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Rising Stars Awards

Meet the 4th Annual Rising Stars of Screen Printing: Justin Vu

A protégé of screen printing icons, he’s scaling up with more orders than ever before.




Justin Vu
Owner / The Shirtsmith, Huntington Beach, California

Q: Your nomination form states you have sought insight from experts like Andy MacDougall, John Magee, and Marshall Atkinson. Why is it important for you to gain mentorship in the industry?

JV: Let’s not forget Richard Greaves! I think it’s important to constantly strive for self-improvement because that’s what’s ultimately going to allow you cultivate your business for long-term success. Complacency will only stagnate your growth and in turn, prevent business owners from reaching their full potential. I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to meet and learn directly from a lot of people that I consider to be the pioneers of this industry. Learning from everyone has made me realize that for the four years I’ve been in business, I was never actually screen printing. For four years I was just blindly pushing ink through a mesh screen and hoping for the best. Nine months ago, was when I finally learned how to measure, calibrate, and refine each stage of the process. Now that’s screen printing.

Q: Your nomination form states “Justin’s biggest change that he has made is constantly seeking out the best advice and then implementing it from there. He’s changing constantly as new information is acquired.” Can you explain your eagerness for education and how that has impacted your business?

Watch interview below.

JV: I wasn’t always this eager to learn and experiment. Actually, come to think of it, never in my life have I ever been this passionate or obsessed about anything. But to give some context, it started when I tried printing my very first CMYK design back in February. I had a set of process inks that someone had given me a while ago. I think that stuff had been sitting around for at least a decade before it fell in my lap. Anyway, I only had very basic knowledge of how to do this stuff, but the print that I ultimately produced actually resembled the design, which was a photo of my friend. The print came out looking brown and muddy, but I thought it was the coolest thing ever. From there, I would make a few tweaks here and there whenever I had some free time. I decided that I would try a different set of CMYK inks. I did some research online, and learned about Union Ink, who apparently created great inks for manual printers. That seemed to fit the bill, so I ordered a batch of their Tru-Tone CMYK inks, but couldn’t find the color profiles for it anywhere online. I scoured the internet, but nothing. So, I emailed tech support at Avient Specialty Inks and Tom Garvey called me a couple weeks later. From there, he introduced me to John Magee and that’s when everything changed.

John opened a door to a whole new world of screen printing that I never knew before. Each time we had the chance to talk to each other over the phone, he helped me refine each step of the process and I became more and more obsessed each time. I owe a lot to John. Because of him, I’ve managed to completely change the way the shop operates, I’ve been able to network with industry leaders, and I’ve had more opportunities and growth than all of the previous years I’ve been in business combined.

Q: Can you share your experience from working at a print shop to starting your own?

JV: Looking back, the print shop I used to work at wasn’t too technical in terms of what they were able to produce and nor were they operating very efficiently. But I think what I got the most out of working there was a certain motivation to become my own boss. I was around 19 years old at the time, and still had a very narrow view of the world. The owner of the print shop was young (late 20s at the time) and Vietnamese. I truly looked up to him for a while. And I think it was that representation that gave me a new perspective on what I might be capable of as a Vietnamese kid growing up in California. I worked there for almost two years before I quit. I didn’t start my own business right away, but it was something that was always in the back of my head. It wasn’t until another year down the road that I decided to squeeze a four-color press and flash dryer into my bedroom. I haven’t looked back since.

Q: What’s the biggest thing you learned this year that’s helped your business grow?

JV: This year, I’ve had more new clients and orders than ever before, but also more pissed off clients than ever too. The business has grown so much, but I didn’t know how to grow with it or scale up properly. So, I’m still learning how to properly manage a growing print shop, but at least I get to learn from the right people, like John, Richard, and Marshall. I’m currently subscribed to Marshall’s consulting service and working on creating a stable foundation for the business to run on and optimize my profitability.





Let’s Talk About It

Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Screen Printing Industry

LET’S TALK About It: Part 3 discusses how four screen printers have employed people with disabilities, why you should consider doing the same, the resources that are available, and more. Watch the live webinar, held August 16, moderated by Adrienne Palmer, editor-in-chief, Screen Printing magazine, with panelists Ali Banholzer, Amber Massey, Ryan Moor, and Jed Seifert. The multi-part series is hosted exclusively by ROQ.US and U.N.I.T.E Together. Let’s Talk About It: Part 1 focused on Black, female screen printers and can be watched here; Part 2 focused on the LGBTQ+ community and can be watched here.

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