— From the pages of FLL Issue #31 • Photos by Bianca Cordova
Over ten years ago artist Jason Berlet started doodling on coffee cups. Well, doodling may be a bit of a misnomer. The educated artist was simply biding his time at coffee chops in Chicago when he often found himself with plenty of pens and markers but without paper or notebook. The coffee cup became his canvas and eventually people started to notice.
“Most of the time I would just let the cup sit,” recalls Jason, now back at home in Lancaster and a father of two. “With the drawings I’d also always write what was in my head at the time, whether it was a song lyric or something inspirational.”
The practice turned into a bit of a phenom. One coffee shop started to collect the cups and put them on display. Baristas started to squabble over the cups in hopes of getting their hands on Berlet’s finished product first. He became known as “the cup guy” and patrons in the know and savvy employees would watch for him.
Several years ago a friend sent him a video snippet from a documentary on business and there in the background stood a collection of Jason’s cups. He likens them to his own little “Despicable Me” minions floating around the U.S. providing a bit of optimism to the lives they touch. “It was an easy way to spread positivity. It let me connect with all the people in daily life that you really say little to, like ‘How much is that?’ or ‘Hey, thanks, see you next time,’ says Jason.
The point came when Jason felt he needed to up the ante so he started putting small prizes in the cup, like candy, toys, or lottery tickets. “I saw two coffee shop employees literally knock each other over to grab a cup. It’s funny. It’s funny, the power of an empty cup,” says Jason one afternoon from his Lancaster home.
You can catch some of his art now if you happen on him at a bartending shift at American Bar and Grill. He’s been known to decorate Styrofoam to-go boxes with cats or dinosaurs (if it’s raining you might get ducks wading in a pond). “We live in a world full of so much stuff that we often forget we are all connected. And if I can make a connection with someone it lets people know they are appreciated,” says Jason. “This is just my way of saying, ‘thank you.’”
“I feel like this is the interview with the jack-of-all-trades guy.” — Jason Berlet on himself
The illustrator/cartoonist works primarily in pen and ink—his weapon of choice being the Sharpie—and he got his start at an early age when he asked his mother for some tracing paper. As the story goes his mother asked, “Why?” He said because he wanted to draw something. “You don’t need tracing paper to draw,” said his mother. She handed him pen and paper and off he went. To this day Jason never works with a pencil (or tracing paper).
“You can have a lot of indecision with a pencil, whereas with a pen or a marker you are going to go in the direction you create,” says Jason. “Whatever mistakes you make with a marker, as opposed to a pencil, you are kind of stuck with. You have to work with what you have thrown down.”
And there is much more to Jason’s art than creative cups and Styrofoam stenciling. The artist paints, writes, creates graffiti and freelance interior murals, and is part of one of the areas longest running alternative/ punk bands. He’s the front man for Brom Bones. “We’ve just been playing for over 20 years. We are still writing. Back in the day we strived to get signed, but now we just strive to hang out with each other and talk about our families,” says Jason.
He’s happily married. His wife Jennifer jumps into our conversation when we start talking about their relationship. The two met when Jason was working at the Chameleon. Nothing bloomed until he went to The Second City in Chicago to study improv comedy—which, in itself, is a kind of oxymoron. “I’ve always been told by people I am funny,” admits Jason. “I’ve always had this thing with relating to people. I’m very open with anything in my life, which can be a dangerous thing. I always used humor—back in elementary school—to keep from getting beaten up.”
Back on a break from classes and in Lancaster, he reconnected with Jennifer.
“We met up and a week later we were engaged. We were engaged for about a year before we were married,” jumps in Jennifer wanting to make sure the story was straight.
The couple has two girls, 3-year old Jennison (that’s a mash up of Jennifer and Jason) and 5-month old Brixton—named after The Clash (Google “Guns of Brixton”). His artistic influences are Mad magazine, Charles Schulz, and Calvin and Hobbes—all things his girls will soon come to know and love. The Pennsylvania School of Art & Design (before it was Pennsylvania College of Art & Design) graduate can be found on Instagram @jasoneberlet. His work has been seen at sporadic shows, mostly at coffee shops—most successfully at Square One & Chestnut Hill Cafe.
“I’m like Halley’s Comet. I’m only around for a short time when I do shows,” says Jason. Or, just look around for a coffee cup!