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Like the right emoji to punctuate a text, the perfect combination of pins on a jacket can let people know exactly who you are — pink cigarettes, “Pussy Grabs Back,” and a crying ghost are pretty hard to miss. You start impulse-buying pins that scream “HELLO THIS IS ME” and before you know it, your jacket is covered. Congratulations, you’re officially a patron of the arts.
Souvenir pins have been around for decades, an easy sell at road trip rest stops and hospital gift shops everywhere. Disney pin trading officially became A Thing in 1999 after decades of selling pins in their theme parks. My own art has always been about making accessible objects, and I’d been selling pins along with keychains and balloons since the late 2000s. But somewhere around the end of 2014, a new breed of enamel pins started popping up everywhere. Made by independent artists and fueled by Instagram, enamel pins took on new life. Affordable enough to collect and easy to wear with pretty much everything, they quickly became the must-have accessory. Also, they are shiny.
By the middle of 2016, things had reached a fever pitch. Pins weren’t just available on artist websites and Etsy stores, they were everywhere. Huge collections were proudly posted with #pingame, companies like Strange Ways and Gimme Flair emerged as one-stop shops. Years after Jordan Roschwalb and I traded our early pin designs off our own jackets at a party, Pintrill opened a Brooklyn storefront.
But several years after the rise of indie pins, the trend might be feeling a little played out. Every single pop culture figure has been immortalized. Every single emoji created and recreated in hard and soft enamel. Kim Kardashian’s Kimoji brand has at least 20 styles available. Even the New York Times trend piece was almost two years ago. (Meanwhile, they discover Instagram for the first time every other week). Racked even discussed the pin saturation point... last year. But what is often forgotten is that at the very root of this trend are the artists.
Pins offer a blank canvas for illustrators and designers, and the chance to explore e-commerce in a low-risk way. While artists have long leaned toward wearable art (shoutout to your older sister’s mid-2000s boyfriend’s marijuana-themed T-shirt brand), the pin trend is even more accessible — cheaper to produce, one size fits all, gender-agnostic, and easy to ship.
In private conversations among my artist friends, we wondered when major retail brands would get into the pin craze, and our answer came last summer. While Urban Outfitters was placing generous wholesale orders and basically paying my rent for part of 2016, other brands were less interested in actually supporting the artists. Zara and its subsidiaries released a slew of familiar designs that appeared to be deliberate theft from artists (maybe it was just 40 coincidences?), and other companies did the same. While fast fashion often replicates the runway, an interesting distinction is that copyright law better recognizes the rights of illustrators, who were able to take legal action.
And in the same way that social media has democratized who gets a platform, turning accounts into publishers and people into celebrities, pin culture has quickly helped popular artists transition into brands. That easy leap from two-dimensional art to object has encouraged and enabled them to take things into their own hands, branching out into full-fledged businesses with significant side income.
Painter Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf began in 2008 as a series of paintings depicting books that were important or transformative to her or others. In 2012, a book of the same name was released. More recently, she ventured into book pins, starting with her take on just a few popular and iconic titles.
Pins offered a new creative challenge in a medium that was new for her, and Mount found herself taking on the role of unsolicited book designer: “After painting existing book spines for so long, it is really an inspiring challenge to come up with designs of my own, to figure out how to distill the whole of a classic novel, plot and meaning, into less than an inch square. The painting is more a form of meditation at this point, but the pins prop the creative doors back open for me.”
For some, pins provided an entry point into other types of products entirely.
LA-based illustrator Tuesday Bassen’s ultra-popular designs led her to a wide range of products, nationwide distribution, and a full line of apparel including jackets, sweaters, and skirts. While she still works on client projects, it’s her own brand that pushed her into the public consciousness. She even opened Friend Mart, a hub for artist goods and pop-up events in LA’s Chinatown that just celebrated its first anniversary.
Political art has found a home in pins, too. An obvious leap from the ubiquitous political button or the classic American flag pin, reactionary enamel pins take things one step further, preserving slogans in hard enamel and epoxy glaze for generations. Famed design firm Sagmeister & Walsh launched Pins Won’t Save The World to raise money and awareness in advance of the 2016 presidential election, and now its sales support charities like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Tumblr’s Internet pin raises funds and awareness for net neutrality. Meanwhile, The Good Pin Club makes a new design available every month, with profits going directly to a rotating list of charities and causes.
Looking toward the end of 2017, it seems like the craze has reached, and maybe passed, its apex. Pin collections do continue to grow (my own collection feels... not okay), but the excitement appears to be tapering off a bit as almost every design that could exist seems like it already does. But whether you still impulse-buy designs that make you laugh or meticulously collect originals from your favorite artists, you’re supporting people like me with every purchase — a (literal) badge of honor that says “lol yeah I’m quirky” and “it’s pretty cool when artists can support themselves” at the same time.
Adam J. Kurtz is the author of Things Are What You Make of Them, out now.