A Glimpse into RISO in Indonesia

Many people are unaware that exam papers in schools, administrative documents in offices, and even parking tickets, all go through a printing process with the same machine that produces colorful, artistic publications from alternative publishers and visual artists today. With a variety of ink color options, the ability to print in large quantities, and relatively economical printing costs, many creative individuals are now beginning to explore various possibilities with RISO machines. Environmental reasons are also taken into consideration, as this printing method is claimed to be environmentally friendly due to its low emissions and the use of plant-based ink.

RISO is a duplicator machine manufactured by Riso Kagaku Corporation and was first released in Japan in 1980. The company was founded by Noboru Hayama in 1946, shortly after World War II. In a literal sense, "riso" is taken from the Japanese word meaning "ideal." This machine was designed as a solution for high-volume printing with a short turnaround time and low cost. The printing technique is often referred to as "risograph." As a duplicator machine, it was initially—and is still—used to reproduce documents or files. Therefore, many schools, campuses, offices, and even churches have these machines to meet various printing needs, from administrative tasks to archiving and correspondence.

The trend of using RISO machines in the creative community appears to have started in Europe and then spread to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. In 2015, Wanda Kamarga of the Jakarta-based creative studio The 1984 established Binatang Press! as both a publishing house and an initiative project of her studio. The majority of titles published by Binatang Press! Are produced using the risograph printing technique. Before founding this publishing venture, Wanda herself was familiar with the use of RISO in some printed publications. However, she mentioned that at the time, there wasn't much information available in Indonesia. By chance, when she and her studio were looking to rent a photocopier machine for an event they were planning, they came across a RISO machine available for rent. That moment marked the beginning of Wanda's exploration into the world of RISO.

Wanda's decision to purchase a RISO machine was based on various considerations. Initially, she sought information about buying from official distributors, including pricing. She found that the price of a new unit was relatively high. She then explored other options. Her search led her to online forums where professionals in the photocopy and related businesses, including RISO, discussed their experiences, both on Facebook and Kaskus. From these platforms, she discovered a second-hand machine for sale. At the cost of approximately 30 million rupiah, Wanda purchased a RISO RZ370 machine and two drums for black and red ink. Unlike newer models, this machine couldn't be operated through a computer or other devices. The printing process begins by scanning each image one at a time. Through this machine, Binatang Press!has published various publications on a variety of topics. During the pandemic, they acquired another RISO unit of the same model. The reason for purchasing the same model was due to technical considerations and the ease of operation when the printing process is carried out with identical machines.

In terms of creative direction, Wanda didn't set out to make risograph printing a specialization for Binatang Press!. "But first and foremost, I'm not in the printing business. I'm more into publishing, and for us, people pay for and buy our books more because of the content and stories we offer," Wanda explained. "We don't always use RISO for production either. Actually, you can pursue excellence in any printing technique; it [just] depends on where you want to go." For Wanda, the abundance of publications produced with RISO machines is due to its relatively economical production costs. She believes that printed works from this machine can be considered middlebrow. "RISO cannot be something like high art, like a painting. It's more like a middle ground. It's a tool that makes things accessible," Wanda explained. The relatively low production costs result in books that are affordable. As a result, these publications are more accessible to the public.

In addition to Binatang Press!, Irfan Hendrian is another name that has been at the forefront of introducing risograph printing in Indonesia. He is a designer, artist, and university lecturer. His first encounter with RISO occurred in 2015 when an artist from Extrapool—a contemporary art space in the Netherlands that also has a RISO studio called Knust Press—was doing a residency program at Common Room in Bandung. Irfan recalled that Extrapool's printing needs were produced in-house through Knust Press, and the artist brought the RISO prints to Bandung. "It looked like an offset [print] but it was really rough [texture]. It turns out it wasn't offset, but RISO," he reminisced the first time he saw the results of risograph printing.

Due to its ability to print in large quantities quickly and at relatively low costs, Irfan believed that risograph printing could bridge the gap between offset and digital printing. He stated, "I'm active in the art scene in Bandung. Back in the day, an exhibition wasn't considered complete without a catalog. There was no record of the exhibition whatsoever. But not all artists had the resources for offset printing. Even less had the means to digitally print, let’s say,200 invitations. Printing 200 copies digitally would be very expensive. I thought there was a suitable target market. So, I decided to buy one." In 2017, he decided to purchase a brand-new RISO machine, the EZ571A model, with two additional ink colors on top of the one that came with the machine. At that time, he had to invest approximately 130 million rupiah for the purchase.

In Irfan's perspective, the second-hand machines available at the time were only able to print up to a B4 size, and the printing process required scanning beforehand. To facilitate pre-production and further exploration, he chose to invest in a machine with the latest technology, offering a larger A3 printing area, higher resolution, and the ability to be operated via a laptop. In his view, the nominal investment was reasonable considering how printing equipment and devices are generally not inexpensive.


In Yogyakarta, the risograph printing practice has been carried out by Kunci Copy Station (KCS), an initiative project of Kunci Study Forum & Collective (Kunci). "Since the inception of Kunci in 1999, printing techniques were not a primary focus. Most of Kunci's editorial work was content-driven. For design and visual aspects, we always relied on collaborating designers or artists who were working with us at that time. So, the collaboration was always on a per-project basis," Syafiatudina explained, a member of Kunci and KCS’s marketing personnel and bookeeper. The idea to delve into the field of printing and acquire a RISO machine emerged after returning from a residency program in Mexico and Colombia in 2016. During the program, she visited Cooperativa Cráter Invertido in Mexico. There, she was greatly inspired by how the group interpreted the holistic process of collective editorial work. Syafiatudina described it as, "So, collectivity is not just in content creation, but also extends to design, material selection, and how the profits can be used for the common good. In this entire process of collective editorial work, RISO became a production tool that enabled experimentation to come to life."

Through funding from Arts Collaboratory, an organization that has been supporting Kunci since 2016, Kunci purchased a EZ331A model RISO machine in 2017. "Initially, our intention was for this RISO machine to provide financial support to Kunci. However, after consulting with many people who were already involved in the publishing world, our intentions changed. We still hope that the RISO machine and the collective editorial process can support many people, but not financially," Syafiatudina explained. "At the very least, it should support them in terms of spirit and ideas. So, in the end, this machine became part of our learning process to create a different economic model." Although they have been in possession of a RISO machine since 2017, KCS itself was only formed in 2019.

In their journey, KCS has adapted and made adjustments to their printing practices, including membership arrangements. Currently, KCS is run by six members with roles divided based on their respective capabilities, ranging from printing techniques, editorial work, to marketing. Maria Uthe, one of the RISO machine operators at KCS, explained that the working system at KCS is quite fluid and project-based. Syafiatudina expressed, "At Kunci, the research, writing, illustration, editing, everything is a collective process. We also want the printing process to be collaborative and collective." For her, this remains a challenge because knowledge about printing and the design process is still largely held by the operators. However, Kunci aims to share this knowledge with more people so that the machine can be accessible to a wider audience. "All of this is part of the learning process for an alternative economic model," Syafiatudina commented.

The growing popularity of risograph publications and print works in Indonesia has attracted new players to join this scene. Two twin brothers, Azhar Fathurrohman and Izhar Fathurrohim, decided to return to their hometown, Cirebon, after spending a considerable amount of time studying and working in Yogyakarta for Azhar and Bandung for Izhar. They brought back their respective experiences and founded their own design studio named Graphic Handler last September. In addition to offering visual design services, this studio also provides RISO printing services. The RISO machine itself was not entirely new to them. In 2019, Azhar had learned about this printing technique at KCS. As for Izhar, he had been exposed to this printing method through Azhar and the RISO scene in Bandung to some extent.

In Izhar's view, the graphic design community in Cirebon is still relatively small and not very developed. However, he sees this as an opportunity to grow together and introduce the RISO machine to graphic designers in the city. In terms of sustaining their business, they are trying to expand their market by looking at different targets that are not typically associated with the creative field. Izhar explained, "We can use this machine for things that aren't typically associated with the RISO printing market. For example, making invoices and receipts. Especially here in Cirebon, in rural areas, there are many large stores and wholesalers that still use manual invoices and receipts." With an investment of approximately 160 million rupiah they now have a SF9350E model machine equipped with a collection of two-color inks.

The business potential of RISO has also attracted Qualita Company, an environmentally friendly packaging and printing company based in Jakarta, to enter this field. In line with the company's vision that emphasizes environmental awareness, Qualita Company established a new unit and service, which includes RISO printing services. Lulu Bong, the founder of Qualita Company, stated that the intention to purchase the RISO machine began with numerous requests from Qualita Company's customers for RISO printing services. Accustomed to offset and digital printing, Lulu believes that the imperfections in RISO machine prints actually give them a strong character. This year, with an investment of approximately 500 million rupiah, Qualita Company purchased a machine of the MH9350 model with a collection of nine ink colors. Unlike other RISO machines owned by practitioners in Indonesia, this machine can accommodate two ink drums simultaneously.

According to Lulu, Qualita Company plans to offer risograph printing services to the public, with creative practitioners as the primary target market. Currently, she is in the process of planning to promote this printing service through collaboration, education, and promotion efforts before fully operating it this year. Beyond business considerations, Lulu aims to emphasize the importance of sustainable practices, particularly in the creative field, through this printing technique. "In offset printing, soy ink is quite expensive. Almost double the cost. Many brands wanted to use soy ink, but when they found out the price, they changed their minds," Lulu explained. She hopes that the presence of this machine can support and facilitate access to sustainable creative practices.

The features, including the characteristics and limitations, of RISO machines have led this printing technique towards possibilities beyond its primary purpose as a duplicator machine. It is no longer just used for duplicating documents, files, and the like; nowadays, these machines are also used to create creative print products. With various motifs and approaches, practitioners and owners utilize RISO machines differently. This printing technique also helps creators produce work that is easily accessible and enables the public to access their creations, thanks to the economical value of the machine's output. As an environmentally friendly printing technique, RISO also becomes an option for creators to engage in sustainable creative practices and be conscious of the environmental impact of their work—beyond the ecological awareness that should also be part of a creator's mindset when designing and selecting materials.

About the Author

Daud Sihombing

Daud Sihombing has been writing professionally for the past 9 years. This fervent alternative publishing enthusiast prefers his quaint little town over the hustle and bustle of the city and doesn't let sleep stop him from watching every single AS Roma match.