Chances are, you’ve already seen Jacob Middlebrooks’ work. Middlebrooks, who owns Smoke Screen Printing & Design, has been screen-printing since 1995 when he was just a kid at Gardendale High School.
Since Smoke Screen’s 2006 inception, Middlebrooks has created work for major organizations like Smokefree Alabama and for local artists, bands and businesses like Paul Wilm, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Black Market Bar & Grill and Bottletree Café.
Such a client sheet is impressive for a 33-year-old who operates his screen-printing business out of his home with only two employees — girlfriend Jennifer Toole and a 17-year-old apprentice.
Impressive, too, is the “home office” for Smoke Screen. In the hills of Irondale, Middlebrooks, a musician and painter, went full-blown DIY: converting his modest home into a fully functioning studio. As screen-printing calls for both creative and pragmatic ingenuity, Middlebrooks made home adaptations: turning a closet to a dark room, a coffee table into a flash dryer.
From cutting stencil to pulling squeegee, the multi-step craft asks an artist to be patient and persistent. The same can be said of launching — and literally building — a small business.
When Middlebrooks began working in the industry as part of Gardendale’s work-study program, he was attracted to the craft’s artistry and ties to the music industry. He began creating and printing his own designs. One of the perks of screen-printing as a high school kid, Middlebrooks says, was being able to make T-shirts of obscure bands.
“I’ve got friends from high school that still have T-shirts I made them,” Middlebrooks says. “And I’m making shirts for their bands now. It was those early years, working in the industry, looking at the invoices — I realized I could do it myself.”
In the years before the business, though, Middlebrooks earned an art degree at UAB and held various odd jobs “like most good art students.” But by 2006, he was operating a screen press out of his kitchen.
“Any little step I took in college or afterward,” Middlebrooks says, “was all building toward this goal. I didn’t want to deliver pizzas my whole life. I wanted to get to the point where I could start something for myself and build from there.”
And so he did. “In 2009,” Middlebrooks says, “I was doing the part-time gigs, and they dried up. So it was all or nothing. I had to get more creative and figure out how to make the ends meet, and it worked out.”
Middlebrooks points out that the recession wasn’t a catalyst to a new career but instead fast-tracked his life’s goals. “Honestly, I wouldn’t say that my path was: ‘I lost my job. I’ve got to do something else.’ This was something I’ve wanted to do since I was 10 years old. I always pictured myself having my own place, doing what I wanted to do — whether is be making art or music. I wanted to support myself doing it. And be happy with it.”
“I’m an artist, too,” Toole, a quilter, says. “A lot of our intention for the future is not only to do commercial print jobs but to play with the fine art side of screen printing.”
So far, Smoke Screen continues to attract business big and small. “We’ve had several large jobs every quarter but the bread and butter is the smaller restaurant, the bar or venue, bands, other small businesses,” Middlebrooks says.
Recently, Smoke Screen did all the printing for Skybucket Records’ 10th anniversary celebration. Skybucket founder Travis Morgan says he was impressed with the careful attention Middlebrooks gave his project — and with the popularity of the T-shirts.
With the funds from commissioned jobs, Smoke Screen launched a web apparel store six months ago, featuring T-shirts with a unique blend of mainstream and counterculture.
“We’re trying to have fun by combining something like sci-fi with football. It’s sort of like a mash up,” Middlebrooks says.
The wit, artistry and fandom of the shirts earned the line an instant customer base.
Middlebrooks morphed a Battlestar Galactica cylon into an Auburn football helmet. He’s wedded the classic Motorhead fanged logo with the Florida gator. And, most infamously, Middlebrooks paired the University of Alabama head football coach with a malevolent pentagram for a T-shirt that reads, “Hail Saban.”
“I’d consider it a shirt for metal fans,” Middlebrooks says. “It’s all tongue-in-cheek. It’s a joke. It’s a T-shirt.”
Some folks didn’t get the joke. Football fans that found the T-shirt offensive went into an online uproar, including an ongoing debate on the blog Saturday Down South.
“It was surprising how many people got upset about [Hail Saban],” Middlebrooks says. “But that wasn’t a bad thing for us. Those first two weeks, I was sitting in the office, packing T-shirt after T-shirt into envelopes, thinking, ‘Whoa.’”
“We can’t go out without seeing one of his shirts,” Toole says.
Feedback Music’s Emanual Ellinas sells the T-shirt line in his shop. The shirts, he says, are doing well, especially considering Feedback is a music, not clothing, shop. Consensus is the shirts are “super cool and funny.”
Middlebrooks also prints the art for Ellinas’ Sitori Sonics custom effects pedals. “I’ve recorded his music. He’s a friend. If we all help each other try to do the things we want to do for a living,” Ellinas says, “then we all get to do what we want for a living.”
The success of the Hail Saban T-shirt and other football mash-ups gives Middlebrooks the luxury of expanding projects for Smoke Screen — to continue doing what he loves for a living. For one, Middlebrooks built a studio on his land to move the operation from his kitchen and basement to an all-inclusive workshop.
“We’ve put everything we’ve made back into the business,” Middlebrooks says. “I want to build. I’d like for this to be around for a while. I’d like for this to be a full-service screen-printing shop. I’d love to be able to train my younger employee and see him step up and take a production role where I could step back and not necessarily have to work as hard, labor-wise, in the future.”
Middlebrooks puts in 12 to 14 hour workdays, six or seven days a week, and recognizes he won’t always be physically up to the task.
“Honestly, I see myself as being a job creator and providing opportunities for artists, locally, who could use a vessel to make a living. I’ve set it up. I’m ready to step back and let some young-bloods come in and make their money, too. I wouldn’t say a cooperative, you know, but definitely community-based. That’s where we want to go.”