The Ska aesthetic: The history of the brew’s design and marketing motif

by David Holub

The story of Ska might best be told by its unofficial slogan: “It takes characters to brew beer with character.” When Dave Thibodeau and Bill Graham turned their home-brew operation into a legit beer company in 1995 (and when Matt Vincent bought in a year later), craft beer was all but a novelty still, save for your Sam Adams’ and Sierra Nevada’s, to name a couple. Without many roadmaps other than their own instincts and interests, the Ska crew developed its look, aesthetic and business culture in the same DIY spirit it brewed its beer. Perhaps the most genius part? They envisioned a comic book at the start, and its scenes and characters would be the basis of all their labels and marketing efforts two decades later.

Here’s a brief history of Ska and its visual aesthetic, as loosely told by Thibodeau.

Why ska?

When we started the brewery, we were really into ska music and really into comic books and really into beer. When we were home brewing, we had to do two things for a particular batch to turn out: We had to drink the previous batch of beer while we were brewing and we had to listen to ska music.

What’s with the black and white checkers?

Ska went through three different waves. It started in Jamaica in the ’50s and then made its way over to England in the late 1970s with working-class white (bringing a harder-edged punk influence) and black kids (bringing a Jamaican ska influence) forming bands together. An influential record label started called 2 Tone and the second wave of ska was called the 2-tone era, in part promoting the spirit of racial unity. The two tones are black and white and that’s where all the checkers came from. It’s a unity thing with the black and white kids. So that’s where the checkers come from, and it’s been carried through our motif everywhere.

Black and white? Even better!

When we started in ’95, there wasn’t really digital printing. It was cheaper to print black on white. Anything we did, from ads to business cards, we could do everything black and white. Whenever we did use color, we’d use one color and it would really stand out.

Developing the look and marketing motif

I got the idea to write a comic book and all the labels and packaging should be piecemeal parts of the comic book. The comic was a classic David versus Goliath story. We invented a fake brewery – Rotgutzen Intergalatic – that was a big, evil, global conglomerate. Our roommate at the time, Brian Stevens, wrote the script to the comic book for us (which remained only in written form for a couple decades). We told him that we wanted to tell our fake story through a comic book and let that drive all marketing efforts. All the characters that we still use – True Blonde, Pinstripe, Buster, etc. – existed before we even opened.

So, one friend wrote the comic book and the best artist we knew was (future Your Flesh Tattoo owner) Matt Rousseau, who I knew from Denver. Matt was a fantastic artist before he was ever doing any tattoo stuff. He helped draw the first few labels based on characters from the comic. These were all punk-ass kids, as were we.

Combining the script for the comic with Rousseau’s drawings

Our first three beers were True Blonde, Pinstripe and Ten Pin Porter. In the comic, True Blonde is the heroine, she saves us from Rotgutzen, the evil brewery. Pin Stripe is the evil CEO. She ends up kicking his ass in the end of the comic book in the 10-Pin Bowling Alley. You can see on the Ten Pin Porter packaging it’s the final big brawl at the bowling alley and she’s kicking the head, the skull, off the skeleton.

All the Ska characters ever since have been parts from the comic. Like, Buster Nut Brown is one of Pinstripe’s thugs, a leg-breaker. We’ve just kept the characters going.

More on labels

Matt (Rousseau) did first True Blonde label, the original Ska logo and the Pinstripe logo in 1995. All the original drawings were done on torn tracing paper because Matt was a tattoo artist. Pretty much what he gave us stuck. Originally, we just did 22-ounce bottles, but with our first six packs, we had a chance to draw more of the comic on the carriers. That’s when we started working with another artist, Dorn Roberts, and did for the next nearly 20 years. He was working at Basin Printing and just walked in and asked for freelance work, asked if we had an artist and if there was anything he could do. Matt just got too busy and was slammed with tattooing. Dorn knew us from the print shop where we brought our printing work.

Dorn walked in and we spent the whole day together, explaining the comic book and what ska music was. He came back with two black and white posters of ska scenes. It was all retro and cool looking. We hired him right there.

Ska’s character and quirks

I’ve always felt like if you have something a little strange or esoteric in there that people can grasp that there’s a little more to the story than they can understand, I’ve always thought people would find that intriguing. I’ve probably overdone that over time. If you look at any of our things, there’s always something you can’t explain. And you’ve got to Google it or whatever. There’s been a lot of inside jokes over the years, things we know no one’s going to understand but us, but it kind of keeps it fun. That kind of stuff is what makes it cool, just making it kind of weird, knowing there’s a little more going on. When I look at stuff and I can’t quite understand it but I know somebody did it for a reason, it’s just intriguing.

Trouble with labels

We have to get all our labels approved by the federal government – the Tax and Trade Bureau. On the Buster Nut Brown label, Buster is kicking through the door and in the top right panel of the comic, True Blonde is lying on the floor, dreaming. Before they approved the label, they had to know why this girl was lying down and this thug was busting through the door. They thought it was a domestic violence thing that we were into. She’s dreaming. She didn’t just get punched.

Design challenges

Sometimes I think our labels are too busy. With the new cans we try to narrow down the colors we throw on there. At the same time, you kind of want to convey the lifestyle we lead. That’s kind of weird because you got these thugs, this big corporate brewer, and then you’re kind of tying in an outdoor lifestyle or whatever somehow, and that we’re just fun-loving people. That gets a little confusing. It’s a lot to think about.

Would we ever change the look?

We talk about switching it up almost every day. It would still be the comic book thing, we would just freshen it up. With coming out with enough new products and getting rid of older ones, it gets fresher and fresher. We haven’t done a total rebrand, and I don’t know quite what that would look like. We talk about it all the time because we’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years.

— Interview and editing by David Holub


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