Shay Scranton knows band posters and the walls of Baylor University-area coffeehouse Common Grounds are thankful.
So are local residents who appreciate the craft of his artwork and an increasing number of musicians outside of Waco who see in Scranton a kindred artist.
Scranton’s artistic output spills over into more than the dozens of posters he turns out each semester for musicians and performers at Common Grounds. He handles the logos, art design and other graphics work for Common Grounds — even temporary repair signs for restroom doors — neighboring Heritage Creamery and Milo Biscuit Company food truck. His online store, Funeral Confetti, sells enamel pins, patches and novelty odds and ends across the country.
“He’s under the radar as far as notoriety is concerned,” observed Scranton’s boss, Common Grounds owner Blake Batson, who hopes the artist known as the “graphics chef” at Common Grounds stays as long as he can.
For Scranton, 32, the question isn’t one of life as a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, but being in a pond where the work is rewarding and life is comfortable. Waco, for him and for now, is that pond.
He grew up in Eddy with music and art running in the family. His father dabbled in art on the side, doing pencil illustrations and portraits from the Old West, while his maternal grandmother was a professional artist who did work for Texas Wildlife magazine. “She provided a good dose of art history for me,” he recalled. “I was good at drawing, but I wanted to do more than superheroes. I wanted to be a good artist. I guess I had a punk mentality about it: If it’s not honest, it’s not art.”
Music, not art, started him on his journey, beginning with the Waco-area punk rock band Well Inside Out, in which he played guitar. Stints with other bands, including the Psalters, took him away from Texas and introduced him to, among other things, the realities of band promotion and merchandise — lessons that still shape his poster- and merch-making.
In 2005, he was back in Texas visiting family when he decided to drop anchor for awhile. “I met a girl — one of the oldest stories there is,” he said. Scranton spent a lot of time hanging out at Common Grounds and he was doodling ideas for a ’zine one day when founder and then-owner Jill Mashburn made an offer he didn’t refuse — and it changed his life.
The band Mission to the Sea was performing that night without any promotion, and she was desperate: Could Shay whip up a poster for a week’s worth of free coffee? He agreed. That relationship moved in time from free coffee to a salary — “I was overcaffeinated with six or seven cups of coffee a night and it wasn’t good for my health, but I wanted to get my money’s worth,” he confessed — and to design duties that expanded into T-shirts, mugs, menus and the like.
Posters for each performance at Common Grounds, displayed at the coffeehouse and occasionally on copies posted around town as well as Common Grounds’ online media, became his visual calling-card.
When Batson and his wife, Kimberly, bought Common Grounds from Mashburn in 2012, one of his first decisions was to retain Scranton and have him do even more. “I got to know Shay when I was managing Common Grounds . . . I saw the quality of his work and the uniqueness of his skill set,” he said. “Part of our business and tradition is a unique, hand-drawn poster for every thing we do. We couldn’t have that without Shay.” Batson not only had Scranton work up the visual style of Common Grounds — logo, menu, signage, posters, business cards — but also for other Batson ventures, Heritage Creamery and Milo Biscuit Company
So how does Scranton craft a poster? Image and meaning are central, but so is something that sticks in the viewer’s mind. “There’s got to be a gimmick to the image,” he said. Posters communicate style, tone and metaphor in addition to the essentials of band name, time, date, place and tickets. Scranton reserves the bottom one-eighth of his 11-inch by 17-inch poster rectangle for the latter, freeing the rest of the space for imagination.
Though his years as a musician and DJ make him more than conversant on bands and music, Scranton often relies on song lyrics for inspiration, finding an image that interprets a song or the band’s sensibility. His knack for that has caught the eye of many touring bands, who sometimes approach him to design posters for their use. He usually starts with a rough sketch, but quickly moves to digital media, not only for the ease of image manipulation but translation to multiple products — poster, T-shirt, logo — if needed.
From blank slate to finished poster takes him about five hours, he said, an efficiency honed by a workload of about two dozen posters per semester and Scranton’s digital archive of every piece of art he’s done for Common Grounds.
Posters, it turns out, isn’t his first love and a glance at the black wardrobe he prefers — his light brown eyes often adding the only splash of color — tips his preference for black-and-white illustration and drawing. He’s also a big fan of screen-printing, a tricky medium that looks simple, but which takes some attention to detail and technique to pull off consistently. It also has limitations of palette and design that get Scranton’s creative juices flowing.
This year, Common Grounds started offering Scranton’s posters as part of special ticket packages, with bands’ permission. Results have been mixed— the venue has broken even on expenses for the four shows featuring the ticket-poster package, but Batson said the idea wasn’t to make money as much as allow customers the chance to buy his artwork.
The coffeehouse owner and entrepreneur still is mulling over a pet project he’s hoping he can figure out the finances to realize: a coffee table book showcasing the best of Scranton’s posters.
“He’s the real deal,” he said.