Impko: some cheezy pop history

by Art Chantry:

this thing is a called a water-transfer decal, specifically, this is a souvenir travel decal. you know the ones, you’ve seen them everywhere all your life. i always referred to them as ‘winnebago decals’, because you saw them stuck on the side of every winnebago, RV, camper, trailer and station wagon in america at one point: yellowstone, mystery trees, giant redwoods, niagra falls, oregon vortex, surf california, etc. etc. etc. every one of them a masterpiece of composition, design and color. every one of them total crap. and they were virtually all made by the impko decal company of bogota, new jersey.

—the hobby/model industry never really abandoned water transfer. they continued to make them all through the years. but, it was strictly a cottage industry on the smallest levels. now, guys like COOP have been marketing whole new lines of nifty cool water transfer decals to great success. so, it’s definitely back from the brink.—AC

not much is factually know about impko. they began as a souvenir picture postcard company sometime just before the turn of the 20th century. soon, they started to market ‘pennents’ – those little miniature flags that you get as souvenirs with tourist locations silkscreened on them. that quickly switched over to cheezy ‘sports’ pennants. basically any novelty item silkscreened on paper was also produced by them: bumper stickers, signs, novelty ‘plaks’. water transfer decals (produced with a silkscreen process) were soon to follow. it was a small step to simply make the same images inside little square decals and sell them alongside the other souvenir paraphernalia.

water transfer decals are a technology of the past. back in the early 1990’s, a client (dave crider of estrus records) and i came up with the idea of making parodies of souvenir decals as promotional items for the garage bands we’d been working with. we checked into it and quickly found out that NOBODY ON EARTH made them any more (not even asia). impko itself had gone out of business in the 1970’s (or thereabouts. nobody is sure).

undaunted by little problems like this, we did some research and found out how they were made. since it was a silkscreen process and we knew lots of silkscreen printers in the music underground, it was a fairly simple process to find a silkscreen printer who would be excited to give it a try. so, we made a selection of these old school water transfer decals and gave them away as promotional items. (water-transfer differ from modern decals by being a special process where you soak off the image in water and apply the very thin film to your surface desired, where it dries permanently. they last for years. modern ‘decals’ aren’t really decals at all, but ‘stickers’. it’s a big difference.)

a funny thing happened. everybody was so thrilled with these cool old school decals we made and gave them, that other people wanted them made for their projects, too. so, that silkscreen shop became the sole supplier of water transfer decals in the world and we had magically revived a lost industry. today, you can actually have these things manufactured again.

all that said, i need to point out that impko is probably even more famous in cheezy pop history than just for it’s nifty travel decals and souvenir pennants. impko is best known by all of us as the maker and seller of those “monster decals’ that were ubiquitous during the early/mid 1960’s. they were so closely related to the racing/hotrod/surfing world (due to all the decals and stickers impko contracted to make for the car products industry), that when the pin striping/monster craze began to hit, it was a simple side-step to start printing up commercially available monster images for the kids to put on their bikes and skateboards and the like. they advertisied in comic books and magazines and sold in auto parts catalogs and through cool counter displays in hobby shops and dime stores.

to actually make this artwork, they hired guys like custom car pinstripper ed roth to draw a selection of images for them to sell. roth (disappointed in his drawing skills) in turn hired a guy nicknamed “monte” (don monteverde) to draw the monsters FOR HIM. this is where roth’s iconic “rat fink’ and “mr. gasser” came from. monte drew them FOR roth, who had a deal with impko. but, soon monte spun off on his own and began making his own decals to sell. impko (whom he hired to print them) saw the potential as sales skyrocketed and they began to make their own bootleg versions of monte’s monsters, too. often they would copy them outright, or they would simply re-draw their own version of his ideas with an anonymous in-house staff (badly, too.) impko decals weren’t as cool to look at, but they had a distribution system enormous enough to completely destroy any competition.

so, impko, by simply being viciously competitive and otherwise superbly capitalist businessmen, quickly took over the exploding monster decal fad. alongside their travel decals, you could get novelty joke decals, cool car product decals (“STP”), rat finks, fake pin-striping, crazy monsters and other cool decals all in one convenient stop. as the sixties wore on and the monster fad declined and faded, they easily switched over into cartoony ‘hippy’ images, and then (through their bumpersticker division – which coincidentally lead straight to the sticker industry, where impko was not able to compete profitably) into making those stickers you plop on your ‘hippy car’ (like those giant silly flowers you saw on every VW van in america at one point).

impko really cashed in on the decal fad. in fact. they were a little too ruthless about it and gigantically overprinted their inventory. people are still finding stashes of massive numbers of old impko decals in warehouses. they were so cheap to make and so small that these stashes can number up into the hundreds and hundreds of thousand of actual decals. so, the market got flooded and then the market died. it’s all still out there for a song. you can still go into rural country stores and find local tourist attractions on cool decals for under a buck. now that’s market satur

n! thirty years AFTER went out of business, they’re still selling the damn things!

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