Serena is a multimedia journalist based in New York City by way of Australia. Her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, BBC, and Vice.
Ink’s ingredients are usually closely held secrets, but one artist shows how you can make it with items found all across the city, from soggy walnuts to rusty bedsprings.
As much as anything, those little signs that identify plant species in city parks triggered the genesis of the Toronto Ink Company, a small Canadian business that creates natural inks from bits and pieces found in urban landscapes.
It all began after founder Jason Logan saw a sign reading “Black Walnut Tree” while strolling through Queen’s Park in Toronto. Years before, as an illustrator, he had used an ink made from black walnuts. Unlike more predictable, conventional inks, this one surprised Logan with each stroke, each layer shifting the color to a mahogany finish. It’s vegetal, earthy scent added more intrigue. But that ink bottle, with its handwritten label, was an anomaly in the art supply store. He could never find more.
Logan was at loss on how to procure art supplies that were non-toxic with knowable ingredients, especially for his two-year-old son. So what if he made is own ink? He took a few walnut shells back to his apartment and boiled them up, reducing the black-brown liquid. (Pro tip: soggy, gross shells produce better ink.)
“My experience with the black walnut was so easy that it inspired me to keep looking for other things that you could make color out of,” Logan says.
Fast forward about five years: The Toronto Ink Company now offers about 15 non-toxic ink colors, from the spicy color and scent of turmeric ink to wild grape, a deep purple with wafts of wine. Logan runs ingredient foraging tours around the city that end with an ink cook-up in his studio lab, which doubles as his home kitchen.
In September, Logan is releasing Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Ink Making, a cookbook of ink recipes using ingredients from the world around us. In Logan’s world of ink, golden hues arise from tobacco salvaged from cigarette butts. A rich green began as buckthorn, an invasive shrub from Europe now found in North America. A matte white, reminiscent of fondant cake frosting, is the product of finely ground drywall.
“There are all kinds of things in a city that are just ignored unless you are looking at them with a kind of curious eye,” he says.
Despite the digital revolution, ink is still a mainstay of daily life, whether you’re thumbing through a magazine to scribbling down a shopping list. Early ink, like what endured for thousands of years on the Dead Sea Scrolls, was made from elements like lamp soot or charred bones mixed with a natural glue such as gum arabic. Up until the 19th century, ink was created in small batches by small outfits, says Ted Bishop, author of the Social Life of Ink: Culture Wonder and Our Relationship with the Written Word. Today, the ink industry—worth close to $20 billion—is shrouded in mystery. “No one will give you formulas or tell you precisely what is in it,” he says.
Make Ink opens up about methods, providing an open source guide to DIY ink. Despite the prevalence of ink, Logan says we have become disconnected from it, much like we are from our food. In fact, he compares the ink revolution he hopes to inspire to the locally sourced food movement. “It’s like when you have a carrot and you learn about the farmer who grew it and all the soil conditions,” he says. “It tastes better, but it also has a depth of story, and I think all my inks have a little story with them.”
That story is often attached to a sense of place. Last year, during a walk in New York’s West Village, Logan came across an old bed with rusted springs on the sidewalk ready for trash collection. Acorns were also strewn along the pavement. Liberated electrons in rusted iron interact with the tannic acid found in coffee, oak, and acorn caps in a colorful chemical exchange, Logan says. He boiled the metal springs and acorn caps before straining the liquid through mesh and a coffee filter. Then, he added gum arabic as a binding agent. The result was a vibrant gray ink. “It’s really fun to pick a spot in your neighborhood and think about what ingredients, if you were to distill them, might be the essence of that place,” he says. The recipe appears in Make Ink as Silvery Acorn Cap Ink with the central ingredient being “a few rusty nails or other rusty street finds.”
In Make Ink, Logan instructs readers how to forage for suitable pigments to create their own ink. Two key points: Have patience, and bring gardening gloves. The book then provides recipes for 11 different colors, including Vine Black Ink (made from charcoal) and Safflower Pink Ink. There is also a base recipe for those who experiment with their own foraged pigments. “I can have thousands of people out there testing new ink recipes and pushing the making-ink-for-yourself revolution further,” he says.
“Test,” the book’s final section, demonstrates the versatility and beautiful volatility of these DIY inks through the works of artists like Marcel Dzama and Ani Castillo. Artists who use products from the Toronto Ink Company say their unpredictable nature is a feature, not a bug. Inks made by Logan—he still makes them all himself—can be found among the regular lineup of supplies in artist Tucker Nichols’s studio. When Nichols uses the ink, he likes to imagine Logan foraging around Toronto for the ingredients. And colors like black walnut trigger memories of his father, a woodworker. But most of all, Nichols loves that he doesn’t always know what he is going to get when he dips into the ink pot. The color, texture, and density are unstable. “With these inks, there are always surprises,” Nichols says. “They have a life of their own.”
Make Ink’s chapter on foraging includes a few warnings: Watch out for toxic materials such as poison ivy, don’t experiment with unknown plants, and take special care with a recipe that calls for half a cup of copper scraps to make ink from copper oxide (it’s blue).
If more people join Logan in foraging for inks, they won’t be the only ones picking at what they find around the city. Urban food foraging has been a trend for at least a few years now—and in some cases, a problematic one. It became such an issue for New York that the city’s parks department asked residents to stop stripping public spaces of edibles like elderberries, ginger, and mushrooms, according to The New York Times. Logan does teach his budding ink chemists a forager’s code of ethics. Don’t pick the first instance of a plant you come across. Never forage more than 10 percent of a plant. And so on. In the end, who’s going to miss some soggy walnuts or a discarded bed spring?
Ink is a tool that humans have used for millennia. Our prehistoric ancestors used whatever pigments they could find to sketch out stories and warnings on rock walls. It’s also the overlooked partner in the Printing Revolution, the mass distribution of the written word famously ushered into civilization by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s. Today, printer ink is considered one of the most expensive liquids in the world. Whatever the impact of foraging in our modern cities, the case for making inks more thoughtfully is deeply rooted in history.
“It would be cool to take back the power humans had to communicate through color,” Logan says. “[The ingredients] are literally dropping off bushes in our neighborhoods.”