It's a gray Saturday afternoon and the line outside Gallery Nucleus is at least 20 people deep. Inside the Alhambra art gallery/boutique is Pin-Pal-Palooza, where shoppers are crowded in aisles and stooped over tables, checking out enamel pins. These small, inexpensive trinkets can be collected and traded, and they double as wearable art. Pins adorn the clothing of the shoppers and artists. They're pieced together like mosaic tiles, forming abstract shapes on bags. They crawl over sewn-on patches as they climb up the denim jackets of people looking like the cute-art versions of ’80s metalheads.
Ben Zhu, curator and coordinator of Gallery Nucleus, is dressed for the occasion. He estimates that 90 percent of his pin collection is now stuck to his jacket, running down the lapels and across the pockets. Some of the pins are from artists who have worked with the gallery, including Junko Mizuno, Teagan White and children's book authors Jon Klassen and Scott C. Others he picked up because they look really cool: a crying teardrop, a cat playing with bread and a knife like they're a violin and bow, Jabba the Hutt as a slice of pepperoni pizza. There's a pin with a polar bear curled up to look like ice cream melting off a cone. Zhu designed that one himself. "I don't wear jewelry. I don't wear a watch. I don't have any tattoos," he says. Pins are how he accessorizes.
Pin collecting is nothing new — it's a part of Olympics culture and is also a distinct phenomenon within the Disney fandom — but, in the past year or so, interest in enamel pins has soared. Chains like Hot Topic and Target are selling them, but so are small, hip boutiques across Los Angeles. Pins have become big sellers for some indie, illustrative artists, those whose work you'll find at pop-culture conventions and inside brick-and-mortars like Gallery Nucleus. "It's extremely affordable," Zhu says of pin collecting, noting that the items typically range from $5 to $15. "That's the fun part about it. It's very easy to get into." Plenty of people are doing just that, so Gallery Nucleus decided to host a small enamel pin convention, similar to the art book and craft events it's held in the past.
There's no one kind of pin that dominates the room. Orange County–based company Odds and Sods has a selection of California-centric souvenirs. Nerdy T-shirt-makers We Love Fine brought out Adventure Time and My Little Pony accessories. Some of the designs were fairly elaborate. Midnight Dogs had pins that could spin. Culver City–based artist Sarah Soh used a gold metal finish to give her characters reflective sunglasses.
In some instances, the pins are based on artists' larger pieces. That's the case for Tiffany Le, a Garden Grove–based artist, who made a trio of pins based on her series of illustrations "Tragic Waters." Kevin Jay Stanton, who led a design workshop at Pin-Pal-Palooza, started making pins a year ago when someone suggested that one of his prints would make a nice pin. "It's a good way for artists to create work that's portable in a different way," he says.
"You get a lot of bang for your buck because they can look really nice," says Truck Torrence, the L.A.-based artist behind the brand 100% Soft. "I really like designing pins because there is a lot of artistry to it. You can make it look like jewelry."
Torrence's table is filled with the enamel pin versions of his designs, everything from monster cats known as Kaiju Kitties to an anthropomorphic dumpster fire made "in honor of 2016." His food pins are plentiful, with smiling, heart-shaped grub and a "space taco" character. "Oh my God, there are so many cute tacos!" someone exclaims in the background.
For some artists, their pins are an extension of their own collecting habits. Fred Heidbrink, a freelance animation artist based in Culver City, grew up in Chicago, where he would get pins as part of his excursions with the Boy Scouts. "I have a really cool vintage ’90s collection," he says. When enamel pins made their comeback, he started collecting them and later started designing and selling them. His pins, released under the name Midnight Dogs, are based on pop culture references, everything from Seinfeld to Sonic the Hedgehog.
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Naomi Romero's denim jacket is covered in pins. "I bought a few and then I got obsessed, so I started making my own and they're a lot of fun," says the Columbus, Ohio–based illustrator. Romero travels frequently to fan conventions — she attended 30 last year — and tries to pick up a pin from each of them. Their small size and low price makes them ideal souvenirs. "There is no place you can't put an enamel pin," she says. Now, she also sells pin versions of her character Anxiety Fox, the most popular of which reads, "It will be OK."
Sitting with Romero is Sara Fisher, a student at Woodbury University who started her collection with Disney pins. She was 6 when she got in on the hobby and, now, the 21-year-old estimates that her Disney collection has reached about 500 pieces. Today, she's wearing an enamel pin depiction of the Burbank animation studio. "I got this at the studio store and I've gone back there a couple times since and I have never seen it again, so I think I lucked out," she says. She mixes up her Disney collection with pieces bought from indie artists at events like WonderCon or via Etsy. Her art pin collection is growing, and she's considering starting to make her own. She might just be the next artist to take the leap from pin fan to pin designer.