Zine is Believing

The first opportunity I ever had to have my writing published was in a zine. Imagine Tumblr circa 2013, submissions curated from likeminded blogs on feminism and stan culture, bound together in a PDF and fired out to a list of email subscribers to be printed off and cherished. These free, self-published mini magazines, with little regard for editorial standards, censorship or house style, allowed teenage girls to talk about whatever they wanted to, how they wanted to. A haphazard mixture of sketches, newspaper cuttings, defaced images, fan art and handwritten messages were splashed across A4 pages to express anger, love, political views, share experiences and give advice.

Often synonymous with the 90s Riot grrrl movement and punk scenes, zines (short for magazines) are homemade, anti-establishment and anti-professional booklets and pamphlets used by marginalised communities as a fast and inexpensive way to spread ideas. They are traditionally photocopied, folded and stapled to be handed out.

Given our region’s history and the frequent sidelining of women’s voices within it, it’s no surprise that pockets of zine culture have existed in the North since the Troubles and the heyday of punk. Spit Records, a local label specialising in Ulster punk from 1977–1982, documents the grassroots publications that captured the spirit of the movement. Fanzines popped up across the province in Derry, Omagh, Coleraine and Dungannon, protesting boredom, local bands’ lack of coverage in the mainstream music press and the stifling status quo. The label’s unassuming website is a treasure trove. An anarchist feminist zine called Black Rag, sold for 15p in February 1978, covers drugs, ‘gay politics’ and reviews; issue 72 of Gavin Martin and Dave ‘Angry’ McCullough’s Alternative Ulster asks “so you think nothing ever happens in Belfast then, suckers?”. Scarlet Women from 1980 discusses reproductive health issues that remained unchanged until only a few years ago; Muff Monsters on Prozac, the first queer zine in Ireland, was published in Belfast in 1996 by Ruth McCarthy, current Artistic Director at Outburst Arts.

Zines can still be found at the merch stands of the North’s modern punk outfits. Back at Rock for Choice in 2019, queerpunk trio Gender Chores sold handwritten booklets of their lyrics and guitar chords, accompanied by sketches of thongs, tampons and pro-choice, anti-patriarchy slogans. Event organisers Sister Ghost are also familiar with the art of zine-making. Frontwoman Shannon O’Neill has been making zines since she was a teenager and sees them as central to her band’s merch, something fans like to collect.

“[I] did my first published [zine] in 2014, as part of a Riot grrrl pop-up event during Culture Night in Belfast. I also heard about them through Girls Rock [School] as they often teach them in workshops at camp to give kids space to express themselves in a free form way that’s more open than a school art class scenario,” she says. “In terms of my own zines, I love creating collages in particular, using juxtapositions between images to take things out of their original contexts and creating new ones.”

Belfast held its first ever zine market at Crescent Arts Centre in 2018 and zine-making workshops popped up across the city in the following years, held by the Go Girl Collective, Girls Rock School and recently at the Ulster Museum. Catalyst Arts currently houses the North’s only zine library. A handful of Belfast zines have released issues in the last few years, covering topics as niche as bee conservation (Bombinate) to Irish artists’ inspirations (Intent) and Gen Z literature (Terrier). Whilst many of these are one-off releases or have become inactive, they are an important snapshot of their subculture at the time.

Belfast artist Helen Gomez has been a zinester since her uni days of skipping lectures and taking advantage of the free photocopier in the clubs and societies office. “It’s very easy to become an accidental zine-maker. They are spontaneous and have few barriers to entry. Accessibility is the name of the game,” she believes. “You can do and say lots of edgy things in them and face few consequences. You don’t need to be a very good writer or artist, or have a degree, or have Arts Council funding, or have a publisher or an agent. You just vomit on a few pages and staple them together. That is true art, in my book.”

Helen co-edited Pegged Zine, self-dubbed “cheap, easy and gay”, which launched its first issue during the pandemic. Produced with The 343 gallery in East Belfast, it gave LGBTQIA+ contributors the space to be as frank, emotional, smutty or imaginative as they liked. A flick through its pink pages reveals a mishmash of art and activism, covering essays, poetry, photography, comics and memes.

“We managed to curate Pegged with great artistic flare, constructing a synchronous collage that works its way through the publication, as delicate as Victorian decoupage and as nasty as a 2000s gossip rag,” she says. “The opportunity arose to work with Anthony Ferguson on editing the zine, who runs the poetry night Queer as Spoke at The 343, with their own brand of angry, anarchic wizardry and exemplary facilitation of erratic and traumatised queer voices. As any regular attendee of Queer as Spoke knows, there are a lot of feelings and vitriol at that, so pulling all that in to a print format as a quick and dirty publication was more than tempting.”

As live music makes its tentative return and you’re more likely to find yourself lounging in a coffee shop now than you were a year ago, traditionally offline zine culture may begin to stir again. And with good reason. Helen makes her case:

“Any political climate can benefit from what zines can do. If you want to avoid online surveillance and muddling your way through algorithms and shadow banning to get your smut and propaganda out there, zines are for you. You can bring stacks of inflammatory printed zines to local bars, leave them in the bathrooms, roll them up and stick them through the fences in the tennis courts, drop them on outside tables at coffee shops and restaurants, slip them into newspapers in your local Centra… or just give them to your mates. You can get away with saying a lot about Northern Irish culture and politics that needs to be said out loud. Much like drug peddlers and crypto pyramid schemes, zine distros also operate off Instagram, so you’ve no excuse but to start filling your brain with zine content.”

This feature was written for Dig With It magazine. It appears in print in Issue 6, which you can purchase here.

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Kristen Sinclair

Freelance writer with bylines in The Guardian, The Verge, The Indiependent, The Thin Air, Hot Press + more. Full portfolio at kristensinclair.blogspot.com