Scrolling through printmaker Max Mahn’s website feels like a key to Missoula — the deeper you go, the more you realize you’ve seen this guy’s work everywhere, from public murals to posters in your buddy’s apartment to the Ghetto Gypsy bus.
But unless you know where to look, it’s not obviously Mahn’s because he doesn’t sign his work, something he picked up from his days as a graffiti artist.
“You want it out there, you want everybody to see it, but you don’t want people going, ‘Oh, that’s Max,’ ” Mahn said in a recent phone interview. Plus, if he doesn’t love the work, it’s still anonymous.
Mahn’s main work is gig posters. He’s left his mark through several touring bands that have come through Missoula in recent years, starting with Shannon and the Clams and including Frankie Cosmos, Andrew Bird and a very memorable Thee Oh Sees poster.
He got his start trading posters for beers with his friends in the band Wrinkles before branching out.
These days Mahn is based out of Powell, Wyoming, (though he still considers Missoula home) and is trying to make gig posters full time, after years working a day job at Garage Tees.
“(It’s) a lot of reaching out to people and getting rejected a lot … or not hearing back at all,” Mahn said. “In the past half-year I’ve had people reaching out to me, which is a big step.
“Hopefully, it should work out."
Mahn’s work has some through lines, although his style is almost more accurately described as a proliferation of styles, rather than one in particular.
There are some commonalities though. Mahn frequently draws cartoonish characters with bulbous, elongated noses and eyes that loop around the poster. He also uses what he calls “Twin Home teal” in many posters; a shade of aquamarine that he finds inexplicably appealing. Artist friends tease him about how often the teal shows up, so Mahn’s self-consciously trying to move to some other colors (salmon and mustard presently).
Those elements can often be the base of a gig poster, although they don’t always work with a band — bluegrass or folk groups don’t often jibe with the bizarre cartoonish style, so Mahn reworks it, coming up with some equally weird forest/camper/cowboy ideas for groups like The Mavericks and the Yonder Mountain String Band.
“It’s a lot easier to make a poster for a band you’ve listened to for a long time,” Mahn said.
Some come easily — like the Thee Oh Sees poster featuring a doll-like head with a third eye — but some take more work. The good thing is, Mahn said, bands usually understand what they’re signing up for when they commission gig posters.
“It’s artists working with artists,” he said. “The only trick is making sure your visions fit each other.”
Mahn went to the University of Montana for a fine arts degree, but the “fine art” part never really clicked for him. It wasn’t until a professor introduced him to screen-printing gig posters that he really fell in love with his work.
Between that and the graffiti, Mahn had a realization.
“I think I might just be attracted to weird art forms," he said.
Both are art subcultures that most people don’t make full-time work out of, or go to school for. They also can blend into the background — either on a passing train or papered up around town before a show — but when done right, they “really pop.”
“It’s just a concert,” Mahn said. “But if somebody loves that band and loves that show and there’s a poster that somebody spent hours on ... ”
Mahn’s set up at the Made Fair the last few years, and hopes he can get to some more art fairs now that he’s working full time.
The craft fairs are a good chance for Mahn to clear out some of his studio space; he’ll bring some prints, along with pieces of all the various merchandise he’s printed over the years, from small-run T-shirts to glass flasks and buttons: “tons of junk.”
The best part of art fairs are the old ladies who walk past Mahn’s booth and peer at the semi-phallic cartoons and menacing baby faces and remark “that’s very weird” before walking away.
“Hopefully, I can make that same mark somewhere else.”