Turning rubber into art in the East Village

For the last couple of decades John Casey's spent the majority of his waking hours within the depths of his narrow East Village workshop.

"The only difference between me here and me in the pub is I drink more in the pub," Casey said.

Here -- surrounded by sheets of rubber, pads of ink and shelves of stamps stacked to the ceiling -- Casey talks, apparently endlessly, to his staff, reporters, walk-ins off 11th St. and whomever calls the Casey Rubber Stamps store phone.

"I get to interact with people all day long," he said, "which isn't a good business model, but it's me, so what can you do?"

Casey created his first rubber stamp as a child in a print shop in Ireland's County Cork where he grew up, using an old printing block of a coin.

"Here I am all these years later," he said, "doing something I saw as a kid and it keeps me going."

Casey left his Irish stamping grounds for New York City at 16 ("middle of Flower Power New York," he said), seeking out the machinery to turn rubber into stamps.

"There's only three of us on the East Coast that use this stuff anymore," he said.

Casey not only still employs a negative-plate-mold system that requires seven hours to turn out a batch of stamps more modern methods could produce -- although, Casey argues, less durably -- in just 15 minutes, but also prefers designs pre-dating the 1950s.

"I like the old-fashioned etched look," he said. "They make great stamps. My technique is out-of-date by about 35 years."


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While Casey's East Village shop still sees plenty of walk-ins, it relies on his reputation among artists, in guide books and from online search results for the majority of its business.

"I'm on the bucket list of tourists when they come to New York," he said. "They tend to know this place. Of course, they're always surprised to see a small, dingy hole-in-the-wall but that's beside the point."

Casey refuses to create stamps of any governmental or official seal unless it comes directly from the source. He also won't deal with drug dealers

"Every so often we have a kid come in with a heroine bag with a logo on it wanting to reproduce it," he said.

A woman once contracted Casey Rubber Stamps to produce a stamp of a dead mouse on a sticky trap she drew in art class, with which she wanted to make wallpaper.

"I still think that's hilarious," he said. "That's the craziest stamp as far I can remember that I've made."

But with no interest in retiring ("If I retire, I'm in trouble because I have nothing to do and I would just go crazy"), Casey plans to make many more crazy stamps for many more years, in this digital age that stamped out nearly all of this city's 40ish rubber stamp manufacturers years ago and in which Casey endures with his low tech, real rubber offerings and low-tech snip-snip-glue-glue process thanks to his craftsmanship and reputation for the impressions he leaves behind.

"There's something very neat when you can hold something and get an image that's not the same every time," he said.