Finding plantable poems, collections of life advice and comics on protesters’ rights in the same place might seem like a tall order.
But at the Los Angeles Zine Fest, you can get all three and more.
For a decade, hundreds of readers and creators have gathered at the annual event to share the unique publications known as zines. On May 28, they’ll be back for their first in-person event since 2019, with tables lining the Long Beach Expo Arts Center for attendees to explore.
“There’s just a difference that you can’t get from seeing something online…nuances that can’t be translated,” zine creator Lorenzo Diggins Jr. said. “That’s the opportunity [these events] create, the opportunity to actually connect with the people.”
Zines, short for magazines or fanzines, are independent or self-made publications often centered around a specific topic and made by a single person. If that definition seems broad, that’s because it’s meant to be.
The most common form zines take is paper that’s folded, stapled or bound together into a booklet, but zines aren’t limited to just that format. CJ Miller, creator of the zine LipsTik, explained that as long as something presents information around a perspective, a single qualifier of what makes a zine would be hard to define.
“You can literally put out like a single piece of paper, or not even a piece of paper, maybe a zine that’s on a piece of cloth,”Miller said. “I’m making a zine right now that’s a dress…for people to read while the dress wearer is out in a space.”
Eunsoo Jeong, creator of the zine Koreangry explained that this flexibility is a major drawing point for zine creators. Because there’s no set expectation for what they should contain, zines can be filled with everything from poetry and short stories to illustrations and stickers.
“I really wanted to do what I wanted to do,” Jeong said. “[Zines let] me be free and more playful and goes back to the spirit of…DIY, where it can be any shape, any topic, any size.”
Because zines can be as simple as a single piece of paper, they’re known for being accessible. Most zines are copied for sale using photocopiers, which according to Tristan Espinoza, one of the founders of Tiny Tech Zines, has an impact on who creates them.
“Zines historically have come from marginalized populations…because you don’t have to have a lot of money to make one,” Espinoza said. “I could just pop over to Kinkos or FedEx right now and whip something up in an hour. The access point is present and the barrier to entry is really low.”
The origin of zines is debatable, with Cornell University’s Library claiming that Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 could technically be considered the first major zine. Others like ZineWiki, an independent zine encyclopedia, argue that fanzines of the 1920s and 1930s, made by science fiction fans in tight-knit communities, can generally be considered the origin of the term.
By the 1970s, with punk culture on the rise and copy shops making creation more accessible, some bands started using zines to promote their music. Miller recalled being first exposed to zines from records from UK and American anarcho-punk bands that included accompanying zines expressing their politics.
“It just was an avenue for me to, like, discover new ideas, and that I think that was really exciting for me as a young person in middle school… to have my mind expanded in that way,” Miller said. “Zines afforded an opportunity to access information around world politics.”
Zines would continue to be a way to express political beliefs. The 1990s’ Riot Grrrl, a feminist punk movement, would heavily utilize zines to share feminist ideas and experiences dealing with sexism.
According to an article by the New York Public Library, these zines coined the slogan “girl power.”
Today, zines continue to be used to express ideas surrounding politics and identity. Miller’s zine LipsTik began as personal poetry about her experience as an intersex transfeminine person, which they edited together to create the final hand-screened and hand-bound zine.
“I was writing these poems as a sort of diary process, keeping a diary that was not constrained as much to rigid systems of grammar,” Miller said. “There was information there in my experience that…seemed to resonate with people, so it felt like worth putting into a more proper zine format.”
Jeong’s zine Koreangry also explores personal identity. It was created after the 2016 election as a way to address current issues and share Jeong’s experiences as a Korean American immigrant with humor, personal stories and educational information about activism.
“In the beginning I was really angry about the… very xenophobic things that I’ve experienced,” Jeong said. “As I grew older and I researched more, I realized the anger was ultimately within myself, the fact that I wasn’t unable to speak up but I didn’t know how to.”
According to Tristian Esponiza and Rachel Simanjuntak, connecting at events like zine fests is an important part of building community. They and another friend met at a zine event that inspired them to create Tiny Tech Zines, where they now host their own fairs.
Esponiza explained that Tiny Tech Zines is centered on “tech zines”, which combine zines with themes of technology, its impacts and people’s relationships with it.
“Tech has some biases to it. Tech is not usually made with a lot of community input. It’s kind of just prescribed from these big corporate entities,” Espinoza said. “What we’re trying to do is prioritize people who historically have not had a chance to develop a relationship with technology or to develop technologies of their own in the first place.”
Through their collaborations with designers, artists and writers around the world, Tiny Tech Zines has been able to raise money for various causes as well as create their own innovative projects. One of these is emer.jent, a zine created with plantable seed paper.
“During the heavy L.A. rains, the zine was in [a reader’s] house and a leak sprung in their roof and happened to fall only on the zine,” Simanjuntak said. “It washed away the ink that was on the paper…and when she opened the zine, the seeds had started to sprout.”
Finding new types of stories and zine creations is part of the draw of zine fests for Simanjuntak, who has found zines that range in topics from cyberpunk to healing and care.
“Zines have been a way to share knowledge, sometimes life-saving knowledge,” Simanjuntak said. “I would not be the person that I am without zines that helped me recognize things I was experiencing.”
The community built around zines can also be a place of support.
Lorenzo Diggins Jr., creator of colour bloc creative is awarding a first-time zine maker award to a local BIPOC creator, and he will be helping them develop and publish a zine to then sell at LA Zine Fest.
“Instead of being bitter and mad about how challenging my experience has been, my thing is about paying it forward,” Diggins said. “So how can I leave a trail for the next generation that can help them get to where I’m at quicker? I don’t have a lot, but at the very least I have knowledge and I have experience.”
This year will be the first time Diggins attends LA Zine Fest as a vendor. He first visited the event in 2013, before he went on to create his first zine Simple Things in 2015.
“I was exposed to this beautiful art form 10 years ago with no inclination of where it would lead me. I just knew that I left feeling so fulfilled and so optimistic about the future,” Diggins said. “Just to see a space, a concentrated or dedicated space to all these different creatives, it piqued my interest in a way that I wouldn’t even prepare for.”
Many of the zine creators had common advice to those considering visiting LA Zine Fest for the first time: Expect to be a bit overwhelmed, but be excited for and open to the possibilities, fun and creativity zines can offer.
“Go in with an open mind,” Diggins said. “I’m almost certain that you will find that thing that already piques your interest…but then you may discover something new. Spaces like this, especially centered around art and creation, [are] a great catalyst to further exploration. "
According to Jeong, one of the things that sets LA Zine Fest apart is its diversity in creators and how it’s not solely focused on commercialized vendors whose highest priority is profit.
It’s a spirit that is reflected in the common practice of trading zines at zine fests, where some creators will trade their zines for others.
“It’s not about a monetary translation,” Jeong said. “It’s, ‘This is something I did, my zine, my personality, my voice, and I would love to learn about your zine and voice.’”