Art News

Free Art Mag birdy Takes Off With New Website, Expanded Distribution

The editors of birdy like to joke that their magazine is banned in Thornton.

And it's true that the collectible arts and literary publication is no longer allowed inside the lobby of a particular art company there. Birdy had donated a free advertisement to the Thornton-based business, but the owners were offended when they discovered a separate drawing inside the issue that riffed on Rocky Mountain oysters – the notorious culinary delight of the American West involving bull testicles. Only birdy’s artwork took things a step further: Under the headline "Rocky Mountain Foods," an artist had drawn quadrants with “Oysters” (testicles), “Eel” (a penis), “Lobster” (a chopped-off hand) and “Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory” (a buttock).

Jonny DeStefano and Christy Thacker, birdy’s editors, still laugh when they recall the episode — and how an employee at the Thornton company (which they prefer not to name) was ordered to remove all copies of birdy from the building.

For DeStefano and Thacker, that reaction was actually a good sign. Their free monthly magazine, which is distributed at coffee shops and businesses throughout Denver, is meant to be fun, edgy and provocative. While not everyone may agree with some of the humor depicted in birdy's artwork and written pieces, the publication aims to produce strong and emotional reactions from readers.

The ranks of those readers is growing. Nearly three years after birdy launched in January 2014, the magazine’s limited supply is snatched up from stands and shelves almost as soon as the new issue is distributed. Birdy's even gained some star power, with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo contributing a number of visual pieces to its pages.

Now the niche publication is expanding from its base in Denver to a couple of cities on the West Coast, as well as launching a new website later this month.

Getting birdy to this point has been quite a journey for its founders. When the magazine launched, “we were told we were crazy,” remembers Thacker.

One reason was that Thacker and DeStefano wanted to launch a print-only publication during a time when the media landscape was focusing on online content. “There was this whole shift from print media to online media, but we decided to say, 'Screw it, we're going to turn that around,’” says Thacker.

Both she and DeStefano grew up collecting edgy print publications during the ’90s – including the likes of MAD magazine, AdBusters and a short-lived publication produced by the Beastie Boys called Grand Royale – and they wanted to re-create that feel while also promoting artists that they knew personally in Denver and around the country.

Describing birdy’s initial anti-web stance, DeStefano offers an analogy to records: "Vinyl is romantic, it crackles like a fire. It’s the same with reading print. Our thought was, ‘Why is that getting brushed aside?’"

The idea for birdy struck Thacker and DeStefano after they met in February 2013 and became romantically involved. Their relationship soon birthed an artistic venture: Already active participants in various art scenes (DeStefano is a musician and the co-owner and director of Deer Pile, while Thacker was deeply ingrained in the art culture of Seattle before moving to Colorado), they knew that getting fun and thought-provoking pieces from friends wouldn’t be a problem.

But neither knew the first thing about running a magazine.

Fortunately, they found help. The first to come on board was Michael King, a local designer who used to do layout work for The Onion and now is the art director for Illegal Pete’s. King is also behind a lot of the posters for comedy events throughout Denver. "You'd never get this from him, but he's fucking brilliant," says DeStefano.

The second, necessary addition was Kayvan Khalatbari, the local business owner behind Sexy Pizza, Sexpot Comedy and (until he recently sold it) the marijuana dispensary chain Denver Relief. As a part-owner of birdy, Khalatbari provided the financial support and introductions that have allowed the magazine to expand its reach and advertising.

“He’s let us do our thing, though,” says DeStefano. “He's been hands off and very benevolent, trusting our judgment…. With him, we knew we could pull this off."

Khalatbari's hands-off attitude included agreeing to the birdy name (spelled with a lowercase ‘b’). When DeStefano was fourteen, his Italian father, known as “Mr. D,” remarked on DeStefano’s punk clothing and mischievous personality by saying, “Jonny, you’re so birdy.”

Recalling the episode, DeStefano says, “I really liked that [my father] said ‘birdy,’ because to me it’s a positive, of having an agile and creative mind.”

“It means curiosity…and maybe being a little crazy,” adds Thacker.

All are adjectives that birdy aims to capture with its art pieces, which vary widely from issue to issue but tend toward amusing pop art, dark humor and irony. These include regular submissions from artists like Ray Young Chu and Ricardo Fernandez, and writers like Jason Heller — all of whom were willing to contribute to birdy when it was just starting.

The contributors’ generosity made things possible for Thacker and DeStefano, because they launched the magazine with a budget of just $2,000. But the couple also had a few ideas for birdy that immediately set it apart from other free art publications.

"We decided that we wanted it to be collectible,” DeStefano says. “And that meant we didn't want to be half-assed about the printing quality."

Luckily for the birdy team, DeStefano’s strong-willed Italian dad, Mr. D, had a background in publishing, so he helped them negotiate a reasonable deal with a printing press. "If anyone wants to fuck with us, they're going to have to deal with Mr. D," DeStefano chuckles.

The high-quality matte paper does give birdy some added authority. It's the art equivalent of those stacked-up issues of the New Yorker; people feel guilty about throwing the publications away.

A lot of the artwork is formatted as a full-page layout, designed so that it can be torn out of the magazine and pasted up on walls – an influence that harks back to the heyday of print magazines in the ’80s and ’90s, when teens used to cover bedroom walls with ripped-out photographs.

But perhaps birdy’s most creative – and valuable — asset are its advertisements, which are custom-produced to fit the magazine’s aesthetic and sense of humor. "We wanted to curate ads so that they matched our magazine," says DeStefano. "Money does not inform our art decisions. When it comes to our advertisers, they're our partners. To be in birdy is pretty exclusive."  

“That means that you’ll never see Budweiser on the back cover,” adds Thacker.

Instead, the ads in birdy have been commissioned to local artists and are exclusive to the magazine, unless the companies being promoted want to pay a “creator’s fee” to use them elsewhere. So the ads themselves become part of the birdy experience; they're both surprising and fun to look at. For Sexy Pizza, for example, birdy created an advertisement in which a star destroyer from Star Wars has been re-imagined as a giant slice of cheese pizza.

The companies that advertise regularly in birdy, like Khalatbari's Sexy Pizza, are often owned by personal friends of the magazine’s creators. These include the Oriental Theater, City, O' City, Illegal Pete’s and Pablo’s Coffee. Those businesses are also among the main distribution spots where fresh, free copies of birdy can be found the first week of each month. Other popular locations include Twist & Shout, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Wax Trax  and Mutiny Information Cafe.

Running the publication hasn’t always been easy, especially with the added pressure it placed on DeStefano and Thacker’s relationship. Because they live together, at times it seemed like they were always working. “If people saw how hard Christy and I worked, they'd probably laugh, and then they'd probably cry…. We need a months-long vacation," DeStefano jokes.

"Or therapy," Thacker chimes in.

But as the publication nears its fourth year of operation, both have learned how to maintain a work, life and relationship balance with birdy. "It's actually been a blessing, because Christy and I have learned these things that we wouldn't otherwise have, like how to keep our character and wits about us while being under pressure,” says DeStefano.

Of course, the work has become more manageable with time and experience. One major shift has been the volume of submissions that birdy now receives. While DeStefano and Thacker initially had to find artists who would contribute visual and written pieces, they are now flooded with months' worth of unsolicited submissions.

The duo credits this, in part, to Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, who provided birdy's cover art for the tenth issue and has continued to support the publication ever since. The relationship formed during Mothersbaugh’s six-month-long exhibit at the MCA that ran until April 2015.

"He really came through for us at a time when we were trying to prove ourselves," says DeStefano, adding that Mothersbaugh also distributes a limited number of birdy copies each month from his Mutato Muzika studio on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip.

As of this month, birdy has put out over thirty issues, with a print run of 5,000 copies per issue. But now that's doubling. "We realize we have a product that's working,” says DeStefano. “We understand the reach we can get."

For the October issue, birdy expanded its distribution to more locations in Colorado, including Fort Collins, Boulder and Manitou Springs, as well as to West Coast locations like Seattle and Los Angeles, where many of birdy’s artist submissions come from.

Perhaps more notable, though, is that DeStefano and Thacker have finally caved to the idea of launching a fully interactive website. They say the change came after they realized they could put some “overflow” art on the site that doesn’t make it into the magazine, expand their reach regardless of geography, and also publish multimedia content like videos that can’t be displayed in print.

“An artist once told us that it was flat-out irresponsible not to have a website,” DeStefano says with a laugh. “So we’re coming around.”

The site will launch in mid- to late October. DeStefano hopes things will continue to grow organically from there.

"Christy and I feel so lucky. Since we started birdy, our minds have expanded. We've seen so much local talent, and we're trying to have fun while enfranchising artists and writers,” he says. “These artists are a really brilliant group of people that we think will be relevant anywhere in the world."

Birdy is published the first week of each month. Watch the birdy facebook page for announcements of when the issue will hit stands around town.

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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker