and a few years back when Trey Anastasio was playing a solo show (Phish was broken up at the time) I got a call from his merch team asking about a poster… I was ecstatic to say the least. Eventually when Phish returned to playing, I reached out to their team and have been lucky enough to call them not only my favorite band, but one of my best and most frequent clients.
Paste: What’s your go-to album right now? Is there a particular artist or album that you like to listen to while you work?
Helton: Honestly that changes on a daily basis, lots of times I listen to the artist I am designing for. I feel that gives me a direct creative connection to them as I create something that will represent them. I do have a few bands I like to go to though when I am needing some creative juice… live Phish shows, Medeski Martin & Wood, My Morning Jacket, Tame Impala, Widespread Panic, and The Avett Brothers are all go to bands. But thats just the tip of the iceberg… today I have been listening to old Little Richard albums, and Huey Lewis & the News.
Paste: We noticed on Instagram that you attend a lot of these shows. What’s the most recent concert you attended?
Helton: I hit two shows, two nights in a row last week at the Beautiful Tennessee Theatre… Wilco’s 20th Anniversary show and STS9 the next night. Both were really amazing shows in totally different ways. I try and hit as many shows as I can… seeing live music is always inspiring and it’s also good to get out and meet folks that are into the same stuff I am into as well. You never know when the next person you meet may hire you to do a big project or work with an exciting new band.
Paste: Speaking of Instagram, do you feel that the wave of social media is helpful as an independent designer?
Helton: Yeah, totally… ESPECIALLY Instagram and Pinterest… with it being such a visual platform you get so many eyes on what you are working on. I have discovered so many artist on both of those social networks that it blows my mind. I love seeing process pics, new projects and sneak peeks of what others are doing.
Paste: How would you describe your style when it comes to design?
Helton: I normally describe it as a vintage contemporary style…
Paste: A lot of your work has a very homegrown or antique feel to it. What or where do you draw inspiration from?
Helton: I pull from lots of imagery from the 1800’s and my typography is influenced by Victorian-Era stylings. I feel as if what I do sort of rides the same line as a carpenter that restores vintage furniture or someone that updates Victorian homes… bringing new life to old things is something I have fallen in love with the older I get.
Paste: Some of this feel may come from the fact that all of your posters are screenprinted by hand. That’s a tedious technique! Will you tell us a little about your process?
Helton: Well, the screenprinted process is not an easy one… images are set up color by color in separate screens and then printed poster by poster, color by color one by one until they are all complete. I’d be lying if I said I still did all of my own printing. I did all of it and design for many years, but over time I have become so busy with design I have had to outsource my printing to folks that can do it better than I ever could. Folks like the Half and Half in Columbia, S.C. and Subject Matter Studio in Asheville, N.C. help me out immensely with the quality of prints I can now put out.
Paste: What are some of your favorite things to do to stay inspired when you’re not behind your desk or printer?
Helton: Hanging out with my family is my favorite thing to do… they inspire me in ways I never thought possible. Some of that is the drive I feel to provide for them… and some of it is just the way we are all different. My son is so energetic and happy, my daughter is such a kind and gentle soul and my wife is the smartest toughest and most caring person I have ever met. They all inspire me to be a better person and to push myself as hard as I can to be the best designer I can be. Also recently, I have been running and trying to keep myself in better physical shape… I feel it gives me some really good time to think and listen to music as I do it and makes me feel better physically afterwards.
Paste: When you do sit down at your desk to start on a new project, what’s the first thing that you do?
Helton: Honestly it’s never the same process… but one constant is that if the work is for a band, I listen to the band I am designing for. Often times I do some research about what city the show may be in and see if I can tie in some relation to the surroundings, etc. But it’s never really the same process from beginning to end… which I think I enjoy.
Paste: What’s your current project?
Helton: Well, fortunately I never really have just one current project… I normally have a list of things to work on and I am incredibly grateful for that. Right now I have stuff on my plate for Trey Anastasio of Phish, Tame Impala, Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Umphrey’s McGee, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Revivalists, Moon Taxi, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Bassnectar.
Paste: If an aspiring designer walked right up to you and asked for a piece of advice, what would you tell them?
Helton: I would say work incredibly hard and be as nice to others. I know Conan O’Brien said something similar to that, but it’s so true. At one time I was working part time as a bartender, part time as a designer for AC Entertainment, attending the University of Tennessee and making concert posters at night… and it paid off in the end. Also getting out and experiencing life is key, traveling, hitting live shows and just getting out and socializing is a great way to make it out in the real world. Just be genuine and crank out the best work you can… it’s all you really can do.