Pop Culture Explosion!

Jeremy Berkley’s screen print art engages the world in a fun and distinctive way.

by Mae Gilliland Wright
Jeremy Berkley's 'Peoria Batman'
Jeremy Berkley's “Peoria Batman” stickers are a hometown favorite.

When you first see the artwork of Jeremy Berkley, you will likely associate it with three things: intense colors, bold shapes and an explosion of popular culture. If you’ve ever met him in person, you will also know that his personality is far from brash—he is humble, kind and even a bit shy. This juxtaposition may be in part what makes Berkley’s screen print art so interesting. His attention to detail, commitment to process and obsession with American pop culture has led to a body of work that, quite simply, just makes people smile.

Origins In Screen Printing
An East Peoria resident and central Illinois native, Berkley grew up a self-confessed “art kid.” He spent his time drawing and reading comic books, and graduated from Bradley University in 2000 with a degree in graphic design. “I knew I wanted to go into the arts—but it’s hard to make a living in the fine arts,” Berkley chuckles. “I thought this would be my best bet to make a living and still create.” 

In a way, his bet has paid off. During the day, he puts his degree to use as a graphic designer, currently working on accounts for Purina’s Canada and Asia brands. “On Amazon, when you click through the pictures and you want a detail…? I do those slide photos,” he explains. While this work allows for some creativity, he hopes to eventually become a full-time working artist. “A ten-year ‘overnight sensation,’” he declares with a self-effacing smile. “Little by little, you get more recognition.”

Jeremy Berkley screenprintingBerkley has certainly come far over the last decade. When he purchased a home nearly a dozen years ago, he didn’t have decorations or artwork, and needed a solution for his blank walls. “I don’t like mass-produced art, so I was buying what I could afford. Silk screen is very affordable,” he notes. And while multiple copies of each piece are created, the prints are generally limited in quantity. “So, I started collecting silk screen artists.”

He became fascinated with the screen printing process, inspired by the work of artists like Shepard Fairy (who created the popular “HOPE” poster during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign) and Dan McCarthy (whose work inspired Berkley’s own landscape prints).

“I am self-taught—I just bought some books and DVD sets… and way too much equipment because I was very excited,” Berkley recalls. He initially thought he would screen print t-shirts, but found he preferred to work with paper. “Paper is one-size-fits-all,” he explains. “And if something doesn’t sell, you don’t have mass-produced t-shirts in the corner. Paper can just be recycled.” 

Layers Upon Layers
Berkley begins each piece with a simple sketch, which he then recreates in Adobe Illustrator and transfers to Photoshop. Though he uses software to complete his drawings, most of it is done by hand. “It’s like building layers on top of layers,” he describes.

The elaborate process involves multiple screens, emulsion, film, a light box, a power washer and other tools. The end result? “You have a stencil,” Berkley states—a separate stencil for each color he plans to use. Most pieces require four to six stencils, he explains. “18 was the most complex one.”

Applying the color also requires time and attention. “You can put two inks down to create a sunrise or sunset effect—that’s kind of a complicated technique,” he notes with a laugh. “You have to be on top of your game.” Besides mastering the intricacies of screen printing, Berkley’s focus on pop culture has required him to learn an entirely different kind of skill: research.

Anyone who has spent time browsing the slightly nerdier parts of the internet will know that hardcore fans are unrelenting when it comes to their genre of choice. “If you mess up the details, these—what I call eccentric fans—will call you out... ‘Oh, you messed this up! You’re not a true fan!’” Berkley explains. He’s seen this happen to other artists, and does everything he can to avoid it. “It’s really important to get the details right.”

And he invariably does. In fact, Berkley’s prints are so precise that it almost looks as if he simply pressed the print button on a computer—a misconception he faces regularly. When his pieces are intermingled with other vendors selling machine-printed artwork, he takes time to explain the difference—a distinction which can be lost on some. 

Picking up one of his prints, you’ll also notice that the paper feels different. “I’m a real paper nerd,” Berkley remarks. “I like different textures and colors. It’s not just stock white.” He also enjoys playing around with special inks that cannot be used with a regular printer, such as metallic inks. “You get that shimmer,” he notes. He also has glow-in-the-dark inks, but is waiting for a special project to use them. 

Jeremy Berkley screenprints
Left: Berkley’s “Harvey the Wonder Hamster” and “Get Schwifty” prints were featured at Gallery1988 in Los Angeles. Right: “The Gutter & the Stars” contains an element of mystery in true Berkley style.

Journey Through Pop Culture
Because much of Berkley’s work is centered around pop culture, it can elicit some unusual reactions. Scanning through his prints, chances are you will see a character from a movie or TV show that means something to you. Your response, then, is not only to the artwork, but to the subject itself. 

“I enjoy people’s reactions to it,” he says. “When people come to one of my shows and they are just kind of casually looking and they see something goofy… and they’re like, “Oh! I get this obscure reference! Thank you!” Here again, his attention to detail is essential to making this formula work.  

Outside of central Illinois, people from all over the world have purchased Berkley’s prints. He’s had a gallery show in Japan, and his work has found a second home on the West Coast, having built a fruitful relationship with Gallery1988 in Los Angeles. “They invite me to do a lot of group shows,” Berkley explains. With their shared focus on pop culture, the gallery dictates a lot of what he decides to produce. They give him a topic, and he works with it. 

That’s what happened recently when one of his pieces was featured in Gallery1988’s “Weird Al” Yankovic exhibition—a celebration of pop music’s foremost singer/songwriter/satirist. Berkley’s print, “Harvey the Wonder Hamster,” features the hamster from his song of the same name—dressed up like Weird Al, playing an accordion. He even managed to fit all the lyrics of the 21-second song on the print. 

Another of Berkley’s pieces, “Get Schwifty,” was featured at Gallery1988 in 2017 in an exhibition centered around the animated sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty. Subsequently, Titan Books published a book featuring this artwork—including Berkley’s print, which received an entire page. Rick and Morty: Show Me What You Got is currently available for purchase on Amazon.com. 

Berkley’s most popular print, “Can You Hear the Jack Whales Singing?”, depicts actor Bill Murray as the title character from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Berkley’s most popular print, “Can You Hear the Jack Whales Singing?”, depicts actor Bill Murray as the title character from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Berkley’s most popular print over the years features actor Bill Murray as the title character from Wes Anderson’s 2004 film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. While he normally does a single print run, he decided to make an exception with this piece. “The original edition sold out—I didn’t know it was going to be so popular. It helped pay a lot of bills, too,” he adds, chuckling. “I changed it a little bit on the reprint, just to make it different.”

Locally, Berkley’s “Peoria Batman” stickers—which riff on famous Peorians in dramatic comic-book style—are also extremely popular. His personal favorite, however, is far more unassuming, though it still gives the viewer pause. 

In “The Gutter & the Stars,” a flock of birds and a human figure are depicted soaring above two stark, older buildings. Another figure stands at the edge of the rooftop with arms outstretched—as if preparing to fly. In true Berkley style, it contains an element of mystery. “There’s a little guy jumping there. Or is he flying?” the artist shrugs, seemingly unsure of the answer himself. 

It may be this quiet detachment from his own subject matter that makes Berkley’s work with pop culture so engaging. He doesn’t attempt to control the narrative—he allows the viewer’s imagination to take flight and have fun.

Made In Peoria
As another decade comes to a close, Berkley says he has witnessed significant advances by Peoria’s art scene since he got started in 2008. “First Friday helped a lot,” he observes. “I have met a ton of people and contacts through those events. There are more opportunities to show at different venues. It continues to expand with all of the other exciting things happening.”

He cites the recent opening of Peoria Made, a downtown retail shop that showcases local artists and creators, along with new developments in Peoria Heights as evidence that the wider community is beginning to see real value in the arts. “It’s an exciting time to be an artist in Peoria,” he affirms.

As he continues to hone his work, Berkley has one set of intellectual property in his sights. “I have not worked on an official Star Wars piece, but I would love that,” he notes. Ultimately, he finds his greatest joy in the work he produces. “It’s fun to create something that didn’t exist before and bring it into the universe—just out of my head and there it is on paper,” he explains. “And it’s kind of magical.” PM

Check out Jeremy Berkley’s work and follow the artist at facebook.com/jeremyberkleyart.