Tired of the common peel-and-paste stamps that are so easy a Postmaster General could use them? Well, you're in luck. Josh Berger, founding editor of Plazm Magazine and proprietor of Plazm Design, and his business partner Niko Courtelis, launched The Portland Stamp Company to make stamps the old-fashioned way – with perfs and glued backs. Courtelis, a passionate collector of postage stamps and designer of official stamps for Grenada, Sierra Leone, Tuvalu and Zambia, is the Chief Perforation Officer responsible for production. Here, Berger and Courtelis detail why stamps are so treasured as art and design — and social and political activism.
What is The Portland Stamp Company?
Berger: We specialize in lick-and-stick, pinhole-perforated poster stamps. Our aesthetic is historically rooted, but with a contemporary sensibility. We print in a variety of methods, including risograph, letterpress, screenprint, and digitally.
Courtelis: Poster stamps, also known as ‘cinderellas,' look like postage stamps and were often used as advertising or promotion, but were not valid as postage. They were popular in Europe before World War I. With The Portland Stamp Company, we hope to celebrate that tradition. We make custom stamps, limited-edition artistamps, and also have a line of stamp products, including do-it-yourself blank sets.
Did this begin as a mail art business?
Courtelis: Not exactly. Mail art in the tradition of Ray Johnson, Anna Banana and the International Union of Mail Artists is wonderful, and I do participate in mail art. However, any attempt to commercialize within that network doesn’t feel right. I did have a vintage pinhole perforating machine, and had managed to source dry gummed paper. So Josh and I were driving back from a design client meeting, and he was trapped in the car with me. I decided to pitch the idea to him. It was hare-brained, and not fully formed. But we had two essential ingredients, and simply needed money, a business plan, products, customers, distribution. … Naturally, he said "Yes."
Berger: It clearly met the Plazm criteria for a good business idea.
I'm glad to know about this, since I come from a stamp collecting (postage, advertising and art stamps) heritage and still collect plates and sheets. What were your first forays in philately?
Courtelis: My first memories of stamps were S & H Green Stamps. Remember those? They used to hand out scads of them. My dad would toss them in the back seat every time we got a tank of gas. I consider them a gateway drug. Like many stamp collectors, I got started collecting as a kid but set it aside for skateboarding, beer, girls … only to pick up again in art school, admiring the printing techniques, typography. Well-executed stamps really are miniature works of art.
The "Black Is Beautiful" series is indeed beautiful, meaningful, poignant and witty. How did this develop?
Berger: In the days after George Floyd’s murder, many people were putting blackout squares on their Instagram. I inverted one of our blanks so there were white perforations on a black sheet, and Niko said that would make a good stamp. We do a number of cause-related benefit stamps, so that’s where it started. A few days later I noticed our friend David Carson post his “Erase the Hate” graphic. I reached out to him to see if we could turn it into a benefit stamp. We were in the process of developing an artist-edition stamp with Tré Seals many months before that; his stamp is an evolution of earlier sketches he sent to us.
Courtelis: As Josh got the project going, I started work on the packaging, and remembered hearing the Black is Beautiful message as a kid.
I am well-aware of the long history of covering letters with non-governmental stamps (e.g., Christmas Seals), but your aphorisms ("We're only 55¢ Apart" and "By Snail Par L'Escargot") are little jabs at the USPS, now in Trump's gun sight. How has the Post Office responded to your art?
Berger: We love the Post Office! We just did a "Let’s Save
the Post Office" stamp with Josh MacPhee and Just Seeds.
Courtelis: Like the slow food movement, or the popularity of vinyl records, "Par L’Escargot" is a celebration of analog. We consider it a badge of honor that someone would take the time to hand-write a letter, rather than simply send an email. The USPS is essential to the fabric of this country, and to many small businesses like ours.
April is National Letter Writing month, and the country was in the early stages of locking down because of the pandemic. We wanted to send out a positive message and remind people that postcards and letters are an excellent way to stay in touch. We posted “We’re Only 55¢ Apart” on Instagram and sent them to anyone who asked, for free. It was inspired by not being able to visit with my 99-year-old grandmother in person, and sending her notes instead. The message still resonates.
I recall Donald Evans hand-painting fictional stamps from a fictional nation and using them as real postage. He was caught a few times. Any trouble for you?
Courtelis: Donald Evans’ work is truly magical. I’d never heard any stories of him being in trouble? We’re not attempting or encouraging anyone to defraud the USPS. As we said, we love the Post Office! our products are decorative, and meant to celebrate stamps. But you’ll still need to add 55¢ in valid U.S. postage.
I love the "Lucky Cat" block/plate of stamps. Have you thought of submitting to USPS—or at least sending them to Trump or his Postmaster General to get their goats?
Courtelis: Sean Tejaratchi did a beautiful job creating the screenprinted "Lucky Cat" stamps. If you think sending them to Trump or DeJoy will get their goats, count us in.
I used to think everyone should have a personal logo or monogram (after all, everyone's a brand of sorts). Now I'd lobby for personal stamps (even on emails).