Nov 14, 2019

The Ink Shop

My first job just out of High School was making ink.  From scratch.  It was a very dirty job.   On one hand it was kind of neat and I learned where ink comes from. On the other hand it was very gnarly.  Basically it involved busting some resin chunks out of a drum of hardened amber-like resin with a hammer and chisel. Then measuring out a few different toxic, flammable solvents and cooking them down in into a slurry. Then I would pour some carefully measured powder pigments in and mix it with a power mixer from 1942. After that pour the chunky mixture through a 3 roll mill from 1930 with no guards on it.  Imagine 3 2ft wide, 10” diameter rollers, spinning at a crazy speed with a millimeter gap between them.  A few times I accidentally got my spatula caught and it sucked it in and busted the wooden handle off not before the machine making a scary loud noise.  And it turned a cloth rag into soggy paper.  I would often picture worst case scenarios in my head where I wore a long sleeve shirt and it gets caught and sucks my hand in turning it into chunky catchup.  

It was a learning experience for sure.  It mostly sucked.  It was summer and I had long hair which I ended up cutting off because it was caked with dye by the end of the day.  The shower floor would be black and purple.  My boss was this old lady who inherited the business when she was like 30 from the guy who started the business in the 50’s.  The recipes were on handwritten (cursive) note cards from the 60's.  Honestly in 1995 I'm not sure how she was still in business.  She was old school and was like "just dump it in the gravel behind the building"  chemicals... the place was like 20 ft from a creek that emptied into a bay that was like 100 yards from the shop.   But I was a dumb kid and just did what the boss said.  Earth Day taught me this was wrong but it was money.  I remember the old dude from the Fire Dept. did our inspections and I'm pretty sure she was giving him favors for a clean write up. One day a new young guy showed up and we had all kinds of violations and we spent a ton of time cleaning out storerooms and stuff.  Pouring shelves of old ink onto newspapers and letting it dry so we could throw it away.  I'm sure with bigger companies it's all above board but this was a little hole in the wall legacy business with only a handful of old customers. 

One of the inks was for printing on meat.  Since it had to be FDA approved it was basically like making Kool-Aid but with no flavor. Those were the good days.  I remember one customer’s ink was used for the plastic jars of Icy Hot .  I can only imagine some foamer in charge of packaging at Icy Hot was like, 'this new eco-friendly ink is crap, find us a company that still makes the old good stuff.  The good cancer-causing stuff that actually sticks to the jars’  Some of the chemicals were so gnarly though.  I remember nitroglycerine was used in something I made. It scared the shit out of me thinking it would explode if I handled it wrong. Especially while mixing it with that old fucking mixer you could see sparks in the vent holes of.    Looking back it was probably the medicinal, non-explosive variety.  It could have been for this one horrible, horrible ink I used to make for this one customer. It was  so fucking bad.  One of the main ingredients was this stuff that came in a big 60 gallon drum and it was the worst.  I wore rubber gloves all the time but this stuff would burn me through the gloves and turn the gloves yellow.  It smelled like 1000 proof bourbon mixed with rotten milk and cow vomit.  One other main ingredient in this ink was tar.  Old fashioned roofing tar.  It was in solid form in a drum that I had to use a drum heater for.  I never knew such a thing as a drum heater existed but I used it to heat up the tar so that I could ladle out the amount I needed for this crazy death ink.  It still stunk like tar and fermented cow barf after it was finished.  She said he used it in felt tip pens.  I never looked at Magic Markers and Sharpies the same way again. 

I'm sure if I ever get a get cancer or a superpower it's gonna be from working there.  And now you know this.  Thanks for watching.