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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Printing the DreamJustin Vu is a ‘screen-printing jack of all trades’ who’s on a mission to build a legacy.
A lot can be said for hard work, a concept with which Justin Vu is all too familiar. A first-generation Vietnamese American, he was raised in Southern California by his single mom, who moved to the United States despite not speaking English or knowing any of the nation’s customs.
“I think I received a lot of my work ethic and resilience from her, in that regard,” Vu says. “Currently, I own a one-man screen-printing shop in Huntington Beach, California. I’ve had the business for about four years now, and I don’t have any intentions on stopping anytime soon.”
At age 20, after returning to college following a brief hiatus, Vu started working at a local print shop. During this time, he was desperately trying to decide what he wanted to pursue in life.
“I kept hearing about this magical thing called a ‘passion’ and how you’ll never work a day in your life if you can find it,” Vu says. “Eventually, I figured out you don’t simply just find that type of stuff. You must develop it. There were many points where I thought about quitting and looking for a regular [day job]. It took me four years of blindly running my business to be able to safely say that I would rather do nothing else in the world.”
The owner of the shop in which Vu worked was a young, Vietnamese self-starter whom Vu greatly admired for creating something for himself. Watching the entrepreneur run a stable print shop led Vu to his own passion.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it,” he says. “I wasn’t even sure if I completely enjoyed doing it. I didn’t know how to talk to clients, how to create a pricing chart, how to design graphics or any of the things that are essential to a standard screen-printing business. All I knew was how to print very basic designs and the fact that I didn’t want to work for someone else for the rest of my life.”
After parting ways with his boss, Vu took his basic screen-printing knowledge and ultimately started his shop, California Shirtsmiths. With the new business, Vu leaned into his own unique style and continued his journey to perfect CMYK-process prints.
“It has more or less changed the entire way I approach every single aspect of screen printing, such as film output; mesh and screens; emulsion; ink; printing technique; etc.,” Vu says. “At this point, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had a sense of direction and I was ready to make it.”
Currently, California Shirtsmiths is one of the only small screen-printing shops in the Huntington Beach area using a manual press to offer high-quality process prints. When he originally started the business, Vu feared plunging into a market that seemed saturated with competition.
“In a five-mile radius of my shop, I believe there are almost a dozen other screen-
printing shops,” Vu says. “But I no longer have that fear because I’ve honed a method of screen printing that not many people can nail. Being a smaller shop, I can offer lower minimums to my clients, which is nice when you don’t need 500 shirts for your men’s basketball league that you and your buddies recently formed.”
With a carved-out niche in place, Vu set his sights on combining his love for screen printing with another passion: Muay Thai, a martial art and combat sport that uses stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques. It’s also known as the “art of eight limbs,” and is characterized by using eight points of contact, consisting of punches, elbows, knees and kicks.
“I’ve managed to bridge a certain gap between my business and the Muay Thai community here in California,” Vu says. “There’s nothing like interacting and working with people that you’ve admired your whole life. Now, being able to call them my friends and clients is a little bit surreal.”
California Shirtsmiths has become the community’s hub for Muay Thai-inspired prints, a product not offered by other local screen printers. He even collaborated with a legendary Los Angeles-based Muay Thai photographer, printing photos on T-shirts to bring the sport to life. According to Vu, Muay Thai fighters are creative, interesting and inspiring people.
“Quite a few of the designs that I’ve printed for folks in the community are some of my favorites,” he says. “The cherry on top is the relationships I’ve created with everyone that I meet. Lately, I’ve been bonding and connecting with almost every client that walks through the door for the first time. I’ve been fortunate to have these beautiful interactions because to me, that is what life is all about. The money comes afterward.”
Unlike other businesses that were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, California Shirtsmiths weathered the storm and is thriving. Vu says partnering with the Muay Thai community was a coincidence that happened as the viral outbreak began.
“I’m insanely fortunate,” Vu says. “I’m not going to give myself all of the credit. I think a lot of it was just dumb luck. But I think when luck, hard work and good intentions come together, fireworks ignite.”
Vu is using this ignition as the catalyst for California Shirtsmiths’ future. Although he’s aware of the technological advances made with other apparel-decoration methods, screen printing always will remain close to his heart.
“My vision for California Shirtsmiths is to have the name be synonymous with top-notch, high-end screen printing,” he says. “And also, to perhaps have it become self-sustaining.”
As of today, Vu is working seven days a week — sometimes up to 14 hours a day. Despite printing being his primary passion, he is hopeful for a better balance between his work and personal life.
“I know that I have to work to get there,” Vu says. “I’m holed up in the shop all the time, so most people don’t understand why I don’t go out very often. I understand that all of this is my investment toward my future, my business, and ultimately, my life. And plus, it doesn’t hurt that I enjoy printing. It truly doesn’t feel like work anymore.”
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