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Mail Art Basics

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Mail art began in the 1950s and still remains popular today

Mail art began in the 1950s and still remains popular today

All About Mail Art

Mail art is a type of paper craft that often gets overlooked but is still quite popular. It is a work of art created with the intention of sending it through the mail. You could almost say that mail is the medium of mail art and includes custom art forms like postcards, decorated envelopes, friendship books, and naked mail.

There are not a whole lot of rules when it comes to creating mail art. But like other similar papercraft, there are some customs that are generally followed:

  • Mail art is generally shared or traded, not created for profit. If you participate in a group, there are no fees. The art is shared and enjoyed.
  • It is most often given away freely, with no expectation of anything in return.
  • It is not judged or criticized.....just enjoyed.

History Of Mail Art

Following a surge of creativity and anti-institutionalist sentiment, in the late 1950s standard letters and postcards grew into what we now know as ‘mail art’. Consisting of postcards, envelopes, rubber stamps, stickers, collage, and other paper ephemera, the different forms of mail art only have one common characteristic: that they be circulated through the postal service.

Mail art’s fusion of collage-making and performance made it a popular artistic practice among late 1960s Fluxus artists, such as Robert Watts, Ben Vautier, and Robert Filliou. They even created postal ephemera, such as sheets of postage stamps, rubber stamps, and a “Flux Post Kit”. Through these experiences, Filliou coined the term “Eternal Network” in order to articulate how mail art had become a new form of international communication and social change.

Mail Art Mailing Tips

When you take the time to create your mail art, you want to make sure that it gets to the person for whom it is intended. There are a few tips to make sure that your mail art gets to the address it is being sent to:

  1. Make sure that the zip code is perfectly clear. Even if you use fancy lettering, you must make sure that the zip code can be read by the sorting machine. If it is not clear, there is a good probability it will not reach its destination.
  2. If you are sending international mail, make sure that the return address is on the front of the envelope. If you use the back of the envelope for US mail, the envelope will usually pass. (Although they would prefer it to be on the left upper corner). But international post offices machines will be looking for the zip code of the sender. If it cannot read it, it will be sent back to you.
  3. Make sure to check the postal rates before you send your piece Right now, you can use a single $0.55 stamp to mail a standard envelope. But remember, if your envelope is an odd shape, larger or has features like wax seal, it will be deemed non machinable and will require extra postage. Make sure to check online to get the accurate mail rate for your envelope. Make sure to check rates if you are sending international mail.
  4. Use different sized and different colored envelopes to keep it fresh. Working on the same sized white envelopes will get boring after a while. Ramp up your creativity with color and an assortment of sizes.
  5. Save time by printing mail art on your envelopes. You can find free mail art printables by asking your local browser to find them.
  6. Make sure to use enough glue. If you glue anything onto your envelopes, make sure to use enough glue on your items. The post office machines may catch an unglued edge and rip your mail altogether.
  7. Create a postage collage. Use different postage stamps to add more color and design to your envelopes.
Postcard art is a stunning way to share your art with friends and others

Postcard art is a stunning way to share your art with friends and others

Postcards

Postcards are the most popular form of mail art. Handmade, altered, or junk postcards are exchanged freely among postcard artists. They are exchanged either in a one-on-one exchange or in an organized swap.

The popularity of postcards is a constant. More than likely, that is because they are ready to go into the mail as completed with very little postage.

Post Secret is one of the groups that has been online since 2005. You share a secret without revealing who you are on a postcard. There have been so many submissions over the years they have been compiled into books.

Post Crossing is a terrific resource where you can send and receive postcards from around the world. You request an address from a list as well as an Id. You send a postcard to that address. Then your Id is on a list where you will receive additional postcards. There are over 806,000 members in 205 countries. Over 64 million postcards have been exchanged.

More Postage Card Ideas

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Mail Art Groups

Faux Postage Stamps

This form of mail art goes by several different names. They are often called faux postage, postoids, or cinderellas. These are artist-created stamps that are never used as postage.

The only real rule in this form of mail art is simple: They must not be substituted for real postage or used in any way that attempts to defraud the Post Office. The most popular way to create these is with a computer. They are created on a sheet that is either pre-perforated or they are perforated after printing. They can also be created as individual stamps.

These days, they most often are created on a computer. The design is created and then printed on pre-perforated paper on a sheet. Stamps can be created in sheets or individually, or even to mimic the commemorative issues put out by the Post Office.

Start with a downloadable free background sheet that you can print as often as you need them.

Mail Art Swaps

Have fun creating mail art envelopes

Have fun creating mail art envelopes

Mail Art Created With Magazines And Catalogs

If you want to create envelope mail art, the easiest way is with magazines and catalogs.

To create these mail art envelopes, you just add a clipping to your envelope from a magazine or catalog. Your clipping can be copied on a printer. That way you will have a copy to use in the future.

Or you can cut or rip them out from the source. Then glue them onto the front of the envelope. You can then add washi tape, doodles or anything you would like. Or just let the clipping speak for itself.

Decorated envelopes are art added to the envelopes in which you send cards and other mail

Decorated envelopes are art added to the envelopes in which you send cards and other mail

Decorated Envelopes

Many artists have taken to decorating envelopes, as well as stampers and card creators. Over time, the envelopes have actually become an art form in and of themselves. They are often sent through the mail with little or nothing inside of them.

Designing a way to include the recipient's name and address, as well as the chosen stamp, is often an art form of its own.

The Graceful Envelope is one of the longest-running envelope projects. It has been going on since 1995.

Each year since 1995, artists have decorated envelopes according to the annual theme. The best envelopes selected in several categories are put on display in Washington, DC.

Tips For Decorated Envelopes:

  • Make sure whenever possible that your envelope is a standard size.
  • Make sure that the envelope and the contents inside are flat and fit evenly inside the envelope.
  • The envelope should not have any reflective elements.
  • The address should be legible and have the name, address, location, and zip code.
  • Use decoupage: your envelope can have just a simple small piece of art glued onto the left side of an envelope.
  • Keep the front of the envelope plain and use decorative art on the back flap with the return address.
  • Use doodles to fill up empty spaces.
  • Make a messy sketch.
  • Add embellishment to the return address.

If your envelope is larger than the standard size, or the other guidelines are not met, then the envelope is considered "non-machinable," which means that it cannot go through the standard Post office sorting machines. In that case, you will have to add extra postage.

If you have any questions about if you should add extra postage, it is probably a good idea to just go ahead and do it just to be safe.

More Mail Art Envelope Tips:

  • Be creative when it comes to your return address. Use the space on the back of the envelope to add your address in a creative font.
  • Add a creative envelope liner.
  • Make your own envelopes. There are envelope punch boards that help you create an instant envelope. Or you can use one of the many free envelope templates on the Internet.

Make An Envelope Liner

Envelope liners are easy and a lot of fun! They are simple to make, and it is a great way to use some left-over patterned paper or vellum. You may want to address your envelope first as the insert may make the envelope a little bumpy.

Supplies:

  • An envelope
  • Decorative paper
  • A pencil
  • Pair of scissors
  • Glue stick
  1. Lay your decorative paper on a work surface.
  2. Open the flap of the envelope.
  3. Lay the envelope on the decorative paper.
  4. Trace around the envelope with a pencil.
  5. Cut the insert out.
  6. Slide the insert into the envelope to make sure it fits and does not cover the glue on the envelope flap.
  7. Cover the back of the insert with the glue stick. Cover as evenly as possible.
  8. Place the insert into the envelope and flatten with your fingers.

Additional tutorials will give you more tips for creating mail envelope art for your cards and letters.

More Envelope Mail Art Ideas

More Mail Art Envelope Ideas

Resources To Add Art To Your Envelopes

Art that can be sent as it is is what naked art is about

Art that can be sent as it is is what naked art is about

Naked Mail

Naked mail is the sending of odd items through the mail without any packaging. One of the objectives of naked mail is to surprise postal employees. Taking the items to the post office window to be weighed and have postage attached, as well as receiving the naked mail items from your regular postal carrier, is part of the naked mail experience.

Plastic Mailgrams have taken off in popularity. A clear plastic bottle is filled with items the recipient might enjoy and mailed without packaging. Here are some instructions for making plastic bottle mailgrams that fill easily and will pass through most US post offices:

Naked Mail Tips:

  1. Write the address to which you’re sending the object directly on its surface, attach an adhesive label with the address written on it, or string a tag on it with the address.
  2. The postage goes directly on the object.
  3. If you are unsure about the postage, take the item to the post office and have them tell you how much it will cost.

Mail Art Galleries

  • Mail-art gallery, Naomi Loves
    A gallery of mail-art created by me when I was just starting out. Mostly snail-mail envelopes on kraft paper, painted in gouache and watercolour.
  • Artsy
    Primarily associated with the work of Ray Johnson—though it probably originated with the larger Fluxus or Nouveau Réalism movements—Mail Art uses mailing and shipment services as channels through which to distribute art, as well as to explore systems
Artist trading cards can include all kinds of images and mixed media ideas

Artist trading cards can include all kinds of images and mixed media ideas

Artist Trading Cards

Artist Trading Cards (ATC) are small pieces of artwork that are exchanged between artists. They must be created on a 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ surface and must fit into a trading card sleeve, which is a clear pocket designed to hold baseball trading cards.

These cards are often exchanged and collected in groups on the internet dedicated to the art form. ATCSForAll is one of the largest. They allow a wide range of techniques and mediums, so just about anyone at any level of art experience is welcome.

Mail Art Tips

There are a few things to think about to keep the post office happy and to make sure that your mail art is not returned to you without getting to your recipient:

  1. Make sure you have enough postage! The US Post Office (and I am sure other countries' mail organizations as well) run envelopes through machines. If an envelope is not a standard size, or the outside of the envelope is not flat and even, or the address is not legible, it is considered a non-machinable envelope and requires extra postage.
  2. Consider extra postage if you place the stamps in an unconventional place.
  3. Make sure that the address on your envelope is readable.

These tips will help you get your mail art where it is intended to go.

Mail Art Groups And Organizations