On the relatively quiet side of Waterloo street, above some hipster coffee shops and a gelato store in what seems to be an unassuming HDB block, 261 Waterloo houses Risograph studio, Knuckles & Notch. Walking around the sleepy businesses on a Wednesday afternoon lends a laidback neighbourhood feel to the space.
I remember first coming back to Singapore in 2018 after working abroad and going to Knuckles & Notch’s original Bali Lane location; a promise of a vibrant printmaking scene in Singapore. As I’m feeling nostalgic about their former location, I approach a shop with large glass doors and windows, which show off the blue-rimmed arched doorways within. I’m immediately struck by the bright colours of various prints adorning the walls, which pop against the mostly white and wooden interior.
Then and Now
While the Bali Lane location was a smaller, darker, eclectic space located upstairs in a shophouse, the current studio feels bright and inviting. This makes sense as, a few months ago, Knuckles & Notch completed the run of their first exhibition for Singapore Art Week (SAW) 2023, Let’s Play Ball. It’s their first show to include a mix of mediums other than their staple, Risograph prints.
I’m greeted by the studio’s Co-Founder Marl Goh, who invites me to take off my shoes and have a look around. It’s like walking into a friend’s home or studio. The surfaces are covered in paper works, both in progress and completed; prints and other parcels in the midst of being packed up for their new owners; and lots of stationary in various containers.
But what exactly is Risography? Goh explains that Risography is a “semi-analogue print technique in which a master stencil is used for the printing process.” This art form is a hybrid of silkscreen and lithography techniques, and the inks used are vegetable oil-based, which results in vibrant colours while also giving the final product a raw feel.
Risography is not just the name of a process or art medium, it’s actually the brand name of the high-volume photocopying and print machine developed in Japan by the Riso Kagaku Corporation.
Often shortened to Riso, like the company name, Risography has become a printmaking technique that’s comparable to other printmaking mediums. Compared to other mediums, Goh tells me that “it’s definitely more affordable than silkscreen printing, cheaper to print publications and still get pretty much the same effects of silkscreen with Risograph.”
Goh’s first encountered Risograph prints holidaying in New York, while at an art book fair with her partner and Co-Founder Djohan Hanapi, back in 2011. Seeing silkscreen and Risograph artwork for the first time blew their minds. They were “obsessed with the distinctive colours and raw tactile look,” explaining that the results from Risograph were “something [they’d] never seen before,” leading them to feel that the medium had “so much artistic potential.”
Having a passion for analogue processes like medium format rangefinder cameras, darkrooms, and silkscreen printing led both Goh and Hanapi to fall in love with Risograph. Enough to decide to open a studio of their own!
They both only decided to start Knuckles & Notch after quitting their jobs in 2013. They travelled to London to one of the few Risograph presses there to create test prints, wanting to bring the medium to Singapore after seeing their own work immortalised in Risograph “exceed all expectations.” They then researched the technique and raised capital to start their business, mostly by saving from their salaried jobs. Opening Knuckles & Notch was a lifelong commitment, but it’s what they “obsess over and talk about all the time.”
“By opening our own studio, we finally had the freedom to share our love of analogue artmaking and expand on our crazy ideas. We wanted to explore illustration and photography using a medium that reflected our personalities.”
Shifting Spaces and Expectations
Since opening in 2013, the studio has grown from strength to strength, as proven by Let’s Play Ball. Goh expanded, “the reception was really unexpected, I was thinking that we might have at most 50 visitors and that they would be mostly friends showing up to support us, but we actually had almost 3000 attendees over the course of the nine days.”
Knuckles & Notch is uniquely positioned between the art and design realm to attract all sorts of visitors, from art lovers to curious design aficionados. Goh gushed about how “gratifying [it is] to see people from all walks of life trying to find out what we do.”
Goh observed that our local art scene is starting to integrate more “DIY culture and independent publishing,” but in order to survive as a business, they still need to make “practical” choices as running a business has a high cost.
It’s tough to run a small business, whatever field it may be in, but working in the creative industry can pose even more challenges. Goh knows a lot of other creatives who run their own studios take jobs as educators or other salaried and high-paying vocations “to foot the bill and save for their futures”—meaning that it’s rare to see people have a full-time practice. She notes that the creative landscape is still in the midst of change, and hopes that “maybe there are more people doing this full-time” than she knows about.
Small Operation Woes
Goh relays to me the difficulties of running a studio with only two people, saying that “as artists, it is always challenging to run a business, we have to learn and navigate the business world, we have to be less punk about certain things and just learn from trial and error.” They seem to have learned from their experience as she expands,
“Chaos is necessary to create, but we also need structure to balance it out… Both are necessary for us to function effectively.”
During our meeting, she lights up at an email she receives: one from a potential new hire who will ease her workload. She explains that having complete control over the operations as well as the process of making has always been their strength. “We’ve always had this strong urge to publish or produce our works from start to finish. It’s also a way that we can have 100% of the creative control over our art.”
But if being in control means limiting personnel, it also risks not having enough hands to complete the work. They don’t look at the studio simply as running a business; it’s something they’re dedicated to–“even on days when we don’t feel good about the outcome.” It might seem impractical to some, but passion surely drives this operation.
Challenges and Perseverance
However, no matter how much control the co-founders think they have, the Riso machines may have different ideas: they often break down. It is vital to maintain them, which is “a constant source of frustration,” Goh tells me. Not only is the part replacement process extremely technical, but the cost of replacing Riso machine parts is also high.
Another pressing concern pops up in the form of a recent burst pipe that flooded the studio, damaging and destroying works. Goh gravely tells me how important insurance is in light of this incident, and how lucky they were that although “the odds of our studio burning down are low,” they can “take steps to prevent it from happening again.”
Despite the challenges, Goh remains resilient, speaking about how it is “crucial to keep an open mind and heart to progress as creatives,” and pushing to have “conversations about current trends, social issues, and topics that inspire new art.”
Aside from their bread and butter of selling prints, Knuckles & Notch also operates as a small-scale publisher, working directly with collaborators of all creative varieties, illustrators, and photographers. Goh describes the kind of work they like to publish: “mostly works that hold meaning to the artists, a personal story, or something that emerged from their consciousness. Quirky, mundane, and even controversial topics or philosophical themes are most welcome.”
They often travel to book fairs internationally to sell their publications, which strengthens their networks with other studios near and far. Knuckles & Notch has quickly become a hub for their exchanges and their past work:
“Everything in our studio is an extension of our personalities and what we love to explore… It’s a constant conversation between ourselves and our collaborators. Art books, zines, publications, comics: a lot of them are archived in our studio library.”
On collaboration and seeking new talent
Many of the studio’s collaborators are friends; creatives they invited to show or publish with the studio that have had their working relationships evolve into real friendships. When asked where she scouts new talent, Goh answers quite practically: Instagram. When she comes across something she likes, she will reach out to artists on the platform, noting that “anyone who makes art with their hearts; we can tell right away. The process, energy, time, and work spent on each project are unique.”
Aside from publishing and exhibiting, the studio sells prints and other artwork on its web store and offers workshops. They also offer fabrication and printing services (where artists or designers can commission them to print their artworks). Recently, due to the demand for their workshops, which Goh tells me they often customise to their client’s specific needs, they have had to scale back.
Currently, the studio focuses mainly on workshops, where customers of all levels can start making their own Risograph prints and zines. For example, Goh tells me that they have received requests for bachelorette parties, so there might be some drinking and raunchy images produced. At the end of the evening, everyone goes home with a Riso print of their own. Fun!
Before leaving, I asked Goh what keeps her going and passionate about Risography and running the studio, to which she replied:
“The most satisfying part of running a Risograph studio is making your visions come to life in a tangible form and seeing people appreciate them.”
I spent a long time chatting with Goh in the space, speaking more about the studio and about my own history with silkscreen, and getting an in-depth tour of their silkscreen facilities. I felt like I was at a friend’s home, getting reacquainted with a muscle I hadn’t used in a long time, printmaking. I was super inspired to get back into it, and will probably take Goh up on her offer to use their equipment!
But even if you’re a beginner or this is the first time you’re reading about Risography, not to worry, just sign up for a workshop. Not a hands-on type? Pop in to have a look at their print and zine archive, you might even decide to take one home with you.
Knuckles & Notch is located at #02-25 261 Waterloo Street. Click here for more details.
A previous version of this article referred to Marl Goh as Marilyn Goh. This reference has been changed at Goh’s request.