Leonardo da Vinci spent three years painting the Mona Lisa. Michelangelo spent four years wielding his brushes on the Sistine Chapel. Antonio Alcalá has spent more than five years creating a single postage stamp.
But he has his reasons.
“For my Popsicle stamps, the artist I was working with invented some Popsicles, but the lawyers felt they perhaps evoked famous Popsicles,” says Alcalá. “When I was doing the Star Trek series, we had to figure out how to commemorate the show without showing the actors, because a person has to be dead for three years before they appear on a stamp. When I was working on the Yogi Berra stamp, I hired a lettering artist to write Berra’s name in custom lettering that evoked baseball jerseys like the Yankees or Mets—but there are rules and regulations that it can’t look exactly like those teams.”
As an art director at Alexandria’s Studio A and one of only four art directors nationwide currently entrusted by the Postal Service with overseeing stamp design, Alcalá’s productions have spanned the gamut of almost every conceivable topic of Americana, from hip-hop music to Japanese-American soldiers in World War II to 2017’s total solar eclipse.
Along the way, he has innovated the medium—from the Postal Service’s first use of thermochromic ink, in which the image changes from the heat of your thumb; to a stamp comprising a visual riddle; to the Postal Service’s first completely abstract design.
If you’ve mailed a birthday card or tucked a utility bill into an envelope in the past few months, you probably slapped one of Alcalá’s stamps on it.
What goes into designing a stamp?
The job is more challenging than it sounds. Alcalá might draft up to 100 versions of a stamp between the beginning sketches and the final design, not just because of the permissions issues, but also because of the background research and interviews required for the topic. But as arduous as the process can be, Alcalá deems it necessary to produce stamps that all Americans can get behind.
For example, there was the 2013 stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. One member of an advisory committee opposed an otherwise-supported concept featuring imagery of chains. The committee member worried that picturing chains could perpetuate a savior narrative implying Lincoln simply bestowed freedom on an entire subjugated population who, along with others, had been fighting for emancipation for two centuries by 1863. Alcalá’s final design instead used a handbill of the era, using words from the Emancipation Proclamation in period-appropriate letterpress.
Another example: last year’s series on hip-hop, by now a globally dominant genre with origins in the late-1970s and early-1980s Bronx. Rather than feature a specific hip-hop artist or group—some of whom had choice lyrics in their back catalog that could prove controversial—Alcalá decided to spotlight four fundamental elements of the genre: rapping, break dancing, graffiti, and DJs. In the final stamps, the photographed subjects are silhouetted so their faces remain unidentifiable.
Or take the stamp timed to the 2017 total solar eclipse only visible from the U.S. Using an astrophysicist’s photograph of a 2006 total eclipse in Libya, Alcalá designed a stamp that appeared to depict the sun. But press your finger against it for a few moments, and you’d transform the stamp into a photo of the moon. It was the Postal Service’s first-ever use of thermochromic ink.
His 2012 Waves of Color series was the first-ever entirely abstract design for a stamp, depicting undulating lines in various palettes: blue for the $1 stamp, green for the $2, orange for the $5, and gray for the $10. “Visually, one may believe it represents fabric, architecture, scientific diagrams or something else entirely, but really it can be anything,” Alcalá wrote for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. “What could be a better representation of a country that celebrates freedom?”
How do you get that gig?
“I always had an interest in art, but I felt it was a hobby that people did for fun, not necessarily something people did as a career,” says Alcalá, who grew up in San Diego. After his parents separated when he was 4, his single mother raised three sons on her own. Not until his final year as a Yale history major in 1983 did he discover classes in graphic design.
After graduating with a master’s degree in graphic design in 1985, also from Yale, he was hired for a job with Time-Life Books, located in Northern Virginia at the time. After freelancing for a brief period, he remained in town and opened his own graphic design firm called Studio A in 1986, which he still runs to this day. The business slowly evolved to focus in large part on the DC area’s massive museum community, and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, which opened in 1993, became one of his regular clients.
That’s how the Postal Service discovered him, eventually recruiting him in 2010 to serve as a member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which gathers quarterly in confidential meetings to evaluate thousands of stamp ideas proposed by the public. The committee then makes recommendations to the postmaster general, who ultimately decides and assigns the approved ideas to one of four art directors with whom the Postal Service contracts.
The Postal Service asked Alcalá, after a year on the committee, to replace a stamp art director who was retiring. The first stamp Alcalá designed depicted José Ferrer, the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award, in 1950 for his role in Cyrano de Bergerac. Today, Alcalá’s stamp contributions in 2021 cover every subject under the sun—including the actual sun, with his series depicting different solar stages using images of various wavelengths from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft.
Inspiration can strike anywhere. “A few years back, I was on a trip to Chicago. On the Midway, I took a photograph of an American flag flying in the breeze. It looked great. And I turned it into a stamp,” says Alcalá. “That’s probably the most popular stamp I’ve ever done.”
How the stamp system works
The Postal Service isn’t technically a government agency; notice how its website ends with .com instead of .gov. Instead, it’s a privately run organization that’s chartered by Congress to provide a public service. That’s also why it can run up such large deficits, especially in recent years, yet never go bankrupt; unlike a traditional company, the Postal Service’s perpetual existence is guaranteed by law.
Congress only provides around 1 percent of the Postal Service’s funding via taxpayer money, so it relies almost entirely on the sale of services and products—such as stamps—for its funding. That makes USPS Stamp Services Director Bill Gicker’s job important.
“When the committee picks a topic to be a stamp, the challenge for the art directors is to figure out how to interpret that subject into a 1-by-1-inch square,” says Gicker. “Antonio has been very good at figuring out that particular puzzle, concentrating a subject down to that point.”
As an example, Gicker points to the mystery message. “It was very challenging because we didn’t even know if we’d be able to do something like that,” he says. “The committee wanted to play off people who enjoy playing mystery games. We have technological constraints, because the stamp has to work through our processing equipment. Antonio put his mind to it and came up with a solution that’s fun and still works for all the practical purposes that a stamp has to work for.”
Gicker’s own boss has been in the news in recent months after spearheading some of the most drastic changes to mail delivery in Postal Service history. Does the postmaster general’s identity or partisan affiliation affect which stamps are greenlit, especially under Donald Trump’s appointee—and the first postmaster general in history that an average American might actually be able to name—Louis DeJoy? Not really, Alcalá says.
“Each postmaster general may have their own staff or particular interests. Some are very hands-off; others are more engaged. They also are the one who appoints the members of the advisory committee, so they have some influence there,” he says. “But I would say it’s minimal.”
Life imitates art
Although stamps are definitely his calling card, Alcalá and his four-person firm Studio A produce other artistic content as well, such as websites, catalogs, and book covers. One of the studio’s employees? His wife, Helen. They met through a now-defunct design organization, the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington. Today, they live with their two daughters in the Old Town section of Alexandria.
How has living in Northern Virginia influenced his art?
“One of the reasons I was on the Postal Service’s radar is I was in the NoVA area, near their headquarters,” says Alcalá, though the organization subsequently relocated from Arlington to DC proper. “I love the museum community here. Visiting all the great Smithsonians, especially the National Gallery of Art and National Museum of Women in the Arts—that exposure influences my take on a lot of the stamp subjects.”
So, which stamps does he use when mailing something himself? “If it’s going to friends or relatives, I’ll choose the one that’s most appropriate for them,” he says. “That’s the fun thing about stamps. Stamps could just have a barcode on them and they would function the same way.”
But that’s not what America chooses to do.
“Stamps are one of the few ways that our country officially brands itself. The most obvious are the flag and our currency,” says Alcalá. The difference is, the flag last changed in 1960, after Hawaii became a state. And while some minor design elements of currency are updated every few years to prevent counterfeiting, the last of the four main coins to change portraits was the dime, with the addition of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1946, while the last of the six main paper bills to do so was the $10 bill, to which Alexander Hamilton was added in 1929. Stamps, on the other hand, are perpetually changing.
“(They) offer a continuous way of saying this country is full of amazing notable achievements. Here is this year’s batch of 24 things that we think are worth celebrating,” Alcalá says. “And we say it to the full country—as well as when our mail goes internationally. This is who we think is important. These are events or accomplishments that we think are worth recognizing. These are aspects of our culture that we think are worth celebrating.”