If you’ve ever seen one of Chicago’s Pipeworks beer cans, you might’ve had the following thoughts: “Is that ninja about to stab a unicorn?” and “Who drew that?” The answers are as follows: “duh, the beer’s called Ninja vs. Unicorn” and “Jason Burke.”
We spoke to Burke about how he got his start producing labels for Pipeworks striking cans and bottles, and the laborious, fascinating process on how art gets slapped onto some of your favorite beer cans.
Burke doesn’t just produce colorful, 90's rock gig inspired, monster-filled art for one of the Windy City’s finest breweries. He’s also designed a skate deck for the punk band Anti-Flag, is fashioning an effects pedal for a guitar, and messes around with ceramics. Oh, and he’s in a band called Stolen Airplane.
His musical past, in a roundabout way, scored him the gig.
“A friend of mine went to a Pipeworks event,” Burke says. “He started talking to one of the owners, who said they were going to begin releasing bottles.” The friend recommended to Pipeworks’ Beejay Oslon and Gerrit Lewis that they check out Burke’s work. “I was doing flyers and punk rock show posters,” Burke says. “And they said they liked my stuff.”
After they offered him the opportunity to design the label for Ninja vs. Unicorn, he was on board based on the name alone. He hadn’t even tried the beer. While he does like sampling a beer before he designs its label these days, often it’s made impossible by the fact that the brewery’s still tweaking the recipe while he's tasked with the label.
And the first time he designed for Pipeworks, not only didn’t he try the beer, he also didn’t inquire about a seriously important issue. “I didn’t ask how much it paid,” he says. “They said they’d give me a lot of beer, and ended up paying me in liquid gratitude. But it was so much fun! It was my dream to design a beer label.”
And design he did – so far, he's done nine cans and a handful of bottle labels since 2010. The process from the initial idea to what you see on the can is a little bit complicated. But it usually starts with Oslon and Lewis.
“They always have a specific vision,” explains Burke. “A great example is War Bird, one of the craziest labels I’ve ever done for them.” He’s not kidding – the session ale has a hilariously bizarre illustration. “It’s an mecha-suit wearing ostrich with teeth being ridden by a ninja with a bow and arrow.” Yes. Yes, it is. “And I shit you not, they came up with all of that in the first email they sent me.”
Burke’s first thought was less, “Let me get started drawing this thing!” and more “How do you expect to fit that on a beer label?” But where there’s a will, there’s a way to fit a ninja with a bow and arrow riding a mecha-suit wearing ostrich on a single beer can.
For all his illustrations, Burke scours Google images and stock photo sites to get references, even if it’s as over the top as Lizard King’s can. For War Bird’s can, he studied archers and how they hold the bow and arrow. “I saturated my brain with as much ostrich, mecha suit, and ninja imagery as I could,” he says. He’ll then send Pipeworks some of those images to give them an idea of what’ll inspire his drawing.
Once Pipeworks signs off, he’ll make a sketch using an Apple Pencil on his iPad Pro. That’s where he has to figure out the nitty gritty details of the image, like how the hell to fit everything into one design.
For War Bird, he had to contort the airborne animal to make sure its foot and talon was in the illustration. But it’s just a sketch, and things are bound to change. “Pipeworks will tweak stuff,” he says. “War Bird went from wearing a missile-shaped laser helmet to more of an aviator, 1920s-style goggle. The positioning changed. The ninja got bigger. Things shuffled around.”
And it’s not just the owners who give input. “They gather employees into the boardroom to look at it, and hopefully they pick it apart,” he explains. “I always hope that everyone who works at the brewery gets to see it and appreciates the end product, because I’m fronting for them too. It’s cool that they involve everybody.”
Once everyone agrees on the design, Burke gets to work in Adobe Illustrator on a Wacom tablet, coloring and inking until he’s happy with it. The brewery might make a few revisions on that, and then it’s sent to the printer. But here’s the rub with getting an image on a can: you can only use four colors.
Bottles have a label slapped on the side, and the artist is free to use any color in the spectrum. But the can company Pipeworks utilizes for this process doesn’t allow him that freedom. “You’re limited to six colors,” Burke explains. “And two of the colors are already taken. I like outlines, so I have to use black for the outlines and white for the UPC code.” In order to have more than four colors show up, he has to get creative. “You can overlay colors and do half-tones,” he explains. You’ll see more than four colors on a Pipeworks can strictly due to his ingenuity.
Once the design is finalized, it’s finalized. “Crown, [the can manufacturing company] does checks on printability and making sure all the colors are set up, because once you commit to it, it’s around $600 for every change,” Burke explains. “They’re printing 50-60,000 [cans], so once they sign off, that’s it. If you don’t like it, you’re going to have to ride that one out.” After about two months of designs and revisions, it’s time for the illustration to debut to the public.
The last can Burke designed for Pipeworks was Mango Guppy, in which a day-glo colored fish swims around while looking like it just smoked something. And while the illustration is hilarious and the beer inside the can is top-notch, it takes more than a fun drawing to sell the discerning craft beer consumer.
“Great artwork on a beer will get you to buy it once,” he says. “After that, I think it’s up to the brewery. And Pipeworks does do a really good product.” In other words, you come for the ninja and a unicorn about to do battle, and you stay for the dank DIPA.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.