When Ashleigh Leon first started kicking around the idea of a mobile print studio, she had one goal in mind: bringing screen printing to the people.
She was passionate about the physical process, the way screen printing uniquely helps get ideas out into the world, and she wanted to share that passion.
“The business has always very much been centered around the idea of interactivity within screen printing and allowing other people to take the leap with their own making experience,” Leon says.
So she started creating custom designs and bringing a mobile screen printing press to local events. Her experience with screen printing and her passion for community building would eventually converge to become The Side Garage. Leon officially launched the business in 2016 and has since been bringing her mobile press to events and organizations around the metro and beyond with her wife, Elena Leon.
Over the past three years the pair have taken the company from a side hustle in their actual garage to both of their full-time jobs, all the while maintaining an emphasis on building community within the area they serve.
“I think the greatest thing we’ve held onto is making a decision early on to be community and people driven,” Leon says. “I think a lot of small businesses do what they do because they’re passionate about it, which isn’t a bad thing. But they don’t think beyond that to ask how their thing can connect with other people to spread and create a ripple further.”
Today that ripple effect has led to countless collaborations with events and organizations across the Des Moines metro as well as a brick and mortar storefront in Valley Junction.
But what The Side Garage is building is not just one community. Instead it’s a larger, interconnecting web of people who all have The Side Garage as their common connection.
“We’re able to meet different types of people through something as simple as a T-shirt and engage with them beyond a transaction,” Leon says. “Instead we engage in a conversation and learn more about them and why they’re passionate about this particular thing. I hope that they feel that investment in them whenever we take the time to have those conversations.”
Finding a Physical Medium
A lifelong music junkie, Leon started her design career wanting to work with bands. Initially she was drawn to album artwork, but her interests slowly shifted to another common need for musicians—merch.
This realization drew Leon away from traditional graphic design and into the world of screen printing and apparel.
“Being a graphic designer, you’re not really working with your hands. You’re making things but you’re not physically making them. Then experiencing the actual making process—taking an idea and seeing it all the way through to the finished product—and then seeing it out in the world was really cool.”
It’s clear from watching Leon and The Side Garage in action that the people printing with them think the experience is equally cool.
“Little kids get so excited,” Leon says. “They’re always like, ‘Wow! That’s magic! I made that.’”
But the magic of mobile screen printing extends beyond childhood. Event attendees and shop visitors of all ages get a special thrill from being part of the process of making their own apparel. While the process may only take a few moments to complete, the people who take part establish a continued connection with The Side Garage because of the pieces they create.
Breaking Down Barriers to Connection
When it comes to the physical process of screen printing, Leon says that people are often intimidated, especially by the hefty metal equipment. But along with fostering a collaborative community comes a need to bring everyone along for the ride.
To help do so, The Side Garage hosts a number of programs that give back. Through a new quarterly initiative called Print for the People the pair donates their on-site services and 50 T-shirts in addition to design time and two screens to a worthy cause.
“It’s just another way to foster a community within a community and help lift them up in a way that is hopefully beneficial.”
Now that the business has a permanent physical space, The Side Garage also plans on hosting monthly Friday Friends events that will have a similar focus. While the donation aspect is slightly different, Leon’s business is once again finding ways to give different organizations and members of the community a platform to connect with new audiences.
Since launching The Side Garage, Leon says she’s realized how deeply her designs can resonate and leave a lasting impression with the people she encounters. Leon recalls an event in Omaha, Neb., where a Native American man printed a shirt she’d designed featuring a bison under the moon and stars. After he was done, the man explained that his tribe’s animal was the bison and the particular phase of the moon represented was his mother’s symbol.
“It just meant so much more to him,” she says. “It’s all about those moments where the thing that you’re making connects with someone on a deeper level.
“It’s one of those reminders of how connected we really can be if we’re open to seeing it.”