How Pin Culture Is Supporting The Indie Art Industry (& Finding A Home On Instagram)

Pins seem to be something you either own none of or own way too many of. Their collectible nature lends itself to fanaticism. But you don't have to get on this level to have fun with them; a fashion-centered, Instagram-driven pin culture is emerging for adults, and it's a blast to follow along. They've gone from a childish knick-knack to collectors' items with serious cool factor, and when we talked to four major pin-players — Adam J. Kurtz, Ban.Do's Jen Gotch, Pintrill's Jordan Roschwalb, and Valley Cruise Press' Kelley Feighan — we found out that today's pin culture is about so much more than just a cute something extra you stick on your tees and jackets. Pins used to serve a more practical purpose. A small icon fixed to a lapel simply indicated an affiliation with a certain organization or cause, whether that was a political stance, a sports team, or just your middle school Mathlete status. They date back to the Civil War era, then signified government awards or merits, and then came to be used by political and social groups. For example, in the '60s and '70s, Mao pins became symbols of the Communist party in China, and the American flag lapel pin was popularized worldwide as a symbol of solidarity following 9/11. In the 1950s, "pinning" signified a couple reaching the seriousness milestone between going steady and actually being engaged. Even these days, college Greek culture uses pins in a similar manner; a fraternity member can "pin" his significant other as a pre-engagement offering.
More recently, though, enamel pins are more a reflection of pop-culture memes. Pins are an everyday accessory — they're an accessible, affordable item that speaks to your personality, interests, and browser tabs. Plus, they're giving today's artists and illustrators a fun way to make some extra money. The best thing about pins as accessories today is that they're one-size-fits-all. There are no gender restrictions, no size restrictions, and hardly any monetary restriction to styling with them, considering most come in at under 15 bucks. So, anyone can curate a collection. From your favorite emoji to feminist manifestos to "Kanye For President," there's actually a pin (or three) out there for everyone, you just have to know where to look. Read on to see some of our favorites, and hear first-hand why pins aren't just having their moment in the spotlight — they're here to stay.
Pins Are Wearable Art
Not only do pins allow millennials to support the artists they love — actually purchasing some work that speaks to them — but the pieces can also be great revenue streams for those artists. Kelley Feighan of Valley Cruise Press explains, "Pins are having such a moment right now, because our generation collected Disney lapel pins in the '80s and '90s, and we’re also big art fans now. While our generation for the most part is pretty broke and can't afford paintings or big artwork, a fun way to support [the arts] and show what we like or share illustrators and designers with our friends is through pins." Plus, in the age of all things on-screen, it's nice to see designs come to life in 3-D form. "People lose the physicality of life lately, with the internet and everything, and this brings them back down to being physical and touching things and giving things, and [a pin is] the easiest thing to give — it's cost-effective, accessible, and there's really no reason not to," says Jordan Roschwalb of Pintrill. "The pins, like everything else I make," internet-famous designer, artist, and pin-maker Adam J. Kurtz explains, "[are] a way to get art off the screen or page, and make these affordable, accessible pieces of art. Not everyone can collect fine art, and not everyone wants to. But an $8 pin is a little treat you can give yourself on a whim. It's for anyone."
Instagram Is Where It's At
Pins are the perfect example of a phenomenon that's caught on largely thanks to Instagram. Both sellers and collectors have built a community there where pin-lovers can tag their friends, DM for trades, and click links in bios to shop the best finds instantly. Instagram has become home to a variety of niche visual-art communities, from weaving to nail art to stick & poke tattoos, so it's no surprise that pin culture flourishes there too. "This is totally indicative of creative work in general. The internet, and especially a purely-visual platform like Instagram, have allowed all kinds of individuals and one-person brands to find an audience," Kurtz says. What used to be a culture that required IRL meet-ups for trades and sales can now take place in the palm of your hand. "Instagram is great because you don't need to be running around trying to find [the pins you want]. I've traded probably 30 or 40 pins just through Instagram," admits Pintrill's Jordan Roschwalb, who has a personal collection of over 1,000, aside from the ones he sells. Fair warning, though: Once you get going with pins, you can't stop. Pin sellers tag fellow artists in their posts, and before you know it you're in for one huge follow-spree and dropping $60 on pins you just have to have. Pin-collector, Instagram pro, and founder of Shop Jen Gotch adds, "Because Instagram has that whole Big Brother thing going on, they are constantly trying to get me to follow more and more pin people — and I can’t stop! Also, I think pins are the new kittens of Instagram. Just sayin'." Gotch might be right, because today's pins definitely have viral potential — they're essentially wearable memes. Pintrill turned around the Kanye For President pin the day after Yeezy's VMAs speech, so of course people tagged their friends, and that piece sold like crazy. "We've found a way to make [pins] fresh and new and keep it current by playing off of pop culture and what's big [on social media] right now, whether its on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter," says Roschwalb, who relies almost solely on Instagram to generate pin sales. "When people ask me if we're an e-comm business, I say, 'No, we’re an Instagram business."
Pins Mean Business
"People are aware of where their money is going [when they buy via Instagram]," Kurtz explains. "When you feel connected to an artist or maker, when you know their story and believe in them, you want to direct support them. Besides, it's not like you can walk into Target and get an enamel pin of the Pepe spaghetti meme. You just can't." He's got a point. Between artist collaborations and super-timely memes, pins carry a sense of urgency and one-of-a-kind coolness that you can't find anywhere else.
Plus, today's community of pin sellers is extremely personal. Not only do they listen openly to what their customers want in the comments section on Instagram, but many one-man brands like Adam J. Kurtz actually run pin businesses out of their homes, packing orders themselves and maybe including a little note. "My shop is how I connect with people directly, packing their orders myself in my apartment, including stickers and candy, so it's all very personal," says Kurtz. "People understand that this isn't how I make a living — it's just a real, genuine passion of mine. I was making this stuff before it was ever really selling." Fortunately, the wave of pin popularity has totally worked in his favor. When asked about the beginnings of Pintrill, Roschwalb said, "I asked myself, 'What can I do that’s accessible but can still be luxurious?' It really just stemmed from the passion that I had for pins growing up, and wanting to get more into them and not knowing how to do it. This was a great doorway to the larger world of pins." The big pin-sellers can be split into two general categories: the one-man shows (artists, designers, and illustrators like Kurtz who create and sell their own pins) and the bigger online destination sites like Pintrill and Valley Cruise Press. "We give royalties to all the artists we work with, so the pins are constantly giving them money," says Valley Cruise's Kellie Feighan. "My husband is a collage artist, and they always told him in art school, 'You’re never gonna make any money doing this' and 'you’re gonna be miserable if you choose this,' and I think pins are a great way for people to make money, so that maybe that doesn't have to be the case anymore." Kurtz agrees we might be moving in that direction: "The more people are making small goods, the more normal it becomes," he says. "For someone who was making weird stuff with seemingly no purpose, the idea that just a few years later it's nearly expected from someone like me is awesome."
The Fashion Of It All
"Pins are a fun, inexpensive way to express myself. I collect pins so that when I wear them, you’ll know how I'm I feeling before I even say a word," says Gotch. And part of the fun is choosing just what to express with your pins on any given day. "I have over 200 (and counting)," she admits. "I probably wear 15% of them frequently, and the rest I just look at." They're the easiest way to liven up your wardrobe basics, and make anything feel new again. As Feighan explains, "[you] can change [pins] out all the time, whereas when you iron on a patch, it's more permanent." And for any fashion-obsessive, the more versatile a clothing item or accessory is, the better — who doesn't love the ability to constantly switch things up? One week, you may feel like wearing a "Kim Kardashian cry-face" and the next, you can express something more artsy and abstract. It's all fair game, and nobody's putting you into a box of what pins are cool and which aren't. So, stick your trinkets on your denim jackets, Chanel purses, and backpacks, or just keep them in a box in your room, because pin culture is all about doin' you.
What Pin Culture Really Means
Pins mean something different to everyone you ask — but that's part of what makes them so amazing. Whether you see your pins as collectors' items, works of art, or just quirky accessories, they are items you chose, that reflect your style, interests, or sense of humor. And, you can wear your pins with pride knowing that you're supporting independent businesses, many of which are made up of women. "So many amazing female artists that I love are making pins, from female-owned brands like Stay Home Club, City of Industry, Rosehound Apparel and Big Bud Press, to individual artists like Georgia Perry, Tuesday Bassen, The Disaster Life, Dream Beam, and my forever fave, designer Emily Burtner," Kurtz says. "Strange Ways, a shop that makes a point of highlighting work from female and LGBT artists, has become a go-to destination for pins from artists like these who maybe make just a few pieces." You probably want to add those sites to your bookmarks now. But, arguably the more special thing about pins — and why they are enjoying a cultural high point right now — is their ability to capture memorable moments on both a personal and general-zeitgeisty level. When you buy a pin for yourself or give one to a friend, you are turning a thought, memory or event into something tangible. It's no wonder the Instagram generation is all about this exchange. "Essentially, it’s not the culture of the pins that's important, but moreso the culture of yourself — you’re able to capture all these different pieces of yourself through pins," Roschwalb explains. And if a small pin is all it takes to create a connection to a special time, or person, in your life, or a way to wear your passions and personality proudly on your sleeve, what's not to love?

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