Purveyor of pins discovers her inner creative

As a kid, Amy Liwag never thought of herself as the creative type because she couldn’t draw. At age 21, she took a photography class and discovered there were a lot more facets to the label “creative” than she previously thought. 

Now, as co-owner of small business Little Shop of Pins, Amy is exploring her creativity in myriad ways. Her husband Jason may be the artist (the couple also collaborates with other artists, including Michelle Coffee, Joey Spiotto, J Salvador, Kevin Wilson, Nathan Hamill, Philip Tseng, and Ed Mironiuk), but Amy’s influence, eye for color, and vibrant aesthetic can be felt and seen in every aspect of the shop. 

Her contributions include photographing the shop’s shiny little products, brainstorming new pin ideas and contributing to designs, dreaming up the perfect pin show setups, and using the mindfulness of her massage therapy training to connect with fans at conventions.

She’s also the one who came up with the name Little Shop of Pins, a pop culture enamel pin and print business that was born after Jason’s participation in a Zoolander tribute art show.

Chances are, you’ve run across a Little Shop of Pins product somewhere, whether it’s an adorable ’80s GlowWorm, baby Aweein, a “Bangarang” collaboration with Hook star Dante Basco, Lumpi-YAH!, an Iron Giant with glow in the dark eyes, vintage Boba Fett, or Little Golden Book Eleven

Amy was gracious enough to give us a peek behind the curtain of running a geeky business. She also discusses her partnership with Jason and  her growing love for the inclusiveness, enthusiasm, and fun of fandom. 

You and your husband, Jason, own and operate Little Shop of Pins, which specializes in clever enamel pins (and prints) “inspired by pop culture, art, and life.” I understand that Zoolander played a role in the founding of your business. Tell me more about how you guys started the shop.

Jason and I met when he was big into the pop culture art scene here in Los Angeles. Gallery 1988 had a Zoolander themed art show in 2016 called “Really, Really, Really Ridiculously Good Looking Art Show: A Tribute to Zoolander.” Jason submitted a screenprint and for the first time designed a pin as well. It was a pin of Mugatu, another Will Ferrell character that you just can’t help but love.

To Jason’s surprise, the pin was way more successful than the print. It was also around that time that Gallery Nucleus had their first ever PinPalPalooza and Jason just went to check it out. He came home that day saying that he needed to get into the pin game and the rest is history. We found out about this pin show that was happening at Indie Brewing Company, not far from where we live, so we went and scoped it out.

We met Miguel from BB-CRE.8 for the first time, talked about the pin biz, tried to study everything we saw from table setup to packaging, and then went home and started. It really was that fast.

I love the name! Are you a Little Shop of Horrors fan?

Both Jason and I have seen Little Shop of Horrors, but we really didn’t choose the name because of the movie. We were sitting at our kitchen table, writing down anything and everything that came to mind. We wanted our name to be easily remembered and also very literal. And I just started singing it, “Little Shop, Little Shop of Pi-innnsss.”

We were honestly shocked that the name wasn’t already taken. I think it has helped us be more memorable because people can relate our name to the iconic song, and then they start singing it, and it gets stuck in their heads. It wasn’t our intention, but we like the result anyway.

Little Shop of Pins features many fandom-themed pins, from the big ones, like Star Wars, Disney, Stranger Things, and Legend of Zelda, to less obvious ones, like Predator and the ’80s GlowWorm. Why did you decide to focus primarily on pop culture-themed pins?  

Jason’s art world had been focused in the pop culture scene, so it only made sense to expand from there. Some pins were first created for art shows, so the themes played a huge role. Our Major Dutch Predator pin was designed for Hero Complex Gallery’s John McTiernan Art Show in December 2017.

Our focus has always been to create pins that mean something to us on a personal level so that’s where most of the nostalgia comes from. Jason and I were products of the ‘80s, so we really love to do flashbacks to things we remember loving as kids.

Disney has always been a huge part of both of our lives and was one of the things that really brought us together. He used to always go to the parks as a kid growing up in SoCal, and my family had a tradition of always watching the newest Disney movie on Christmas Day together.  Jason is also a huge gamer, so that is why we have so many video game related pins.

Little Shop of Pins features designs by Jason, as well as collaborations with other artists. How do these collaborations come about?

A lot of the collaborations thus far have been connections that Jason has made through the gallery scene. He met Michelle Coffee, Joey Spiotto, and J Salvador through Gallery 1988, and Kevin Wilson he met through Hero Complex Gallery.

Other collaborations, like Nathan Hamill for his Drorg pin, we were contacted through email and then started the conversation. We really love to showcase different styles of art, like Philip Tseng for his Killer Cuties or Hans Off My Cookie illustrations, or Ed Mironiuk for his felt creations that we loved turning into pins.

Tell me about some of the artists you’ve worked with.

Our very first pin collaboration was with Joey Spiotto for his Little Golden Book Eleven character. Jason, of course, knew him before I did, but I immediately fell in love with his work. It is not only super adorable, but he blends his style with the classic style of Random House’s Little Golden Book series from our childhood. All of the small details that Joey adds to Eleven, like her rosy cheeks and tiny shoelaces, just melted my heart! I knew we had to make her into a pin.

What’s the design process like when it comes to creating a new pin?

Sometimes, the pin idea will just come to us out of thin air about something random, but then other times we will have to rewatch a movie or TV show to find inspiration. We love to capture moments that everyone can relate to in our pin designs. A perfect example of this is our Santa! pin, inspired by the movie Elf. This movie might be more current than some of our other throwbacks, but it is a classic just the same.

Once an idea is discovered, we will then talk about the look, feel and overall end result we want to achieve, and then Jason goes to work on the design. I’ll chime in with tweaks and color choices; asking all the questions and driving him crazy in the process.

We always try to know what style we want the pin to be before designing, so we know what will or will not work. Once we submit the artwork, we just wait and pray they come out like we envisioned. The more we try, the more we learn. It has been an ongoing learning process for sure.

I love that Little Shop of Pins products are not obvious, but really witty and playful approaches to fandoms. I especially love your Captain EO, Aweein, and Drorgs pins, but there are really too many good ones to list. What are some of your favorite pins the shop has carried so far? 

Thank you so much for your kind words! Aweein is a fairly new pin collaboration we did with J Salvador, so we really can’t take any credit for the amazing artwork he provided, but it is definitely a favorite of mine. It is the first time we have done something with a chain, and we were so stoked with how well it turned out.

My personal favorite pin of our own design is The Iron Giant. He was one of our firsts and turned out so well we about jumped out of our skin when he first arrived. It was the first time we attempted to do a 3D molded pin, and his eyes glow in the dark for even more awesomeness.

He is also the pin that everyone loves and with which they seem to have their own personal connection. We love to hear stories of why people love what they do, and The Iron Giant is probably the one we hear about most often. It was just such a touching movie to watch as a child, and it still holds up today. I think Jason and I watch that movie at least once a year, if not more.

One of your more interesting products is the “Bangarang” pin, made in collaboration with Hook actor Dante Basco. What’s the story behind that?

Jason became friends with Dante’s sister back in his college days and was always invited to Basco family parties, so that is how he first met Dante. Over the years, they stayed in touch and when we started the pin business, we knew that Dante would be a perfect person to collaborate with on a pin.

Hook was another film from our childhood  that we loved, and it also gave us a connection to the Filipino community, which personally relates to Jason. We thought it would be awesome if Dante could write out his popular catchphrase so everyone could crow like the master himself. Honestly, I didn’t realize Dante’s fandom was as large as it is until we did our first run and sold out fairly quickly.

You’re not an artist, but you play a major role in the business in other creative ways. You said you feel that, as a woman, you “add a softer side to the business” and “shine and balance the dynamic.” Tell me about your role and how you put your talents to use as part of this team.

I didn’t really realize this going in, but the pin game has a lot of dudes. I would say that maybe a quarter of the store owners are women. With my personality, that works just fine, but it did make me notice the differences of how a man might run a shop (or show) and how a woman might.

Now, that’s not to say either can only do it a certain way, but I have noticed little differences. Women seem to remember the details. Not details like remembering inventory or cash for change, but actually anticipating what one might need before they need it, like headache medication or an extra t-shirt because the show is outside on a hot day.

I also think I just bring a little bit of softness to a manly world. If you’ve ever seen our setup, then you know we use crates a lot and our table is set up more like a store. Jason always says that’s all me, and I think it kind of is (mostly). Not to say men wouldn’t use crates, but I think I can safely say that Jason would not have gone that route if he alone were designing our brand.

I drive him crazy with prepping for a show and setting up the table almost every time in our living room, but I NEED to see it. I need to know it will work and look the way I want it to look. I think women are a little more OCD in that way, but it works to our advantage most of the time.

The aesthetic for our brand is classic soda pop shop (Jason’s brilliant design) with a color twist (me)!  When we first started going to pin shows, all I was seeing was black tablecloths with white cards on cork boards. I really wanted to turn that around and do white tablecloths so we stood out. Then adding the different colors to our backing cards just emphasized our logo even more.

My mom was always big into craft shows when I was little. She loomed rugs and would dress up like a Pioneer Woman for craft shows where she would be vending. My uncle (her brother) even built her this portable wood cottage from where she would set up and sell. It never really dawned on me until I started writing this, but she was my first introduction to craft displays and selling. She did such a good job of setting up a portable store before that was even a thing.

Wow, crazy. THANKS, MOM!

Amy‘s Mom setting up at a craft fair.

You have a photography degree, which you use to shape the visual aesthetic of Little Shop of Pins. What are some of the ways you do that?

Yes, my first love, photography. I went to school for photography before smartphones were a thing, so to be a good photographer meant learning lighting, framing and bracketing everything. I learned the proper way to do it all in camera, and then editing my files was usually a quick process. I feel like that has completely changed now with the introduction of smartphones.

When we first started the business, I shot everything with my DSLR , but now I mostly just use it for the white product photos. Phones are so good nowadays, and it became a question of my time. Was it worth my time to lug around a very heavy camera, have to KNOW that I was going to shoot, and then have to still export those images and edit them? No, not really anymore.

But I still carry with me the knowledge I learned long ago. Lighting and framing are still super important, and I think that is reflected in our images. We really try to be honest about what the product looks like but in the best lighting possible. My final portfolio in photography was all based on color theory, too, so I think incorporating different pops of color for our backing cards has also been a touch I’ve put on our look.

 You help come up with pin ideas, as well. What are some of the ideas you’ve contributed and where do you find inspiration?  

Well, some of my ideas have crashed and burned but I do have a few that I am quite proud of; one of them being our Peanut pin. I have always been a huge fan of The Princess Bride, and one day we were driving around LA, and we kept seeing the Obey posters by Shepard Fairey. I just started laughing to myself and the idea came to me to make Andre smiling and saying “PEANUT” instead, like he does in The Princess Bride.

The pin itself has been a slow burn, but the people who do get it love it, so that made it even more awesome for me. Another idea I had was the Halloween set we offered; a Trick or Treat Yo’self pumpkin with candy corns, a tootsie roll and candy pumpkin to match, all of which had personal meaning for me. The Treat Yo’self pumpkin references Parks and Rec, a favorite show of mine, along with my favorite Halloween candy from childhood.

When we chatted earlier via email, you mentioned you never would have thought of yourself as a “creative” when you were a child. When did you discover you actually do have that side to you?

Yeah, growing up I thought being creative meant that you could draw or think of things to draw. It was always based around drawing for some reason, something I could never do but wanted to so desperately. My older sister was always so good at painting and drawing bubble letters (it’s an important skill to have as a high school cheerleader), and I was always so jealous.

It wasn’t until much later, probably when I was 21 and taking an intro into photography course at the local college, that I started to think I was creative. Photography opened up that artistic/creative side of myself, and I discovered that being creative could mean a lot of different things. It didn’t have to mean putting a pencil to paper. It could mean putting your eye to the lens, or foot to the floor. It could be in the way you talk or write or even exercise or organize.

Once I opened up this box of being creative, I was then able to step outside of it and really create the life I wanted. So now, to me, being creative is just simply being free to create. Anyone can be creative and now as I look back on my childhood, I’ve discovered I always was.

I was always making up dances or fixing some problem or writing poetry. I got too hung up on the things I couldn’t do or what I thought defined someone as being artistic or creative. I had it all along. Everyone does.

Do you have a geek origin story? Were you into geeky things as a kid or did that come later in life?

Jason would tell you I’m the most hipster person in the world and are too cool for everything. Haha. I am not a person who collects things or has to see the latest movie opening night, so that is where Jason and I are very different.

I would say I have a good relationship with all things Star Wars, Disney and Pixar, but I’ll leave the Marvel Universe to you guys. Jason is the main reason this whole pin thing exists in my life, so a lot of the fandom comes from him. Although, we have been vending at more cons lately, so all the cosplay and just how excited people get about things does rub off on me.

At first, it was all very overwhelming (I’m not one for large crowds), but I am relaxing into it more. When it comes to childhood things, like Glo-worm or A Goofy Movie, I am PUMPED.  I am a very emotional person, so anything that pulls at my heartstrings, I am all about.

What are some of your favorite personal fandoms?

Iron Giant. Hands down. The message that movie gives is something that everyone should take to heart and teach generations to come. You are who you choose to be. Really.

You’re a massage therapist and that career has actually helped you connect with people at the conventions, shows, and events Little Shop of Pins attends. That’s fascinating. In what way has it helped you to connect more personally with the people you meet?

Massage therapy was something I always wanted to do but didn’t have the self-confidence or maturity to pursue until later in life. I only just went back to school at age 31, but it has really taught me things that no other job did. I think it has helped me listen more and slow down.

Cons or pin shows can come at me fast, with people moving in and out with questions or their own personal stories that they are so excited to tell me. I really try to connect with each person who walks up to our table, whether they buy something or not. I never know someone’s personal struggles. Maybe I am the only person who has smiled at them that day, and believe me, that means something.

Personal connection means something. This world is more connected in terms of technology but less connected in terms of human interaction. These shows give me the opportunity to take that time and connect with people I might not ever come across in my day to day life. Something as simple as pins can connect me with other people that share my same interests.

It brings up discussions and helps people break down that wall of solidarity. They are in on the joke, too, and I really like that. One thing I really hate is when a person makes another person uncomfortable on purpose. I want to be inclusive and show that outwardly, so I attract the same inclusiveness. This is something that is so wonderful about the fandom culture and pin community.

I’m guessing that running a small business like yours, especially such a creative one, involves a ton of work and really long hours. What are some of the biggest challenges you and Jason frequently tackle? 

I think at first the big challenge was where to start. There is so much to get done, and it can be a daunting task. There being two of us lessened that burden some, but it was/is still a lot to get used to doing. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen with our business is on us, and that was a hard pill to swallow. But like anything, we learn and correct, and get used to the hustle. We learn more every day about the pin biz and what direction we want to take it.

One of our friends, who also just recently went freelance (Hi, Meg!), gave me a great podcast to listen to called The Pants Off Show and I have learned a lot about scheduling and mindset from that. Jason and I have also taken the time since the new year to get in touch with our own bodies and health. If our bodies aren’t healthy then how can we expect our minds to operate on all cylinders? Since we have changed our diet, our work flow has also changed.

I can’t speak for Jason, but I know that I am more focused on the tasks at hand, and I also have the brain power now to look ahead and schedule in advance, which was always hard for me. I used to be doing about five things all at once all the time, so this has helped me to pick one, focus fully, and then move onto the next.

I think the biggest challenge we all face as freelancers is to give ourselves permission to have a day off. Or two! Oh gosh, heaven forbid we take two days off in a row! Well, I’m doing it (kind of). I’m trying to let my life breathe a bit instead of be all work all the time.

What do you enjoy most about doing this kind of work?

This kind of work allows me to make my own schedule, which is pretty badass, I have to say. I love that I can wake up without an alarm and if I’m not into working that day, then it’s OK. I can try again tomorrow.

When we first started working full-time for the pin shop, it was hard for me to take a break. I thought that if I wasn’t working than I was being lazy and wasting my time. But I’ve learned that if I’m not in the mood to write a product description, or if I’m not in the mood to take photos, then that work is going to turn out pretty crappy anyways and it will still be time wasted. So now, I let myself off the hook. It’s our business, so I can go for a run or go get a manicure in the middle of the day and not feel bad about it.

But with that being said, it is still all on us so there are many, many hours invested on the weekends or evenings. I also love the people. Like I said, I was never really in this fandom world before Jason, so it is awesome to witness how excited people get about a pin they like. It warms my heart, and makes it all worth it.

OK, so this is a silly question, but I love the photo of you and Jason in the “About” section of your website and also on your Etsy page. It’s hilarious and you two look like really fun and goofy people. Tell me more about the dynamic you share as a team, in business and life. 

Haha, yeah I love that photo too! It was taken in a photo booth at his sister’s wedding. We were feeling good, and I was holding onto him, but started to fall over as the photo was taken. I love it, and it does really capture our personalities pretty well. Jason is the ever so confident, gallery hopping, geek culture loving person you think he would be.

He is the person that brings the party, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a person that doesn’t want to bear hug him. He knows everyone, and I am not exaggerating. He has a great way of making me step outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself. He is always calm and never thinks the worst of anyone. He makes me see the best in people if I am having a hard time, and he also makes me chill out when I am going off the rails.

I would think that I make him focus a bit more or be more assertive in business. He’s the nice guy, so I have to play the bad cop sometimes. But I think we play off of each other’s ideas nicely. And where I might lack, he picks up the slack, and vice versa. We hardly ever fight and try to not let the small stuff sweat us. We are both really gentle people who love a lot and care deeply, and I think those qualities are reflected in our work and collaborations.

Can you give us a hint as to what your next big project might be?

Hmmm … I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk openly about it yet, so I think I’ll wait. But we will be focusing our efforts on licensing and growing our brand in the coming year. Be sure to follow us on Instagram for all the juicy updates. Let’s just say that our childhood will come into play in a big way in the next few months.

What are your future plans, goals and/or dreams for Little Shop of Pins?

Little Shop of Pins was first created as a hobby that quickly turned into a career. We hope to expand our little shop to a wider audience in the coming years. The dream would be to have a brick and mortar shop with a gallery attached, but that would be years in the future. We are super exited for the direction we are taking and so happy that people are digging our designs and the collaborations we have done thus far. Stay tuned! We are just getting started!

 

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