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To 'Make Ink' You Just Need To Look Down Around Your Feet


Sometimes at NPR, we like to embrace our roots. So for the next few minutes, we're going to go foraging with Jason Logan. He used to be an illustrator for The New York Times and other publications, and now he owns a business called The Toronto Ink Company. He has become obsessive about gathering things from his environment and turning them into ink.

JASON LOGAN: What I kind of like to do is just walk really slowly and look at the ground.

SHAPIRO: His new book is called "Make Ink: A Forager's Guide To Natural Inkmaking." I expected our adventure to begin someplace wild and pristine - you know, babbling brook, rustling leaves, all that - nope.


LOGAN: You know, part of what I do and part of what I'm excited by is just opening people's eyes to what's going on at their feet kind of through the lens of, could I make an ink out of that?

SHAPIRO: To me, it looks like a dirty alley with broken glass, empty fast food containers and cigarette butts. What do you see?

LOGAN: I sort of see a world of color potential here (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And not only from nature. He also makes ink from the detritus of the city.

LOGAN: This is a nice rusty nail. We could collect that.

SHAPIRO: You just picked up a rusty nail.

LOGAN: I did, yeah. Rust is one of my favorite ingredients for ink actually.

SHAPIRO: What color ink would you get from that rusty nail?

LOGAN: You could get yellow, red, orange, black.

SHAPIRO: Wow, all of those.

LOGAN: Absolutely, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Ink is hard to define. It's not exactly paint or dye.

LOGAN: I think the best definition of ink maybe is that it's something you can use in a pen. But the minute I start to define it, there's all kinds of caveats to that because the way I like to use ink is with a brush. And some of the most satisfying ink is actually just watery and flows all over the place. There's a couple sort of rules about good ink, and I often tend to break all of them.

SHAPIRO: Like traditionally, ink should be stable and look the same after years on a page. But Logan's ink might change color or fade or disappear over time.

LOGAN: I personally love the feeling of something that's both in my control and out of my control, you know? And I guess I'm interested in unexpected results.

SHAPIRO: We gather up cigarette butts, brick dust, wild berries and then go back inside where Jason Logan pulls out other supplies that he brought along.

LOGAN: I'm just going to clean my antique beakers here (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Now, to make ink out of something like a rusty nail, you need to boil the thing for hours, preferably in a pot that you will never use for food. That wasn't in the cards for us, so Logan brought something a bit more straightforward - a jar of ground turmeric from a grocery store spice rack.

LOGAN: So there's a tiny beaker. If you want to just pour a bit of that.

SHAPIRO: Then we have a little airplane bottle of vodka.

LOGAN: We do.

SHAPIRO: Do we need to stir it up?

LOGAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: This ink is just two ingredients - vodka and turmeric.

LOGAN: We'll probably be able to just filter that into a little bottle now.

SHAPIRO: It's sort of the color of a highlighter or a sunset. Jason Logan pulls out other bottles of homemade ink that he has brought with him from Toronto - rich purple wild grape, bright red pokeberry, dark black walnut. We line up sheets of paper and smear the purple grape ink across the page with an eye dropper.

LOGAN: Ooh, look at that.

SHAPIRO: We add drops of vinegar, and the acid changes the color on the page.

LOGAN: You see that the color under different conditions will do different things. This is soda ash water, which is...


LOGAN: ...Regular baking soda which I've kind of double baked.

SHAPIRO: So the vinegar was acidic. This is basic.

LOGAN: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Whoa, it just turned that purple blue. That's amazing.

LOGAN: So every wild grape has many colors in it.

SHAPIRO: And it's just fractaling out with these, like, tendrils.

LOGAN: Yeah, look at that. You're making art.

SHAPIRO: I don't know. I think the soda ash and the purple grape are making art. I'm just putting them on a page.

LOGAN: Well, you're the conduit. You're following the brush.

SHAPIRO: This has been so interesting. Thanks for showing us how to make ink today.

LOGAN: Thanks for inviting me up here. It's been amazing.

SHAPIRO: Jason Logan is founder of The Toronto Ink Company, and his new book is called "Make Ink: A Forager's Guide To Natural Inkmaking." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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