Max Mahn went to school for art, but he honed his skills on a wall at the California Street footbridge, west of Missoula's downtown galleries. The favorite spot used by graffiti artists has mostly been preserved, rather than painted over by the city. It's been a canvas that has provided a relatively sheltered spot for street artists to play.
"I definitely wouldn't have any of the skills that I have now if that wall didn't exist," Mahn says. "It's a really good way to practice."
If you ever noticed the big, colorful "Ghetto Gypsy Bus" bumping around town, engulfed in a sound cloud of electronic music and dance-party chaos, you'll see Mahn's curvy characters and lettering on the side. He also has a mural in Pie Hole, the new pizza shop downtown, and his work is on the side of another bus—the one parked outside of Real Good Art Space, a gallery where he'll be showing some of his art this First Friday. His style is inspired by the bubbly tags of European street artists (as opposed to a lot of the classic angular American graffiti you might see on trains around town).
Mahn grew up in a family of artists. His dad is Phil Mahn, a local potter and vice president of Clay Studio of Missoula. His grandfather was a woodworker, his grandmother a water color painter. His cousin works with woodcuts and aquatints and his brother is getting a master's in painting in Chicago. With that influence, Mahn's always been interested in graffiti as an art rather than an act of defiance or destruction.
"People take graffiti in different ways," he says. "There are some people who are like, 'I want to destroy everything and I want to just paint on everything.' Other people want it to look nice. I'd rather have one nice thing I painted than a hundred shitty things. Destroying shit—that's never been my mentality."
One of Mahn's main passions is gig posters, something one of his UM art professors, Jim Bailey, encouraged him to do. He started out drawing for some friends in a band called Wrinkles. In the last couple of years, he's taken on posters for some beloved touring bands like Shannon and the Clams, as well as bigger acts such as G. Love and Special Sauce, Heartless Bastards and Yonder Mountain String Band. He's done event posters for Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and Montana Book Festival, and he even designed the cover to the Indy's most recent holiday Gift Guide, complete with giant robots ravaging a Christmas village with fire.
Mahn started his design service, Twin Home Prints, in 2014 and works at Garage Tees, a local screen printing shop. He isn't prolific yet, but he has fans among the arts community who admire his colorful style. One of those people is Jack Metcalf, the popular local artist, master of quirkiness and owner of Real Good Art Space. Metcalf taught Mahn printmaking his first year in college, and he's been a supporter of the young artist ever since. Metcalf's own exhibits deal with larger, conceptual ideas about art as an experience, but he often does it through mass production of pieces, including screen prints.
"I think graffiti and screen printing are both democratic," Metcalf says on a recent Saturday as he helps Mahn prepare the studio for the First Friday show. "In screen printing, you're making multiples of something for a lot of people. And graffiti is readily available to the public eye."
Mahn's posters aren't necessarily the kind you see flyered up on a billboard outside a convenience store, though. What he makes will often end up for sale on bands' merchandise tables (he gets a commission for them) or, as with the 500 G Love posters he made—which feature a giant rock heart submerged in a shark-infested ocean—used by the band as limited-edition VIP gifts. Sometimes the bands have ideas for how the posters should look, but often, Mahn gets to be the sole creative designer.
"Even if I don't like the band I'll listen to their music," he says. "I'll hang out—maybe not even draw anything—have a couple of beers and sit there not even thinking of a design, just getting familiar with what they're going for. Reading interviews with the band helps, too. It's fun."
The First Friday show, titled First Annual Candy Wrapper's Hippity Hoppity Ball, should have that anti-art, democratic flair. It will feature Mahn's freestyle spray-painted graffiti works and a display of his gig posters, plus live screen printing of his work. There will also be a performance by rapper Big Diction, plenty of 40-ounce beers to drink and possibly a basketball hoop for anyone who wants to play. So, "fun" is the key word here. Mahn's learned a lot from working with other artists such as Metcalf, but he knows that stripping away any pretense of what his art means is when he does his best work.
"I found out I wasn't really into conceptual art during my school years," he says. "Gig posters and [graffiti] are a good way to stray away from it but keep a fun medium. It's less high-brow, more casual. That way I can make something that looks cool rather than think about why it looks cool."
Max Mahn and Big Diction present the First Annual Candy Wrapper's Hippity Hoppity Ball at Real Good, 1205 Defoe St. #1, Fri., March 4, from 8 to 10 PM.