For weeks before Charles Youel staged his first dream poster show, he had a recurring nightmare: The posters all looked alike.
It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. He had recruited dozens of artists to create handmade works around a single theme — bikes. But bicycles, Youel quickly learned with relief, inspire multitudes. The first Artcrank show included a loosely drawn guy, bike and his dog sliding out of the city, the word “FREEDOM” below. A foxy brunette leaning over her handlebars. Colorful wheel spokes, falling through the air like snowflakes.
“Whatever you love about bikes, whatever reason you bike, you see that experience reflected in the work,” said Youel.
That turned out to be true not just for 34 posters but 3,000.
Artcrank, the original bike poster pop-up show, turns 10 years old this year. Since the first, makeshift exhibit at One on One Bicycle Studio in Minneapolis, Artcrank has staged events in dozens of cities across the United States. Twice in London. Paris, too. More recently, Artcrank popped up online, offering handmade prints for limited runs.
Youel, 48, is celebrating with a Minneapolis show on July 8. It should feel like past events — lots of beer, $40 prints and free admission. “We decided early on, if we were going to have people spend money,” Youel said, “we want them spending money on posters.”
At this show, those 50 posters are the greatest hits, some of them reprinted for the first time in a decade. “We know how much great art we have,” said Nicki McCracken, Youel’s wife and business partner. “But it’s only been shown for one night, maybe 10 years ago. So it will be exciting for people to see posters they haven’t seen before.”
In a recent interview in his northeast Minneapolis office lined with posters, Youel talked about what sparked the first show, how it grew and the moment he realized it had expanded too far. Youel is a copywriter, skilled at telling his story. So here it is, in his own words, edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did Artcrank come to be?
A: Ten years ago, I was working as a creative director and copywriter for an advertising agency. A lot of the work I was doing was website-driven — e-mails, building sites, doing online advertising campaigns. That was really cool, but there was also this part of me that wanted to create stuff in the real world. I also wanted to work in a category where I had a little more emotional investment. I mean, I love financial services [laughs] … but my passion has always been for cycling. And on the creative side, my passion is for posters. So Artcrank came about as an antidote to everything I wasn’t getting to do in my day job. The show came out of a conversation with Gene Oberpriller, who’s one of the co-owners of One On One. It just hit me all at once. I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Bike. Themed. Poster show.”
Q: At that point, did you work with artists you knew?
A: Most of the people I was riding bikes with at that time were designers or illustrators from my agency or other shops. There’s this tremendous crossover between the cycling community and the creative community. So there were probably 10 or 12 people from that group that I knew I could count on, and then I asked around. Before I knew it, I had this roster of 35 artists. Which was, at that point, all the work I could fit in One on One because it’s not a huge space.
Q: Take me back to that night: What did it look like, feel like?
A: The stupidest thing about it is that I wasn’t even there when the doors opened. I had been at the shop since the moment it opened Saturday morning, putting posters up on the wall. My wife literally came and dragged me out of the shop a half-hour before the opening, saying, “You haven’t eaten all day. You’re going to lose your mind.” So we went next door to what was then Cafe Havana.
I figured, nobody shows up early for these things. We’re going to open the doors at 7, maybe by 8 o’clock people will start coming. We’ve got 34 artists, so maybe there will be 50 people — 100 if we’re having a really good night. By 7:15, we walked out the doors and walked into a line that was stretching halfway down the block. I was like, OK, this I did not expect.
Q: So more than the artists’ families showed up.
A: Yeah, it wasn’t just the people who were obligated to be there. The cycling community generally is kind of cliquey. The road riders don’t talk to the mountain bikers, and the fixie kids don’t talk to the commuters, and the messengers don’t talk to anybody. [Laughs.] This was one of the first times I had seen all these people from all the different subcultures of cycling in the same place, enjoying something and realizing they had the more important thing in common after all.
Q: What clique are you in?
A: I kind of cut across all of them. I think life is more interesting when you experience lots of different things. Part of what I’ve had as an advantage — I didn’t grow up here. So when I got into cycling — or back into cycling — it wasn’t because I had this group of people I had always ridden bikes with. It was more a discovery thing, a chance to try new things. I started with mountain biking and moved to road biking. The best thing I ever did from a personal, mental, physical health standpoint was start riding my bike to work. Whatever happens during the day, at least I knew I would start with a bike ride and end with a bike ride. It was something to look forward to. And that in itself is its own style of riding.
Q: Growing up in St. Louis, what do you remember about riding a bike as a kid?
A: I remember doing very little else besides riding bikes as a kid. I was the kid who — before he really knew how to use the brakes — was building jumps in the front yard and trying to make the thing actually fly. I think everybody has that experience, too, with bicycles. It is the closest you can get to flying without actually leaving the ground. And when you first experience that as a kid, the wind’s blowing in your hair, the world’s just flying by, people remember that, that sticks with people.
Q: How did Artcrank become your full-time gig?
A: I would love to say that I quit my job and decided to do nothing but Artcrank. But the true story is that my job quit me. Lost my last full-time gig in 2009, during the recession to end all recessions. I would go on job interviews for positions that would have seemed like the best job in the world a year earlier. But I would go back to my car and think, I can’t take this anymore. I need to try something else. Well, there’s this thing you do once a year. And you’ve been getting e-mails from people in other parts of the country saying, hey, this is cool.
So I started actually responding to some of those e-mails. And within a couple of months, I had shows lined up in Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Denver and St. Louis, with a buddy of mine from high school who owned a bike shop.
Q: Then there was all this growth. When did you know you needed to pull back?
A: That story kind of starts with what was our peak year, 2013, when we had 15 shows in three countries. I basically spent eight or nine months out of that year getting on a plane, going somewhere once or twice a month. That’s one of those things that sounds really cool, but it’s business travel — a bunch of really long commutes that involve going through TSA.
What I learned from that is that if I keep trying to grow this, I can’t make the revenue grow as fast as the demands for the business. So I may be adding shows, but we’re not making more money. Every time you move into a new market, it’s an investment. And as much fun as this is, and as cool as this is, if I keep trying to do this, I will be both broke and dead.
Because fiscally, physically, mentally, I can’t keep up with this. Honestly, the worst part of it was, I wasn’t riding bikes anymore.
Q: What were your goals with starting the e-commerce shop in 2015?
A: What’s the event experience and how can we best recreate that online? So the first aspect was, OK, handmade work. We’re going to focus on screen-printed posters and letterpress and other sort of craft printing techniques. Beyond that, the core idea of the show was to make art as accessible as bikes are. I would love to live in a world where people were able to pay more than $45 or $50 bucks for a screenprinted poster. We’re not there yet, so I had to keep that price structure.
Q: As you look back on 10 years, what’s changed?
A: I think the most consistent trend is that as the show has grown, the diversity of cycling experiences that people put into their work has expanded. As cycling has become more a part of everyday life for people, it’s opened up a lot of different creative venues for exploration. A lot of the work we get now is more casual cycling, more commuting, stuff like that.
Cycling in this country, in particular, has almost always been viewed as something competitive, or fitness-oriented. When people think of cyclists, the image that comes to mind is usually somebody in very tight Lycra outfit riding very fast on a very small bike. And the truth is that the cyclist is just somebody who rides a bicycle.