A print can be as beautiful as any museum piece, as messy as a newspaper, as complex as a world map, or as simple as a concert poster in a bar bathroom.

A print can also be a sculpture, a wall hanging, a carving, an evolving design. It is integral to contemporary art.

That's one of the qualities that the organizers of Philagrafika 2010 hope to show to visitors when the festival begins today. Running through April 11, Philagrafika features more than 300 artists from 18 countries utilizing more than 80 venues throughout this region, ranging from museums to businesses and even a boat.

"Prints have been considered a realm apart, as photographs once were," said Teresa Jaynes, executive director of the nonprofit organization Philagrafika, which has organized the event. "It showcases different ways people are working with print. A lot of people think of a print in a frame. In the 21st century, it's all up for grabs."

The festival has been four years in the making. Philagrafika, which first came together in 2000 under the name Philadelphia Print Collaborative, plans to hold similar events every three years. The group originally formed to promote printmaking, bringing together curators, artists and educators to share resources and collaborate while promoting the art form to the public.

Philadelphia, organizers say, is well-suited to host an event honoring printmaking: It has an active artists' community and multiple venues where people produce prints, ranging from private studios to schools to businesses.

The city also has a rich printing history that goes back to when Benjamin Franklin hung out his printer's sign.

"This will foster interest in Philadelphia, the city, and its incredible culture and collections," said José Roca, Philagrafika 2010 artistic director.

There are traditionally three parts to printmaking: First, one needs a matrix, the original surface from which the image is printed. Then there must be an "ink," or a way to transfer that image to the third factor, the "support."

But those who think that equation always equals "wood block, ink, paper" are far off the mark.

A piece by Brazilian artist Regina Silveira looks more like a hanging object, perhaps a surrealist sculpture of a wine-bottle opener, but Roca breaks down the printmaking components: digital image file, laser cutter, vinyl.

In one case, the components break down into: "carved toilet seat, pressure on the flesh, skin." The toilet seat in the restroom of the Print Center has been sand-blasted so that those who sit there will arise to find Dante's "Abandon all hope ye who enter here" pressed into their bottom and thighs. (Don't worry; the impression won't last long, but artist Eric Avery will be on hand to sign a Polaroid of your "print" from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Print Center.)

Other artists print on surfaces like confetti or even water.

"Printmaking is a place where I can use both my logical abilities and creative mind," said artist Jenny Schmid, who is showing works at the Print Center. "The medium offers a lifetime challenge and, as my skills evolve, the technical and aesthetic problems that I set up for myself demand more and more patience and focus."

The Philagrafika 2010 festival is made up of three components. The core exhibition is titled "The Graphic Unconscious" and features 35 international artists whose work is on display at five venues. "Out of Print" pairs five contemporary artists with five historical institutions such as the American Philosophical Society so the artists can create new works inspired by the collections at each location. "Independent Projects" encompasses a variety of exhibitions, workshops, presentations, and hands-on opportunities at 79 venues in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

The festival is sure to change some visitors' view of what constitutes printmaking. At the University of Pennsylvania's Arthur Ross Gallery, Colombian artist Miler Lagos and his assistants are rolling five tons (yes, five tons) of newspapers - donated by Philadelphia Media Holdings Inc., the company that owns The Inquirer - into a 6-foot disk that looks like the cross-section of an enormous tree, which Lagos will then sculpt using a power sander. Using the heat of the sander to burn the edges of the paper, which makes them resemble wood, Lagos transforms ordinary stacks of paper into "tree" sculptures that look lifelike.

"It reminds you where paper comes from," Roca said.

Across the Schuylkill at Moore College of Art and Design, visitors can see Philadelphia-based artist Virgil Marti's reflective wallpaper, which deserves careful examination. On the Delaware River, the artists behind Cannonball Press welcome visitors aboard the Independence Seaport Museum cruiser Olympia as they create a modern version of the ship's newspaper, the Bounding Billow.

Crystal Stakowski, a member of the artists' cooperative Space 1026, has helped build a yurt - the circular, portable tent structure traditionally associated with Mongolia - inside the Print Center in Center City. The finished yurt will serve as a reading room during the festival; not only will it hold printed materials, the yurt's "skin" will also be made from printed sheets and other materials created by the cooperative's artists.

Stakowski, who often uses silk-screening techniques, is excited by the idea that the festival will introduce people to the many varied ways of printmaking.

"People don't understand or aren't aware of the process, so they don't see it as an art form," she said. "I hope they get their minds blown. I hope they're like, 'Holy cow, people all over the world are doing this and it's beautiful.' I think it will change what people think about printmaking, unless they already think printmaking is the best thing ever. Then it'll just confirm that that's true."

If You Go

Philagrafika 2010, celebrating print in contemporary art, runs today through April 11. It is expected to draw more than 300 artists at more than 80 venues throughout the city. Many events are free. For updates and insights by Philagrafika 2010 artistic director José Roca, go to http://philagrafika.blogspot.com. The Philagrafika office is at 1616 Walnut St., Suite 918. Information: 215-557-8433, http://www.philagrafika.org/

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