I Used to be a (Mail) Artist!

 Thirty years ago or so, I was very involved in being an "artist" -- of sorts. I was sharing my art with people all over the world--and they were sharing their art with me. Yet somehow  I had amazingly almost completely forgotten about it--the people, the art, the amount of time I spent working on it--until I was going through boxes and papers in preparation for a move.

Back in the 80s and 90s, before there was email or texting, the world relied upon letters to stay in communication with friends in other parts of the world. True, there was still the telephone. But mail allowed you to get your thoughts out on paper, express yourself fully...and not be interrupted by call waiting or someone else needing to use the phone. As a kid who loved to read, I also really fancied writing. I wrote letters all of the time. At some point I took it upon myself to adorn the envelopes. I would send these missives to friends and families with stickers, doodles and other forms of decorations all over the envelopes. Before long, I was spending as much time--or more--working up the envelopes as I did writing the letters. 

A photograph of me in Frankenstein garb was the inspiration for this envelope.

My aunt was one of my favorite people who lived a ways away from me. I often sent her my decorated letters. She liked them and thought it was rather interesting that I was making them, as my father had done something similar when he had been about my age. She sent me one of his envelopes that she had saved.

An example of an envelope done by my bio dad.

I did not and do not speak to my biological father. I had no idea he had done this and thought it was an interesting coincidence. But what he did and what I did were very different things, very different styles. 

Somehow I started writing to my friend Dina's mom, Sue Nan, in Southern California, whom I only met a time or two. She also decorated her envelopes, but she used rubber stamps that she had made and stickers.  It was Sue Nan that sort of alluded to a world of people who decorated their outgoing mail--but she was mostly familiar with rubber stamped stuff. They were very cool -- but again different from what I was doing. (She did make me some fab tiki stamps not too long ago, though...)

One of Sue Nan's awesome rubber stamp and sticker creations.

Having been a life-long fan of movie posters, it was no surprise that my envelopes, although they were mostly collage, were done so in a way that they could be seen as horizontal posters for bogus Hollywood blockbusters (or low-budget exploitative trash).
A greeting card bought at a local, quasi-head shop called Penny Candy inspired this envelope.

Not all were movie poster-esque. Some were just weird collages. I would also have things coming off of the sides of the rectangular envelope. (Why be confined to a 4 x 9 1/2 inch space?) These pop-off pieces I reinforced with cardboard on the back.
That open wound on the upper left corner was a rubber Halloween scar that I sewed to the envelope.

I was constantly amazed that my non-standard envelopes made it through the mail. I was also surprised at some of the things I got away with sending on them. There were things like toe nail clippings, a little dead (real) scorpion, and, in one instance, real pubic hair (that was NOT mine). The more that got through the mails successfully, the more I "pushed the envelope" so to speak.
Yep, this envelope featured pubic hair--NOT mine--safely sealed behind clear glue. The story of how I came to have the creepy hair is detailed on the envelope itself. O' the horror!

Eventually, I heard a woman interviewed on a local radio station about a local Mail Art show. Her name was Mallory Moad. Mallory was the turning point for me. She had apparently been doing something similar for years as well--more so with rubber stamps again, but she informed me that there was this whole underground thing that people did called "Mail Art." Mail Art? Who knew? I was unable to send anything in for that show's deadline, but I did enter subsequent shows and Mallory and I became friends.

Mail Art turned out to be far more than just decorated envelopes. People sent stickers they had made, rubber stamps, drawings, paintings, cassette tapes (with obscure music or weird rants), or just random crap they'd find -- from all over the world. I even received a piece or two from semi-famous Mexican artist Gerardo Yepiz. There were also a lot of people creating their own homemade magazines --- which were called zines (as in maga-zine). Those were always so varied and interesting.

Some examples of some 'zines from back in the day. "Teenie-Weenie Magaziney" (upper left corner) was produced by friends of mine and was a hoot!

One such 'zine was Global Mail. Global Mail was a great resource. It was your gateway to mail art shows (Yes, there were galleries and studios having shows devoted to mail art.), projects, and just random people looking to meet other mail artists. 

Everyone in the Mail Art world had a Mail Art name. Some of my more frequent Mail Art correspondences were with people who called themselves Pag-hat the Rat-girl, Effluvia, Rudi Rubberoid, Malok, and Dyslexic. Mallery's was The Moadster. I went by several names, trying to be clever or ironic (but maybe not being all that successful at it). I don't recall all of my names, but some the ones I went by were Mr. Hokey Pokey--the Multiple Amputee, and Full Frontal MAIL Nudity. The MAIL Prostitute was the name I was known by the most. 

A drawing/postcard from Walt Evans.

A group of friends (Henry, Christy, and Shawna) had a silly, just-for-fun club they called The Honeycomb Hideout (Yes, based off of the cereal commercials from the '70s). They each had secret Bee names (Henry was Bumble Bee, Christy was Queen Bee, Shawna was Honey Bee). I was invited to join and become one of the gang. I regret my chosen Bee name. I should have chosen Fresno Bee, as I would later become a writer for The Fresno Bee newspaper. Instead, I reached back into my childhood and chose Mr. DO-Bee. Everyone assumed it was a reference to pot/"dobie" (which was never my thing), but it really was harkening back to Mr. Do-Bee on the old "Romper Room" TV show. ("Don't be a DON'T-Bee. Do be a DO-Bee!")

For the Honeycomb Hideout, I made us stationary. (I drew little bee bodies, then cut out pictures of our faces and stuck them on.) Our slogan (I forget who coined it.) was "Sweetness with a sting." But I introduced the Honeycomb Hideout Gang to Mail Art. I found letters addressed to me/Mr. DO-Bee at the Honeycomb Hideout Headquarters when I was sorting through stuff. Henry and Christy created the Teenie-Weenie Magaziney 'zine, which I thought was brilliant as well as creative.

Naturally, because my envelopes and other things were mailed off, I really don't have examples of many to share. My aunt saved a bunch and sent them to me when I had to do a presentation once on "something unusual that you do" for a class. Those I have yet to unpack -- if I still have them. The few I do have still, I purchased back (they were sold for charity) from a Mail Art show at a gallery in my town. But because I was mailing them off, I started keeping records of them. I would take the finished envelope and Xerox it before I mailed it off. 

For the most part, I used copies of old newspaper movie ads or things I'd cut out of magazines or off of junk mail to make up the imagery and sensational verbiage. For my "movie poster" envelopes, while the images and tag lines may have been cut from real movie ads, they were completely repurposed and used for my completely made up, non-existent movies. Some of my Mail Art pieces I loved and was proud of. Others were not the most inspired, but... It was interesting to me, it was creative, and I enjoyed it. People seemed to like them, too.
From the Mail Art that I received or saw at shows, I was inspired to do a few different things and occasionally step outside of the envelope. Mail Art shows usually had themes. You didn't necessarily have to submit something that fit the theme, but it was nice if you did. I remember one piece I made repurposing a small round box. I don't remember what the project was about, but when you took the lid off, there were fish inside, dangling from lines from the underside of the lid.  Another project (that I found at home, unfinished) made use of some promotional crap I'd gotten in the mail. I'd painted it black and was in the process of making it this whole elaborate piece about UFOs, extraterrestrials, and alien invasions--using, of course, various copies of sci-fi movie ad clippings. I had a booklet, space glasses, etc. It could have been cool.

When I was going through my old Mail Art stuff, I was flabbergasted by how little I had remembered about it. There were lots of actual letters from people I had no recollection of corresponding with. While I did keep some things, most of it ended up in the trash, I am sorry to say. 

Why did Mail Art end? It may still be around. I don't know. For me, it just sort of faded away. In the early/mid 90s, I was finishing up my Bachelor's degree in English and then working on my teaching credential. All the cutting and pasting and glitter glue got channeled into props and decor for the classroom. Postage started getting more expensive and email started getting more prevalent. Mail Art just slowly took a back seat to real life. 
Stamp out boredom. Mail Art!

I did find this one last, unfinished envelope that I kept. I don't know if I'll ever finish it or not. You never know. I mean, who wouldn't like a little mail magic or postal pizzazz in their mailbox? 

For a follow-up, click HERE.


Mikey said…
These are great! It sounds like a lot of fun making and mailing out.
Sue Nan Douglass said…
LOVED seeing these Shawn! I didn't know you were so involved in The Mail Art movement! I still have every single envelope you mailed to me. They were all photographed and shown many times in slide shows at Stampfest a yearly retreat where fellow stamp artists gathered in Montecito. Mail Art is an International phenomena! I have a book published by Vittore Baroni illustrating mail art world wide. Hand carved stamps were often a part of mail art because artists wanted to create their own postmarks and faux postage. I was included in one of those books by John Held Jr. a well known carver and mail artist. The book was: L'Arte del Timbro: Rubber Stamp Art. I have attended various mail art exhibits and as far as I know, artists are still adorning their envelopes. I know I am! Hopefully the postal workers get a little laugh every time one slips through! Thanks for sharing yours. They take the prize for humorous content!
Monster A Go-Go said…
Mikey: Thanks for visiting. Yes, I really enjoyed making those envelopes and other things. Now that's it's kind of back in my mind, I miss it... CHEERS!
Monster A Go-Go said…
Sue Nan! Zowie! I'm glad you like this little piece and that you still have the envelopes I sent you. Ha! You are an amazing stamp artist. I could never do that. If I tried to carve a rubber stamp it would be a disaster...and I would not be organized enough to be able to keep the stamps from getting lost.

Keep up the good work! Stamp away!!!!

Wow, mail art, I had no idea that this existed! Amazing and inspiring and so much you, Shawn! The idea of actual letters reminds me of the time before computers and email etc. when I first moved abroad in the early seventies. The only contact with my family in Switzerland at the time was via phone calls (expensive) and letters. I still have many of the handwritten letters I received from friends and family and I collected a few of the ones I wrote to them. I think as fun and interesting social media/email etc. can be, something got lost with the "disappearance" of handwritten letters. Well, I hope to hear and see some more of your mail art!! Cheers!
Monster A Go-Go said…
Hi Christa! Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving a note. I'm glad you liked reading about my mysterious Mail Art past...and that I exposed you (Gasp!) to it. Digital stuff is fun and can be amazing---but it doesn't last. It's not "real". I totally get what you mean. CHEERS!
Mike O said…
So cool!! Having received your very creative and humorous post cards, this doesn't surprise me at all. The 90s were the best. I had a few friends where we would send each other postcards where we would draw on them, and also letters where we did collages and funny doodles inside, but nothing to this level (and I don't think we decorated the envelopes at all). Loved reading this!
Monster A Go-Go said…
Mr. Mike. I am ever so glad that you read the blog post and enjoyed it. I have a feeling there may be a follow up post in the near future. Sue Nan is planning to return all of the envelopes I made to me...and I do believe the ones my aunt saved and sent back are also somewhere here. It will be interesting to see what they were like as I have no recollection.
I hope you've come back if that posts ever happens.
Thank you for visiting.
djande said…
I was one of the people who received your glorious mail art in the mid-1990's when I was living in Issaquah, WA! In a weird bit of synchronicity, just this morning I googled your name, and this blog happened to pop up! It was always fun to get your inspired pieces of art in the mail -- I seem to remember you sending me a bunch of rare VCR tapes at one point, too. I'd bet I have a bunch of them in a box around here, somewhere -- I'll have to look.
Monster A Go-Go said…
Djande! Oh my STARS! How exciting and interesting that you found my blog post--I just posted it last week. I don't remember the name "Djande" but do recall writing to someone in Issaquah, WA. Did you go by a different Mail Art name then...or maybe by your real name? Were you, perhaps, the fellow who worked in the (was it?) hotel? No? I thought it was weird. During my Mail Art years, the bulk of the people I wrote to seemed to be in the Northwest. Some in Oregon, but most in Washington. Ha! Send me your address and I'll send you some 21st century Mail Art (which is the same type of Mail Art, but just made TODAY. (Can I get private messages on here? I have no idea. I think you can from one of my other blog/Instagram sites. Here is my linktree thing: https://linktr.ee/Monster_A_GoGo ) Ha!
I am so glad you remembered me, looked for me, found the blog post (No one but my friends ever sees my blog. I keep it kind of quiet/private. So having you find it is bizarre-o-rama!) and left the comment. How delightful. It made my whole day. (And I only crawled out of the tangle of blankets and sheets that is my bed about an hour ago!) Thank you. I hope you see this message. CHEERS!
djande said…
I wasn't working at a hotel, I was traveling around the country doing music based out of a college in Issaquah. I'll send you a PM one of these days and we can "catch up!"
Monster A Go-Go said…
djande---Oh YES! I DO remember you now. (Duh--DJ Ande. I totally get it now.) And I do remember your letters about your travels. THANK YOU for checking back. I do hope to hear from you soon. CHEERS!
Monster A Go-Go said…
djande... I do remember you now. I'm trying to think of your last name. Does it begin with a "K"?
Anonymous said…
Shawn...this is so amazing! I had no idea you did this! I wish I had time to do these. It looks like so much fun! Maybe someday...XO~Mandy
Monster A Go-Go said…
Thank you for taking a look and leaving a note. I'm very pleased you liked the results of my little hobby. It was/is fun. Cheers