Art need not be complicated to be effective; stamp art is proof of that. Each image made by the stamp is identical yet unique, depending on the pressure placed on the ink pad and the paper. The medium is perfect for children, but don’t mistake its child-like simplicity for childishness. The ink stamp is more than a children’s toy — its value extends beyond mere symbol.
In ancient China, the stamp was a signature before signatures, when artists literally put their stamp on their paintings to ID them as their own. The stamp, when applied to important documents and decrees, acted as the voice of authority and carried with it the power of a particular house or office’s reputation. It was the fingerprint long before fingerprinting became the official stamp of the accused.
The first Chinese stamps were difficult to make, carved in relief out of a small block of stone. They were square or circular in shape, carried a single word or phrase, and usually dipped in red ink, a lucky color. The oldest known stone stamps date back to around 1500 BC, and are still used in China by artists, if not the government. Though, notarized stamps continue to be a world wide a symbol of authenticity.
Stamping really came into popularity after the development of rubber. Although Mesoamerican cultures had been using stabilized natural latex to stamp images on their bodies since 1600 B.C, the use of rubber for stamping did not become popular in the industrialized world until much later. It wasn’t until 1866 (a few short years after Charles Goodyear discovered a way to vulcanize rubber) that it was first used to replicate printed text. The first stamp of its kind was a 4″x 6″ flat piece of rubber mounted to a curved block of wood that was used to print information on bath tubs. Rubber stamps like this one were subsequently used to mark packages and manufactured products. As demand for manufactured goods and systemized shipping grew, rubber stamp manufacturers multiplied. By 1892 there were 4,000 rubber stamp manufacturers and dealers in the United States alone.
According to internet sources, this number has now dropped to around 500. I visited one such manufacturer, the Hollywood Rubber Stamp Company, based in Los Angeles, California. Owner Lynne Plite explained how her family had been running the HRSC since it started back in 1935. “[We were] in the big brick building that used to be on Santa Monica and Highland. After 30 years of doing business there, my father was given 30 days to move out. That’s when he moved the business here.” “Here” is a cluttered office on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Wilcox Ave., where stamps fill the space from wall to wall and the original vulcanizing machine is now a prop holding a film can. It’s a place where some people walk in and remark that “its like stepping back in time.”
When asked if her business had taken a hit with the Internet and its e-printing Plite responds that “it’s actually gotten better the last couple of years. A lot of small businesses are stamping their products instead of printing out labels.” And this being the heart of the entertainment industry, the HRSC works with a lot of clients in television and film production. “There was an episode of Castle, with bloody paw prints left by a dog. We made the stamp they used to create the bloody paw print.” The Internet is helping some too. “People find us through Yelp,” Lynne says. “We’ve only got one bad review.”
The HRSC still makes their stamps on site, though now it’s with a computer. The joy of stamping is not lost on Lynne. “We still have Christmas card making parties with the kids at one table and the adults at another, stamping away.” She says, “Its’ amazing how different the art is people can make with one stamp.” It’s also fun to get your hands a bit inky now and then, isn’t it?” I ask. “Yes,” Lynne replies, “it sure is.”
Rubber stamps are like art but better. They’re functional art. Art you can use to make more art. A hand crafted rubber stamp is like a painting you can make other paintings with. You buy a stamp, you use a stamp. The artist and you are one. Wood handle. Soft rubber. Moist ink. Repeat. Most of us make a stamp the first day we come into this world on our birth certificate with our feet. Somebody one day will stamp your death certificate, certifying that you are indeed, dead. Its up to us to make our own stamp on everyday in between.