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Zine scene: Baltimore's DIY publications capture culture, community and expression

On a recent Tuesday at the Baltimore Design School, students gather in a classroom, folding papers to create booklets where they will copy and paste clips from magazines, draw figments of their imagination using markers and colored pencils, and write poetry and other tidbits of expression before creating a final, distributable masterpiece with a photocopier.

It isn’t your typical after-school art club, according to its founder, Alexandria Wingate. It’s Zine Club.

Inspired by her research into third-wave feminism, the recent Baltimore Design School graduate created the school’s first “zine” club, a group that focuses on the self-publishing of small pamphlets about topics ranging from fashion to self-care to edgier topics like the exploration of phallic objects.

“I’m going to carry it to my grave,” Wingate, 18, said of zine-making. “It puts me at ease. ... I learned that I have a voice and I’m able to share it through my creative process.”

The design school club is just one example of Baltimore’s vibrant culture surrounding zines, the do-it-yourself magazines and pamphlets made up of unorthodox — sometimes even radical — thoughts, artwork, and expressions of fandom, community and culture.

With publications like Zero Zine by local artist collective 0ZONE, True Laurels by Baltimore writer Lawrence Burney, and 3 Dot Zine by Baltimore native Devin N. Morris, zines are seeing a resurgence with a younger crowd locally and across the U.S., according to Benn Ray, the co-owner of Atomic Books in Hampden. For those involved, self-publishing offers a level freedom and expression not always found in more traditional forms of media.

“There’s a whole generation of kids that are discovering that they can control their own way of making their [publications] … and they are excited about it,” Ray said.

“The zine scene, in general, has come back and gone, come back and gone. It comes in waves.”

Zines, short for “fanzines,” first emerged in the early 1930s as a medium for the science-fiction community to talk among themselves, according to Ray and Frank Farmer, a professor of English at the University of Kansas and author of “After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur,” a book about zine culture. Then followed other underground zines, some about jazz, R&B and other genres of music, Farmer said.

In the 1960s, zines were largely political and radical in thought, while the 1970s and 1980s produced a noticeably punk-DIY culture that’s often associated with the most current version of zines, Farmer said. The scene exploded in the 1990s, when tens of thousands of zines were made thanks to more accessible publication tools.

Even with the rise of the internet and new technology in the 2000s, paper zines have survived and become more creative and nuanced — with many creators relishing in the quirky and slapdash ways of producing the magazine, Farmer said. Others opt for digital versions, but no matter the form, zines ultimately are about self-publication of ideas and topics that often feel ignored by the mainstream.

That’s what motivated local Korean-American artists Bomin Jeon, Eunbi C. Kim, Jamiee Shim, and Joe Lee to start their own artists collective and zine. They wanted to dig into the little-known history of Korean culture in the Station North area, and document the experiences of Asian-Americans and other people of color in a way that mainstream media hadn’t covered it, they said.

“It just made sense for us in this generation to reflect on what’s happened in the neighborhood and kind of dig back to our roots and acknowledge the history of people of color that had been living there for a while, too.” Kim, 24, said. “A lot of Koreans have moved out into the [suburbs], but a lot of folks are still here, and that history wasn’t documented. It was just timely. It was our time to kind of explore and reflect on the effects of that.”

They formed the 0ZONE collective, pronounced “Zero Zone,” in 2016, hosting events before deciding to produce their own zine.

The group received a $5,000 Y.L. Hoi Memorial Award from the Maryland Institute College of Art, which allowed them to curate and combine the works of artists, neuroscientists, poets and everyday Baltimoreans into one collaborative publication, touching on topics like Buddhism, photography, and the black and Asian-American experience.

The 0ZONE members spent hours photocopying and printing the pages at MICA offices. They cut hundreds of pages by hand, organized them in an appealing order, worked on custom covers and then bound more than 70 copies of the 110-page booklets, entitled Zero Zine. The finished product was published in April, priced at a minimum of $7.

Faced with a quick turnaround to meet an upcoming print fair, the initial zine process was grueling, yet empowering, members said. Their hands were sore, but they had learned how to make a book — and they controlled the narrative.

“It’s DIY because no one’s going to do it the way you want to do it,” said Shim, 23.

For Lawrence Burney, the 26-year-old Noisey staff writer behind the music and culture publication True Laurels, zines “felt like ultimate freedom.” And, like the 0ZONE members, he’s motivated by giving coverage to locals and people of color who he feels are underrepresented in art and media.

“It’s giving Baltimore City a mirror to hold up to itself. Kids will come from the east and west side, or anywhere in the city really, just to be able to look at a magazine and see people who look like them, to see people that remind them of people they grew up with or having a family. I just didn’t see that growing up. I didn’t see any publication reflecting my community,” he said.

Though Burney said he hadn’t heard of zines before starting True Laurels, he began the project as a blog in 2011 and it soon evolved.

His focus was Baltimore — a publication that would pay homage to the beautiful aspects of the city and to the people of color who were at times ostracized in mainstream media or whose stories were not included.

“My main concern is people receiving the content the way I want them to receive it. … I really liked the idea of creating my own thing and I was dedicated to what was going in the Baltimore,” he said.

From 2013 to 2015, he created several 5½-inch-by-8½-inch issues composed of photocopied diary-like entries. Last year, he received a grant from The Contemporary museum's Grit Fund and changed the zine’s format, creating a more structured-looking magazine reminiscent of the ones he saw in grocery stores and admired growing up.

True Laurels has undoubtedly evolved since then, becoming a more planned production with colorful images of local notables, artists and up-and-comers. These days, it’s more of a book, but “I still consider True Laurels a zine,” he said.

“A zine is not really predicated on a specific format or a specific look. It’s more about a self-published publication.”

While each publication is different, the zine scene has fostered a community of its own in Baltimore, with press fairs and independent print shops and spaces, like Press Press in Mount Vernon, where creatives can convene.

Wingate and her Baltimore Design School classmates took their finished zines to two zine and small press fairs earlier this year, including the annual Publications and Multiples Fair in Baltimore. The group sold its zines, priced between $1 and $15, and made around $820 collectively, said Erin Nutsugah, 27, an English teacher at the design school who oversees the zine club.

Nutsugah, who hadn’t heard of zines before Wingate pitched the zine club to her, was surprised when she saw how much interest other artists took in her students’ work.

“Having all of that made it feel real,” she said. “No one had any idea about how many people cared about zines until they went to the fair.”

Baltimore native Devin Morris created his own small press fair, the Brown Paper Zine and Small Press Fair, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he currently lives, earlier this year. The concept was to not only to raise awareness about zines and the option of self-publishing, but to also focus on the black artists and people of color working in the print world who don’t get as much exposure or appreciation for their work as their white counterparts, Morris said.

The artist, who also produces the submission-based zine 3 Dot Zine, said he was inspired by the works of his peers, like Burney, to create and really take hold of self-publishing.

“Seeing how simple it was and seeing that finished product, owning that physical aspect about it — that made so much sense to me,” Morris said.

In April, Morris partnered with Kahlon, The Agency — a creative movement that counts musician Abdul Ali and Burney as members — to bring the Brown Paper Zine event to the Eubie Blake Cultural Center. Dozens attended and showcased their work, including Nutsugah and her Zine Club students.

The event was a success, Morris said, but in the larger scheme of things, people shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the label “zine.”

“I want more people to self-publish and not worry about the word zine. Self-publishing is the world that we’re part of. We’re self-published authors. We’re making books and printed matter,” with details rarely presented in mainstream media, he said. He wants people to take agency.

“People need it. They need to know they can speak for themselves.”

bbritto@baltsun.com

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