By Grace Swanson
Everyday, Mike Johnson makes a ten minute commute to his shop in Langley, Washington — Frontrow Creative — to turn shirts into works of art.
Johnson uses a process called screen printing, which involves using screens to transfer images to materials, such as fabric or paper.
Over the past four years, Johnson has designed shirts for local companies, such as edit., the Star Store, and Double Bluff Brewing Company.
He says he enjoys working with customers to make their design vision a reality.
“When clients come into my shop they get the whole package; an experience that they get to feel a part of,” he said.
First, he works on the design and chooses a suitable t-shirt. Then he heads to the dark room where he uses photo emulsion to transfer the design image onto a screen. He creates a screen for each color in the design.
Next, he takes the screens, t-shirts, and dye, and places them on an octopus-looking press. He places the screen on top, pulls the screen down over the shirt, and rubs ink over top of the screen to create a copy of the design. Then, the shirt goes into the dryer and voila! The t-shirt is finished!
Johnson uses water-based inks, which don’t use harsh chemicals and are more environmentally friendly. He says the water-based inks are better quality than the plastisol ink used on a majority of shirts. Plastisol inks have a shiny finish and can crack over time.
Johnson grew up on Whidbey Island and became interested in screen printing while attending a graphics printing course at the Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center in high school. During his final project, the teacher assigned Johnson a final project that involved learning to use a screen printing press that had been donated by a past customer and wasn’t currently in use. Johnson figured it out and started printing shirts for himself and his friends.
After graduating from high school, he moved to the mainland and immediately started working in the print industry, primarily in offset printing. Over ten years, he worked in shops Tacoma and Seattle. He always had a screen print press in his garage.
Tired of traffic-packed commutes, he returned to the island and set up Frontrow Creative, a screen printing shop, in Freeland below China City. He eventually moved his shop to Langley because he wanted to introduce a retail aspect to his business.
“Langley, in general, has a lot of good businesses, good food, and good resources,” he said. “It’s a really convenient spot for clients to visit.”
Frontrow Creative participates in the Langley Art Walk each month where he features an artist’s design of the month.
Frontrow Creative is a one-person shop, well, technically, it’s a one person and one dog shop. Johnson’s Rottweiler-Lab mix, Kamua, is known as the “good old shop dog.”
Johnson does it all — designer, screen printer, marketer, and retailer. The BiG GiG, Langley’s new Gigabit internet service, helps him speed up the process. He especially notices a difference when he is working with files.
“When we’re sending customer’s proofs and attaching large files or downloading really big, high resolution files, it’s the difference of waiting 10-15 minutes with regular internet or waiting half a minute with the BiG GiG,” he said.
Johnson believes the BiG GiG will offer more options to people working in the tech industry.
“It seems like Langley can be this kind of hub for techy people,” he said. “They won’t need to drive to Seattle, since they can telecommute.”
Johnson recommends that new Langley business owners reach out to the community.
“Be involved in the community because the community can help you out so much,” he said. “Find your network of people because that can really help spread the word about what you’re doing.”