Photos by Alex Kramer

Blake Van Houten is covered in ink. And even though he has his fair share of tattoos, not all of his ink is permanent. Blake is a screen printer at Eight Seven Central in Des Moines’ East Village. The shop specializes in custom design work, including graphics, websites, and T-shirts. We sat down with Blake to learn more about his job, the screen-printing process, and working in Des Moines.

UP: What do you like about your job?

Van Houten: I went to school for industrial design at Iowa State. I graduated there, and I found that I didn’t really want to pursue that after college. I found out about an opening here. I do a little bit of design work but I mainly am a printer.

I like that it’s hands on—more hands on than industrial design, which is very heavy into software and programming and stuff like that. You can see I’m covered in ink—temporary and permanently. It’s nice to be able to actually make something, have a finished product at the end of the day.

UP: How do you like working in Des Moines?

Van Houten: It’s great. I’d say like 95 percent of our clients are from Des Moines, so it’s pretty cool when I’m out on the weekends or just around town to see a shirt that I printed in the area or at a business.

UP: Your work is very visual. How do you use social media to your advantage?

Van Houten: I think one of the goals of our social media is to have kind of an online portfolio. If someone was thinking about getting some shirts made, they could go to our Instagram page, scroll through, and see some of the past shirts we’ve designed.

UP: Can you walk us through the screen-printing process?

Van Houten: It starts with whether or not a client has an idea. [The client] might send us a rough piece of artwork, or they might send us something that’s pretty much already done. Then the designers—who are also project managers—will design and take care of clients, asking the quantities of shirts they need, the sizing, the colors, getting the right garments in—they’ll handle all of that.

Once they’ve done all of their business and ordered the shirts, the artwork for the shirt will get sent to the screens to be made. And that’s a little bit of a complicated process to explain. But essentially it kind of works like darkroom film photography. The image gets transferred onto a screen and then from there, colors get picked out.

We have a big press downstairs that is an auto-press that takes some of the labor out of printing, so we can do like up to 100 shirts in 10 minutes. A smaller job—say, anything less than 50 shirts—will be put on a manual press, and that will be completely handmade.

UP: Do you have a favorite part of the process?

Van Houten: I see a lot of shirts—some good, some bad. I really like when a cool design comes in and I get to be a part of making that shirt come to reality. We do really cheesy family reunion shirts but we also do cool, multi-colored, really complicated prints and stuff like that. We do a wide spectrum of work.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.