Two decades of napkin doodling

Local artist Dennis Preston poses with his trusty sketch pad and a figurine of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink caricature, a major inspiration for his own art.
Local artist Dennis Preston poses with his trusty sketch pad and a figurine of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink caricature, a major inspiration for his own art.
Courtesy of Dennis Preston

Dennis Preston has been painting on unusual surfaces and materials since he was a little kid. He’s produced thousands of posters and caricatures; painted guitars, ukuleles and drums; and even beautified a utility box in downtown Lansing recently with his signature “Lansing Rocks” design. You name it and he’s done it in his 50-plus years as a commercial artist, but nothing matches his unusual predilection for drawing on napkins, which he began doing more than 20 years ago at a Biggby Coffee shop as a way to draw out tips for baristas.

Starting in 2003, Preston would sit at area Biggby stores and draw his uniquely flavored monsters and mayhem on napkins. As a way of encouraging tips, he would post them on the stores’ bulletin boards, indicating that they could be purchased with a $10 tip to a barista.

He kept that arrangement going for about 10 years — until he was notified by Biggby’s CEO that his unique way of promoting tips was prohibited by franchise rules. So, Preston ceased and desisted. Now, 20 years after he first put his pen to a napkin, he has published a new book, “Napkin Doodles,” a compendium of more than 240 of his one-of-a-kind drawings stretched over 50 pages.

Preston has no ill will toward Biggby and still sketches at many of the same locations, saving his creations on his sketch pad, which he carries everywhere.

I recently sat down at the scene of the crime to see what’s keeping Preston busy and talk about his new book, which is available only on for $20.

Preston’s other publications, like his popular coloring books, can be purchased at the Old Town General Store and on

Preston is a believer in the maxim “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” but his hands are, in fact, devilish, and his many Ed “Big Daddy” Roth-inspired caricatures and monsters are proof. Since the vast majority of City Pulse readers under 50 won’t know who Big Daddy Roth is, I asked Dennis to tell me that story.

Preston said that when he was a teenager, he was drawn to Roth’s over-the-top graphics. Roth was noted for creating phantasmagoric art designs for the dragster scene. He’s best known for his Rat Fink caricature and his graphic t-shirts, which he sold at California car shows. Roth caught the attention of Detroit artist Stanley Mouse, who began imitating him, ultimately becoming one of the best-known rock-concert poster artists of the 1960s. Preston followed the same path, gravitating toward rock art, and created thousands of show posters.

Preston said that when he was working on rock posters — both locally and at the now-defunct Melody Ballroom in southeast Michigan and Sherwood Forest near Flint — he didn’t always save his work, but folks are always sending him pictures.

But that’s not all he’s known for. From the thousands of posters and the astounding number of caricatures he drew at parties and events to the too-numerous-to-mention record jackets, CD covers and T-shirts he’s worked on, his art is everywhere.

Most recently, you can see his work on posters for the Olive Burger Festival, Saturday (June 24) at Jackson Field; the “Celebrating ‘Dirty Bill’ and Cruisin’ the Gut” event honoring the late William McCallum’s 80th birthday, Wednesday (June 21) on the 100 and 200 blocks of Washington Square in downtown Lansing; and the upcoming Sparta Celtic Festival in August. He’s also talking about collaborating with muralist Brian Whitfield on another mural in downtown Lansing.

His first poster was for Woldumar Nature Center, which he designed at the request of local TV personality Len Stuttman. During the ‘70s, he was turning out regular posters for events at Michigan State University and WVIC Radio-sponsored events. Beginning in 1969, he also completed a mural and window art for Free Spirit, a collection of alternative shops in downtown Lansing, as well as graphics for one of the stores, The Sleep Shop. 

He also painted several belly buttons for some Free Spirit regulars and designed record covers for Dick Deal & U.S. Male and Danny Hernandez & The Ones.

Not to be overlooked are the covers he’s made for City Pulse.

“I think I did around 44, and I don’t have them all,” he said.

Sounds like another book may be in the wings.


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