The hustle and grind behind Sacramento’s print zine scene
The trials of hustling for cheap paper. Meeting impossible, self-imposed deadlines. The ever-present risk of bleeding to death, thanks to a particularly vicious paper cut.
The paper zine may be old school but it hasn’t gone the way of the cassette Walkman, yet.
In fact in Sacramento, a dedicated contingent of indie publishers continues to challenge the online zine’s dominance over the underground paper press by banging out quality publications that offer what many mainstream magazines can’t: an alternative voice that informs, challenges, excites and provokes its audience without regard for corporate interests.
“Zines are a powerful outlet for the disenfranchised,” says Dan Curran, the Midtown resident behind Zipgun magazine, a gritty photo journal of street art that chronicles graffiti culture through tripped-out photography and short, plucky articles about the people behind the cans of Krylon spray paint.
Curran’s zine is visually stunning. Waves of graffiti splash across the pages in vivid, Technicolor swells of intricate and sometimes unrecognizable tags.
“I wanted to create something that I would be stoked to see on the news shelves,” Curran says. “Something that kind of went a little bit beyond the standard photo-stacking and cut and paste approach a lot of graffiti magazines take when representing the art form.”
When it comes to distribution, zinesters look to a variety of venues.
From trading with others in the scene and selling through websites to seeking shelf space at local businesses, putting out a zine is a hustle and grind that involves a fair amount of shameless self-promotion.
“I distribute my zines through the mail, mostly through trades,” says Laura-Marie Taylor, the Sacramento author behind Functionally Ill.
Taylor, whose zine covers mental health, designs her publication in the tradition of the cut and paste, DIY aesthetics of the black-and-white zine of old but isn’t afraid to use new technology to get it to the public.
“I orchestrate trades using websites like We Make Zines and LiveJournal. Last December, I tabled at [the] East Bay Alternative Press book fair in Berkeley,” she says.
It’s worth the effort. While some publications depict the grittiness of a subculture, others offer a sincere and raw account of its author’s personal experiences. For Taylor, publishing her zine has become a way to work through personal demons.
“Functionally Ill is about living with bipolar disorder and [having] no health insurance,” says Taylor who launched the zine in 2007.
“It’s about my struggles with the mental-health system and with my own symptom,” she says. “I started making Functionally Ill as a way of processing my own experiences with madness. I also thought it might be valuable for other people to read about what I go through.”
Finding the paper trail in Sacramento isn’t too hard. For those looking for that sweet spot in a shop window, many zine publishers head to Midtown’s Newsbeat or Phono Select records to hock their freshly Xeroxed goods.
“We carry a ton of zines … around 100 to 150,” says Nich Lujan, co-founder of Phono Select. “They just come in and ask if we’ll buy a couple of copies off of them, and we usually do.”
According to Lujan, there are a slew of local publishers putting out well-crafted work that he and his business partner, Dal Basi, are happy to feature in their shop—even if it means giving a young upstart valuable floor space.
And, he adds, there isn’t a rule sheet when it comes to choosing which zines to stock.
“We don’t want any left-wing propaganda, but we accept just about anything,” Lujan jokes. “We have one called FunCrusher … [the author] includes screen-printed patches in it, and those go really quick. People really like them.”
For Taylor, the Functionally Ill author, the Sacramento scene is ever changing. Over the years, she says, she’s witnessed some of her fellow publishers leave the scene, and the disappearance of the Sacramento Zine Symposium, a zine networking event that perished after its 2009 inaugural event.
“I would love if Sacramento had a thriving zine community,” Taylor says. “[But] I enjoy [the] virtual zine community through the mail and over the Internet, and I attend the San Francisco Zine Fest every year.”
Scott Soriano, a Sacto zine legend who published the seminal punk offerings “Spamm” and “Fucker” in the mid-1990s, says the early zine community was forged out of a sense of alienation, when having a Mohawk branded you a freak instead of one of the cool kids.
“Back then, there wasn’t one zine that dominated,” Soriano says. “There were a bunch out there, zines like Slam Show, Popular Sewer Equipment and United Skate, a kind of skate punk zine. So rather than one sticking out, it was more exciting, because there was a lot of spontaneous activity going on.”
While you don’t have to be a design whiz or aspire to be the next Soriano, the formula for producing a zine is simple: equal parts time, passion and a desire to communicate something in a meaningful and provocative way.
“What really inspired me was a zine in San Francisco, Spiderghost Pressgang, put out by Sammy Winston,” says Curran, the Zipgun publisher. “Sammy showed me that you really don’t need some huge budget and a big staff to be able to put something together that really visually makes an impact on people, and you can do it for super cheap too.”
And although Curran says his glossy, full-color zine may jump from its current $5 price tag to $6 a pop, he’s confident that small uptick in price won’t send fans running to their laptops instead of leafing through Zipgun’s graphic exploration of the graffiti subculture.
For fans such as Matt Rodriguez, a local skateboarding pro and musician, this alternative form of media is well worth the cost—and worthy of preservation.
“Convenience breeds laziness, and those who keep publishing the physical medium of a paper zine should be supported by the community,” Rodriguez says. “It’s the concept of supporting people who are willing to go out of their way to put their message out there. The Internet is the new status quo.”
Likewise, those who create say they’re happy to be part of a community that provides an alternative voice or glimpse into an unknown culture.
“I’ve been making zines for 20 years, and it’s become a way of life,” Taylor says. “I have never seen the mainstream media handle mental illness in a way that made sense to me and matched up with my own experiences.”
Lujan, the record store zine curator, agrees. There’s value, he says, in preserving this seemingly archaic aesthetic.
“A lot of people just want something tangible. It’s cool to read stuff on the Internet—you know we all do it—but sometimes, it’s nice just to sit down and read something,” Lujan says.
“Especially [if it’s] something that is not of the mainstream media—something handmade and something with a different opinion or a different point of view on things.”