Meet The Pin Maker Who Dared ZARA To Cut The Crap And Stop Stealing From Indie Artists

Consider this our official motion to bring back the ‘60s era tradition of “pinning” or “getting pinned.”

But instead of reviving a misogynistic ritual in which a lady is anointed with her boyfriend’s fraternity letters so everyone knows she’s “owned” (gross) by the boyfriend, we suggest rebooting the ceremony into a new sleepover staple in which pals cover each other’s leather jackets and/or denim vests with any of independent artist Adam J. Kurtz’s funny, validating and unexpectedly poignant pins.

Look out for our forthcoming petition addressed directly to President Obama!

A photo posted by @adamjk on

After working at a few agencies as a graphic designer, Kurtz (better known on the Internet as ADAMJK) began producing his own line of kitschy gift shop-inspired objects, like pins, keychains and pencils, and the Internet has been better off for it.

His work — like the miniature enamel bottle that says “FEELINGS” or the “YOUNG, DUMB & FULL OF EXISTENTIAL DREAD” embroidered patch — is unapologetically personal and self-reflective without being sentimental. Through his minimalist design and signature handwritten aphorisms, he makes the most TMI, misanthropic anxiety-ridden thoughts that crawl in the recesses of your brain worthy of declaring and collecting.

ADAMJK’s refreshingly honest and self-aware designs are so unique, it was pretty easy to discover when international fashion brand Zara began stealing and reproducing his pins and patches.

A photo posted by Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk) on

Earlier this week, we exchanged emails with Adam about his creative process, working with Urban Outfitters, and how he and other independent artists are fighting against the major retailers plagiarizing their work.

Konbini: Tell me a little bit about how you started your incredibly popular Gift Shop - how did you move from graphic design to creating these witty, cheeky and oftentimes comforting and motivational objects, such as your pins, planners and books? What attracted to making pins specifically? Why did that feel like a fitting medium for your art?

Adam Kurtz: Design is just communication – working with text and image to say something. As a designer, I had the tools and understanding to connect messages with various forms, so creating simple products that speak to their owners is just an extension of that. My shop is my own umbrella for individual items that range from useful to ridiculous, and as my own boss, I have room to make whatever I want.

I mostly focus on souvenir items, so enamel pins made sense. I was a little early to the pin craze, but as I saw it picking up steam in 2014, I dove in headfirst. Wearing a novelty t-shirt takes a certain type of personality, and personal style. Pins are a much easier commitment. I found that I could experiment further and people were less intimidated by the prospect of actually wearing the jokes or too-real truths.

A photo posted by Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk) on

A photo posted by Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk) on

What does your process look like? Your work is clearly personal, but where do you draw or find inspiration?

So much of my inspiration is based on real-life situations or feelings. It's not even that subtle, half my work is just me talking to myself, reminding myself to calm down, cheer up, pay attention, value myself, whatever. In my mind a lot of my work is me having a conversation and letting everyone else find their voices within it. Sounds lofty for an $8 embroidered patch, I know. 

What do you think catalyzed the current pin and patch revival/craze? Is it nostalgia? Is it the ease of collecting? Or do you not even feel like we’re in the midst of a craze?

I guess craze would be a good word for it, as it seems to be nearing peak awareness and the major retailers have caught on. It's a mix of many things. Definitely a bit of collecting, but even more an extension of our ingrained use of small icons to emote outwardly (pins are basically emojis for your clothes).

It's also about supporting artists – the Internet has allowed us to discover the work of so many people, and feel connected to them. When you follow someone for long enough, you feel like you know them a little bit. So why wouldn't you support them with a $10 order and also get a unique product you know you won't find anywhere else? It's sort of a win-win.

A photo posted by @adamjk on

As an independent artist, how do you stay motivated and focussed? What does a typical day look like?

It's hard working for yourself! I've built my career over years of nights and weekends, but am now in my second year of working for myself full-time. It takes a good amount of self-control to get everything done. I run my online shop of course, but I'm also juggling projects with major publishers, product collaborations with other brands, freelance design work, and of course all the little stuff that I just want to make, like one-off bits and pieces for Instagram or a contribution to a friend's collaborative project, etc.

I honestly struggle more with not working than the opposite. I also recently got engaged. My fiancee is trying to get me to chill out a little but I don't know how.

A photo posted by @adamjk on

You’ve done work with some pretty big name brands — Urban Outfitters, Penguin, Tumblr. After working independently for so long, did you find it hard to have other voices and influences involved in a project? What did you learn through these partnerships?

Working "normal jobs" taught me how to collaborate and take direction. I've had many jobs over the last 10 years that each taught me new skills that I now use on my own. I spent almost two years at a cool, award-winning ad agency called Barton F. Graf, where my bosses were industry legends and I was ... not. You learn how to follow orders and react quickly, while still using your creative brain to make them look their best.

When I'm the "boss" and my name is on a final work, it's more about keeping myself on track, and then also making sure the end product reflects who I am or want to be. With the Urban Outfitters product collection, there were a lot of ideas that we bounced back and forth. Some of those ideas definitely would have been easy money-makers. We had a great meeting and they said something like, "so ... don't hate me but ... you know, people love cats ..." and I know that and I think cats are very cute to look at but there was no way I was going to make a cat mug.

With my books, I'm trying to make work that feels useful and a little cute but also very honest. Could I make more money doing a cat coloring book? Possibly. That's just not my career goal at the moment. Does this paragraph make me sound like I hate cats???? I don't hate cats.

A video posted by Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk) on

Speaking of “the industry,” would you mind talking about what you’re doing at Shop Art Theft with Tuesday Bassen? When did you first learn that Zara was selling exact replicas of your designs? How did develop as your retaliation? Is this even the first time that this has happened to you?

A number of artists realized Zara had stolen their art over the course of a few weeks. Some of us didn't say or do much of anything. I am too busy, honestly. But my friend Tuesday Bassen is like, charmingly aggressive.

It's one of her best qualities and why she kicks ass so much, and it's why she pursued legal action and got that crazy response from Zara that went viral and blew the lid off of this whole thing. We were texting the night those tweets went viral, and by the next day I had put together the website and extra graphics, capitalizing on the momentum she started to point out that it wasn't one mistake, but a larger choice.

Our group clearly backs Tuesday's initial claims, and we are all very grateful that people have been paying attention, calling Zara out on social media, and supporting the artists directly by purchasing the original work. I didn't want to build an "attack website." I wanted to create a resource and the beginning of a solution. Yelling is stupid.

A photo posted by @adamjk on

Even after having your work stolen, do you remain hopeful for yourself and other independent artists? What is the best way for consumers to hold big name retailers accountable?

I'm not just going to lie down in the street because Zara "appears to have stolen" three pieces of my work. It's never okay, but they haven't stolen my brain or anything. My work is personal and it starts with me. I'm still here.

A photo posted by @adamjk on

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