A VHS Revival

No VCR? No problem. Analog tapes are making a comeback, just not as you remember them.

By Jessie Schiewe

Photo: Flickr/ Rob Pearce

Photo: Flickr/Rob Pearce

It all started with a box of VHS tapes that Hayley Summers found in the attic of her Wolverhampton, England, apartment. At 31, they were relics of a childhood she’d lived long ago, a past she hardly remembered. It wasn’t just the old movies that were foreign to Summers, but the clunky plastic video tapes themselves, with their amusing laminated covers and bright, colorful artwork.

Summers spent a few nights watching the tapes on the attic’s VCR before the machine promptly broke. She was bummed, but not really. Nowadays, you can stream any movie, no matter how old, so why bother with the laborious process of using a VCR with its slow rewind button and the tapes’ boring “coming attractions?”

Still, something about the analog video tapes intrigued her — she just couldn’t figure out what.

“I just kept thinking, isn’t there something I can do with them? They’re still really cool,” she told OK Whatever.

She credits a bout of boredom and the winter holidays for helping her figure it out. With Christmas right around the corner, she needed unique, inexpensive gifts for her friends, family, and boyfriend. A lifelong crafter, she’d recently quit her job as a window dresser and had time on her hands, so she decided to preoccupy herself by making presents. She took stock of the materials available: VHS tapes, more VHS tapes, and yards upon yards of Christmas lights.

The answer came to her in a flash: VHS lamps.

Photo:  Nancys Jars

Today, Summers sells her lamps through Etsy for $20 to $55, depending on their complexity. She makes Little Shop of Horrors tapes that have Venus fly traps attached to them, complete with gleaming teeth and fake foliage. She sells Donnie Darko tapes with goth rabbit ears poking out the top and Rocky Horror Picture Show tapes wrapped in sexy fishnet stockings.

Though her creations are eclectic and unique, Summers is far from the only artist working with VHS tapes.

From purses to planters, creative-minded people are increasingly repurposing and reimagining the humble analog media. Instead of popping them into VCRs, they’re using them as raw materials to create bigger and better things, like coffee tables, wall fixtures, and bird houses. Even the paper boxes that protect the tapes have re-entered the marketplace as clocks, spiral notebooks, and postcards. Video tapes may be obsolete as technology but, in the art world, they’re experiencing an unprecedented revival.

March 1997 spelled the death of the VHS. That was the month DVDs were introduced to the American market as a sleeker, faster, altogether more convenient alternative to the clunky, analog technology that had been around since the late 1970s. Nowadays, even DVDs don’t have much worth. VHS tapes have fared even worse. You can buy them for as little as 10 cents at secondhand stores or search for them on sidewalks because people, lacking VCRs, tend to give them away for free. Certain thrift stores flat-out reject donations of video tapes because they sell poorly and take up too much space.

These handicaps, however, have been a coup for the artists reviving them. VHS tapes are cheap, plentiful, and serve little to no use for the vast majority of people. What’s not to love about that when you’re an artist looking for your next material to work with?

For Brian Revels, a maker in North Carolina who began selling VHS bookends and desk organizers on Etsy in 2012, that’s exactly why he uses the obsolete media.

“I have always been one to keep the clear disks that come in a spindle of CDs or DVDs, thinking I could do something with them,” he told OK Whatever.

Like Summers and her lamps, a lot of the people who use VHS tapes started doing so simply because they had a ton leftover from when they were kids. That’s how James May, a 33-year-old artist in New York, got into the business of repurposing VHS tapes.  

“It started with me just making some wall lighting fixtures for myself out of my childhood VHS collection,” he said, “and, frequently, guests to my apartment would encourage me to make more and offer them up for sale.”

Photo:  UpcycleAngelo

The interest in May’s D.I.Y. decor surprised him. In fact, a number of the artists OK Whatever spoke to didn’t realize they’d created something buzzworthy until people started telling them so.

When Summers began selling her light-up VHS tapes on Etsy — which are powered through batteries or a USB cable — she did it mostly on a lark.

“I didn’t actually realize how many retro fans there are out there,” she said. “I never ever in a million years thought that people would want to buy the VHS lamps. But now it’s what I do. This is my job.”

In her first year selling the VHS lamps, Summers had over 4,800 sales. She’s now nearing 10,000, and it hasn’t even been two years.  

Other VHS tape artists have had similar luck selling their products. Kimberley Miller, a Utah-based artist who makes spiral notebooks with the covers of children’s books, chapter books, comics, and game boards, began working with VHS tape boxes after a customer made a request.

“I am in my 40s, so I grew up with VHS tapes,” she said. “My dad bought one of the first VHS players in our town.”

To date, Miller estimates she’s sold up to 500 of her VHS tape notebooks.

Sarah Keck also grew up with VHS tapes and now revives them through her art. Though the 30-year-old Connecticut-based maker sells mostly Disney-themed items, her VHS fanny packs —  which she lines with felt — are some of her most sought-after wares.

“They are popular,” she said. “They get a lot of love.”

Most of Keck’s fanny pack customers are fellow millennials or those a little younger. She thinks the VHS revival has a lot to do with the products’ ingenuity, but also credits the current wave of ‘90s fashion — think Mom jeans and neon colors.

Nostalgia certainly plays a big role in the popularity of VHS-centric items. For those who miss the olden days but no longer own a VCR, or for those who can’t justify the amount of space needed to store their collection, it’s a means of maintaining a connection while, at the same time, finding a more applicable use for them in today’s world.

“It gives adults a brief reminder of how they experienced things as an adolescent,” said May, the artist who uses VHS tapes for light fixtures and coffee tables. “It teleports them back to their shag carpet, eating a bowl of cereal, watching their favorite movie through that giant, old VCR.”

Their creations are certainly bespoke and original. You won’t be able to find them on the shelves of your local Walmart.

And, most of all, they’re limited in quantity. Not just because they’re handmade but because, eventually, VHS tapes will start running out. As their numbers dwindle and their costs creep upward, VHS revivalists will have to rethink their business plans. Maybe they’ll hike up their prices. Or maybe they’ll find another outdated form of tech to transform.

Because therein lies the beauty of technology and the secret to why VHS tapes are now so popular: Nothing lasts forever. Only time will tell what the next soon-to-be obsolete media will be — and how artists will instill beauty into them when that happens.