Peter Spacek’s foray into the world of greeting cards began as many new business ventures do — with frustration over what was already available.
Spacek, an illustrator and cartoonist who once worked as a freelancer for Hallmark, is also an avid surfer, so he was always on the lookout for cards with a beach theme. You could say he wasn’t much impressed by what he found in the stores.
“The jokes were crap most of the time. I just thought I could do better myself,” he recalls. “Plus I realized there was nothing for beach people that wasn’t hokey and bogus.”
Spacek understands beach culture. He grew up in Santa Barbara, California and moved to New York in the 1980s after college where he worked as an art director in advertising and as a freelance illustrator. Though his career flourished in the city, Spacek longed for the wave action of his home state.
“When I first came to New York, I heard about Montauk and the East End,” recalls Spacek. “It looked California like — with a rocky point and good looking waves. I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this New York thing if I have this to go to every once in a while.’ Finally I moved here full time in 1995.”
Spacek lives in Springs now and though he began creating greeting cards for friends years ago, his first serious attempt at marketing his work came in the late 1980s when he submitted a design to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) for their Christmas collection. The card featured Santa running toward the surf with a board over his head and a reindeer sitting on top.
“I submitted it on a whim because they would look at anyone’s stuff and I decided to try and see if they would put it in their collection ,” says Spacek. “I thought maybe this is viable.”
Viable it was, and MoMA sold the card in its gift shop for a number of years. But despite that initial success, Spacek didn’t immediately move forward with his own design business.
“Friends loving my cards emboldened me, but I didn’t do anything about it for a long time,” recalls Spacek.
Then the surfing craze hit the East End and it became a matter of public safety.
“Eight years ago or so, it suddenly took off and there were so many people in Montauk surfing who didn’t know what they were doing, it was crazy,” says Spacek. “There was no surf etiquette.”
So Spacek decided to write and illustrate a pocket guide on the dos and don’ts of surfing. He called the booklet “Wetiquette” and touted it as a practical guide to educating beginners on acceptable practices and common courtesy in the surf.
“I printed 5,000 copies and didn’t know what to do with it,” says Spacek. “I was told to go to the surf expo and sell it there. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I had to come up with a company, so I called it Ditch Ink — after Ditch Plains. Then I thought, ‘Am I just going to show up with this brochure and pay money to rent a space?’”
It seemed like a lot of effort for one single product. Then Spacek remembered his greeting cards. He came up with a dozen or so surf themed designs, had them printed up and headed off to the surf show.
“I just went for it,” says Spacek. “Wetiquette was well received, but the cards even more so.”
Spacek found that surf shops on both the West and East Coast were receptive to his work and they bought his cards to put in their stores. But Spacek soon realized that in order to really reach the card buying market, he needed to attend the annual stationery show in New York City and get his designs into stores where the bulk of greeting cards are purchased.
“If it’s a surf shop that’s family friendly, they do well. It’s the women who still buy the cards for husbands, boyfriends and kids,” explains Spacek. “The young surfers will just download something from the Internet or send an email, so it’s got to be that kind of family friendly surf shop.”
“The card stores do better business,” he adds. “Some supermarkets on the West Coast sell them, and organic beachy cafés and coffee shops — different venues than I originally thought.”
Spacek’s Christmas card designs include reindeer cutting loose from the sleigh for quick ride on the waves, a paddle boarding Santa with a stack of reindeer supporting a bathing beauty on top, and a peace sign created by a series of surfers riding their boards.
But it’s not just Christmas that is represented in the Ditch Ink line. Spacek covers all the major themes and sentiments in his cards — birthdays, anniversaries, party announcements, thank yous and any other reason people choose to send cards. And it’s not just limited to surfing anymore either.
“People said, ‘Finally, there were cards made by a surfer for beach people that weren’t lame,’” says Spacek. “It just went from there and every year I add a dozen cards.”
“I’m spreading out to beach people. It used to be cards for the water wise, now it’s cards for the beach person,” he says. “I’ve branched out into fishing, boating and sailing, and other beach themes.”
Now that he’s been doing this for a while, Spacek has come to understand that good ideas and funny illustrations don’t necessarily result in cards that the general public will want to buy. If the card’s reference is too specific or obscure, it may be a design that ultimately isn’t marketable. It’s all based on striking the right tone and like any good businessman, Spacek is always on the lookout for what he might want to add to his repertoire.
“I’ll think, ‘I need a birthday card for a woman,’ or ‘I need a birthday card for an old guy,’” he says. “Sometimes I’ll walk through card shops and consider how I can make a beach card for the graduate.”
“At first, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the writing as the picture. One thing I have learned is you can’t just be clever,” he adds. “You have to sell a sentiment. If a card is complimentary it’s good and if it cuts down in a funny and cute way, that’s good too. You’re the go between for this person and the other person.”
Now that he has gained a reputation as the maker of cutting edge cards for the beach-going community, Spacek is getting some attention from bigger retailers. But he is treading carefully where Ditch Ink is concerned.
“When people find my cards in a small shop, they think they’ve discovered something,” explains Spacek. “It’s like someone from my tribe is getting it. I don’t need to make this huge. It’s been fun. I really enjoy it…and it’s paying the cable bill.”
And it turns out that Spacek, who always considered himself an artist, is not bad at writing jokes either.
“If it makes me laugh I’ll do it,” he says. “A nice drawing is good, but I’m a sucker for a gag.”
For more information on Ditch Ink, visit www.ditchink.com.
Top: Peter Spacek’s Santa and his reindeer hang ten.