From Iceland — Prints, Dreams And A Rusty Old Van

Prints, Dreams And A Rusty Old Van

Published May 29, 2024

Prints, Dreams And A Rusty Old Van
Photo by
Joana Fontinha for The Reykjavík Grapevine

Freshly screen printed art just for you

One day early in May, I found myself in a random parking lot in Fossvogur, searching for an old van. There it was, drawing me closer like a magic chest. Bright green on the outside with red stripes and details, it could easily be mistaken for an ice cream truck. But step inside and the colours become even more vibrant. The walls are adorned with handmade prints. Jars of paint line the shelves, waiting to be mixed. This is Brumm Brumm.

Creativity hits the road

The story of how mobile print studio Brumm Brumm emerged begins with Mai Shirato, who moved to Iceland from Japan to study fashion design in 2009, and Reykjavík-local and graphic designer Atli Rúnar Bender. 

“The concept is simple — we can travel to different places and also show the process to people.”

In an unexpected turn of events, Mai, then unfamiliar with Iceland, met a member of Icelandic hip-hop band Quarashi while they were touring in Tokyo. This sparked an interest in Icelandic culture and language to such an extent that she soon found herself surrounded by the Icelandic community while living in Tokyo in the early 2000s. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mai now calls Iceland home and, together with her partner, agrees that raising kids in Iceland is much better and less stressful, despite the endless wait for their spot in kindergarten. 

Professionally involved in their respective creative fields for years — Mai in textiles and Atli in printing — the couple had long dreamt of starting a little side project together.

“Atli has been interested in screen printing and wanted to make a small studio for himself,” says Mai. 

The idea to start a studio on wheels struck the duo during one of their camping trips. “We often go camping with a big family tent and we would see many campers at the campsite, especially the old types,” Mai explains. “We thought this was very romantic. We were talking and then suddenly we just got the idea. Why not make a studio in a camper?”

Two years ago, the couple bought a camper van, but transforming it into an efficient studio from the ground up, especially within the limited space of a 1992 Mercedes Benz 310 D, was no easy feat. “We’re not professionals and needed to watch a lot of YouTube videos,” laughs Mai, admitting that kick-starting their own project was more difficult than anticipated. Between day jobs and family obligations, finding time to work on the rusty old van was sometimes a hassle.

The big push to get the job done came when the pair applied for a grant to participate in Reykjavík’s annual Menningarnótt festival in 2023 — suddenly they had a deadline to work towards. This got the ball rolling. After Menningarnótt came Ljósanótt (Night of Lights) in Keflavík, but then, Atli shrugs, “It became winter and it was too cold to be working outside.” 

Printing on the road 

“The concept is simple — we can travel to different places and also show the [screen printing] process to people,” Mai explains.

While screen-printed artworks are readily available in stores or online, how many have actually witnessed the process behind it? Atli, who has been interested in this unique method of creating images for years, guides me through the process. “You mix colours by hand and transfer each of them into a separate frame. You build the colours up one frame at a time,” he explains. In the past, silk was stretched across the frames, but it has since been swapped for synthetic materials like polyester. 

“It takes time; it’s not just pressing a button on a computer,” Atli says. “There’s a lot of mistakes,” but they are just part of the process, he admits. 

Creators agree that seeing a print being made in front of you creates a special appreciation for the art form. Not having to pay rent for the space is another huge benefit for the Brumm Brumm team. The simplicity of screen printing doesn’t require a big studio space, but the camper van’s opportunities are still limited — the bigger the print, the more space you need. When the need to create larger prints arises, the couple sometimes turns to a studio space to which Atli has access.

“This is one of the oldest techniques of making art,” says Mai. “And our car is old — it’s over 30 years old. We’re not very modern people.” 

Celebrating the everyday

All the illustrations sold at Brumm Brumm are crafted by the couple — some by Atli, others by Mai. The inspiration behind the Brumm Brumm prints is the idea of showcasing simple, everyday objects from Icelandic life.

“We like to choose objects that haven’t changed their shape or design much.”

“We like to choose objects that haven’t changed their shape or design much. Icelandic people are so proud of Icelandic products,” says Mai, providing an example. “When people go to a summer house or camping, they wake up, have coffee with some milk and maybe a kleina.”

The Brumm Brumm prints depict exactly that — here’s a carton of Nýmjólk that can be found in virtually any Icelandic fridge; Kókómjólk, the beloved chocolate milk whose slight design change once sparked a nation-wide discussion; or Pylsusinnep, the quintessential Icelandic hot dog mustard.

As Mai shows me one of the freshly made milk prints, she recalls a peculiar order just before Christmas. “One woman contacted us asking if it is possible to order a 70 x 100 centimetre poster of Nýmjólk because her father drinks two litres of it every day.” A perfect gift for someone’s milk-loving dad in an oversized format? Brumm Brumm said yes. 

Continuing their celebration of everyday Iceland, the pair is also working on a new series that will depict Icelandic flowers in different pots — from lupines that will soon lend their vibrant purple hue to Iceland’s roadsides to violet and white clovers one can find in any backyard. 

Mai infuses the posters with a dash of Japanese style and culture — the distinct simplicity and vibrant colours draw inspiration from her heritage. Some of their projects also feature subjects closely tied to Japan, such as traditional milk or sake bottles.

Reality check

As the project is still shy of its first anniversary, things are slowly taking shape in the van. The couple dreams of joining more pop-up events throughout the year and maybe even hosting an open house for Christmas. 

Beyond the cosy embrace of their camper van studio, the Brumm Brumm founders juggle day jobs, family time with kids and hobbies. Mai spends a couple of days a week working for a prep kitchen in Grandi, while Atli manages Íslensk Grafík print studio on Tryggvagata and works night shifts at an elderly care home.

Yet, despite their busy schedules, they find time for their artistic passions whenever they can. “We just do it when we have time,” Atli shrugs. “We go somewhere, like for a picnic at Elliðaárdalur and we’re printing at the same time.” 

Now that the sun is out, people are more open and curious to peek into the bright green mobile print studio, ask questions and see the posters being made. Chances are, Brumm Brumm will roll into your neighbourhood. Keep an eye out.                                               

Explore screen printed art at and @brummbrumm_rvk

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