Finding Community in Zines - Tony Hoang
Tony Hoang is able to build community through zines. His genuine excitement to connect with others manifests through his creative process. With several compilation zines printed and another one in the works, his zines collect people’s experiences to focus on a universal feeling such as compassion or heartbreak. He is eager to share his knowledge with others whether it be through workshops or his day job. Though he has a background in more traditional art, Tony gravitates towards DIY spaces because of his love for the people.
By Riki Robinson
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: If you could go on any adventure, where would you go?
Tony Hoang: I would go on a bike tour. I went on a bike tour last June by myself and my dog. If I did go on another adventure, I'd probably want to hike either the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail, which is from Mexico all the way up through mid-America and Canada. I would want to do that with people.
GR: Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?
TH: I'm a working artist from Pomona, California. I've been living in Pomona pretty much my whole life but I went away for school for four years up in the Bay Area, in East Bay. I moved back after I graduated. Ever since then, I've just been figuring it out, navigating, and trying to find community. Whether that's an art community or just a community I feel comfortable with. I've been concentrating a lot on bookmaking and zine-making. I started making zines in 2015. Recently, I started gardening.
GR: What kind of gardening do you do?
TH: It's all in the backyard right now. I planted a bunch of beets and carrots, which is really awesome because every other day I'll pull a beet out and then make some juice out of it or make something for dinner. It's fresh produce that I have readily available. I'm learning how to build trellises with wood and branches for snow peas and winter melon.
GR: Do you have a day job?
TH: My day job is at REI, an outdoor Recreational Equipment store. I love it a lot. I get to meet all kinds of people. I want to be a teacher one day. I don't really know what level yet, maybe a collegiate level. I love teaching. That's something that I have really been passionate about within the last few years. I've had a few opportunities to teach workshops here and there, classes here and there. My day job is cool because I get to teach, I get to educate. I work in footwear, clothing, and sometimes at the registers. When I work in clothing and footwear, it's awesome because someone will come in and they'll be like, "I'm going to the Amazon, I'm going to Ecuador, I'm going to Peru. I don't know what I need. What kind of clothing do I need for the outdoors. What is layering? What kind of shoe should I get?" Being so knowledgeable about that, I'm able to share what I know and give them this guideline and they get to choose how to go from there. That's what's really awesome, just having those tools to share and being a guide. I'm really grateful to have a day job like that. But I definitely treat my day job as a day job. I don't take it home with me and switch that brain off and go into another realm.
GR: How did you get started making zines?
TH: I've always gone to zine fests since I was really young, but I never really thought about making zines. It never even crossed my mind. I was just so stoked on looking at people's work and visiting tables and really talking to people and connecting. Then in 2015 or late 2014, my partner at the time really inspired me and she said, "Hey, I think you can do this. You can make zines and it'd be pretty awesome." That encouragement was the first step and from there it kind of exploded. I made like 3 zines within a month, stuff that I felt really good about. My first tabling experience was at Long Beach Zine Fest in 2015. That was really special because it was an amazing introduction to the zine community. That's something that I've been trying to find since I came back from Pomona — a community. That being an art community, a zine community, that was really special. That motivated me more to make more zines.
GR: What does the zine community mean to you?
TH: Gosh, it means a lot. Every time I'm about to go to zine fest, whether I'm taking the bus or driving, I feel nervous but so excited. It's this gigantic reunion. I don't go to parties. Parties are weird and they've always made me feel anxiety. But when I think of zine fest, I think of it as this other type of party where I don't feel those bad feelings and I feel really comfortable. I feel so excited to see these people who are my family, in a sense. I've connected with them, I've shared ideas with them, I collaborated with them. It's special and it's amazing because it's constantly evolving. In 2015, I did a lot of zine fests, I did about seven that year. Going to all these different cities, you get to meet all these different zinesters and you get to connect with them. You get to see people that you've seen before. It's this constant relationship building.
GR: I saw that you studied Traditional Arts when you were up in the East Bay. How is it different studying art in academia and doing more subculture, counterculture community?
TH: Going to school is really awesome and I'm grateful for it. The majority of non-academic stuff I went through in school was about creating relationships. When people ask me what I miss the most about the Bay, I tell them it's the people. It's the mentors that I've had, it's the people that I collaborated with, shared ideas with. My creative process now is not that different compared to what it was in the academic setting. The only difference is how school was a schedule. You had to go to class at this time, you had to turn in this project by this time. That's still part of my real life if I do commission work, which I stay away from because it's stressful. The biggest adjustment from leaving that academic world was being able to create time to make work. I'm still struggling with trying to find balance with my day job, being able to pay rent and take care of myself through those means. But also do stuff that makes me really happy and brings a lot of joy to my life, like art making and creating. You have structure in the academic world and when you're outside of that you have to create that yourself instead of being directed.
GR: What does your creative process look like?
TH: Two years ago, I finally made a studio for myself. I would make time to go in the studio and treat it as a workspace. I didn't have my laptop in there. I didn't have a couch. I would just know that if I was going to be in the space, I was going to make work. I was efficient in certain ways but that was difficult to have that guideline. There would be times where I didn't feel creative. There were times where I didn't feel like I even wanted to make work, so forcing myself into that was good but also not so good. Now, when I'm excited by an idea or inspired or feeling the energy, I let it come that way and then I get into the studio, as opposed to being in there and trying to force it. This is especially true of the zine making process. I just finished a zine for L.A. Zine Fest. I brought up the idea in January and the zine fest was just in May so I thought I would get it done right away, but I waited until the last minute. I didn't force it. I had all these timelines, I had all these deadlines but I just went with what felt right. I'm proud of how it turned out.
GR: When you make compilation zines, how does that work? Do you meet up with folks in person?
TH: I've made about three compilation zines. I'll come up with an idea. My first one ever was about compassion. I wanted to talk about this subject. I wanted to share other people's stories. So I thought, “Why don't I ask people I know in my life, or even strangers?” I came up with a really simple prompt. It was like "Can you share a story about compassion” or “What does compassion mean to you?" I just sent that out to three dozen people. I got nine or 10 people who responded back.
I don't curate my compilation zines at all. I just ask them to send it to me and then I'll use a typewriter to type it up. If there's any typos I'll talk to them first to make sure it was a typo. I don't give them a guideline about how long it is or how short it is. I just let them have at it. It can be any form of writing, it can be poetry, it can be free writing. That was really cool because when it's open, you get a lot of diversity. You get this whole mix that way.
GR: So do people send you words and then you illustrate something to go along with it?
TH: I'll do the drawing for it. There's only been a few occasions where someone will do a handwritten one and I'll just keep that as the entry. Most of the time, I'll read the entry over and over and over and then I'll brainstorm ideas of what I want to illustrate for it. That's one of my favorite processes: just trying to understand the entry and just be with it and be able to put something out on my end.
GR: Since you talk a lot with them about what the send you, do you also show them the illustration throughout the process or do they just give you free reign?
TH: I don't show them anything. I just give them the guideline in the beginning, “Here's the prompt. If you want to be a part of it, send me something.” They won't see anything until the zine is finished. That's a really cool part, too. Especially this last time at L.A. Zine Fest, a lot of the people who contributed to the This is what community looks like zine; I had 14 people . I think about 10 of them went to L.A. Zine Fest. That was super amazing because I got to write a little note on the inside page and then give it to them personally and thank them for being part of that project.
GR: Have you ever had a situation where someone submitted something to you that doesn't really fit with the theme that you were going for?
TH: Surprisingly, no. In all the contribution prompts, I think it goes without saying: stuff that's not offensive or just mean. I've said that before in prompts but most of the time I don't say anything like that. I just trust the people I ask. I don't curate any of it. So I haven't come across an entry where I'm like, “Dang that's not cool” and then take it out.
GR: Going back to the different kind of art that you do. You said you make books and I saw you've had gallery shows. How does that compare to zine fests?
TH: It's so different. I haven't had a gallery showing in a really long time. It's different because as a tabler you're so vulnerable. People come up and they look at your work and they're right in front of your face and they decide to pick it up or not. They decide to buy it or not. That's a crazy firsthand experience. At a gallery show, it's nerve wracking, too, but you don't have to interact with every single person who decides to look at your work. In my experience, I'm able to interact even more at zine fests as opposed to an opening.
GR: Have you deliberately avoided galleries and just focused more on zines?
TH: Within this last year, yeah. I've definitely had some opportunities that I'm grateful for, but I had to say no. That's something, too, that I'm learning this year: being able to say no. My mindset before this last year was always say yes, always be open to opportunities if you can manage it. Even if you're super stressed or you don't have the time. Now, it's not like that. Taking care of yourself is so important and being able to say no is a big part of that. I have been concentrating on work that I really want to spend time on as opposed to rushing to make work for some event or show.
GR: How do you react when someone says no to participating in one your zines?
TH: That hasn't actually happened, so I don't actually know. I've definitely had people not submit but I've never had someone say "No, I'm totally not down for that." I've had people say, "I'm busy, but I'll try to get to it." If someone did say no, I would be super chill. I would respect that.
GR: Who and what communities support you and ground you in your work?
TH: Oh my gosh, a lot of people and a lot of things. I was just thinking about that: what inspires me and what keeps me sane. People that I meet in the zine community are a huge part of that. People who inspire me, that initially got me going with the idea of being able to make a zine myself. Some shoutouts: My friend Carolina. Their artist name is Subtle Ceiling and they make this amazing work that talks about navigating pain and healing. My friend Ellen and their artist name is Bacon Bits. My number 1, top favorite, art maker and human is Elise Bernal. Most of her work surrounds the idea of self-care, positive affirmations, navigating tough terrain in life. My friend Kevin from San Diego that I met at San Diego Zine Fest in 2015. I got my friend Rob Brown that helps me with risograph. Unity Press stuff from Jeffrey. I got all kinds of good stuff. Just too many. Basically, these people are my family and they're constantly inspiring me.
Someone else that inspires me is my mom. My mom is so hard working. From early on, that's what I really learned what hard work looks like and what sacrifice looks like. My mom is a huge inspiration for me throughout everyday life. Each day you get to wake up and you get to be inspired by different things and decide how you're going to react to that or how you're going deal with it. I'm inspired by a ton, I can go on for a day.
GR: Do you want to show us some of your zines? When you make zines, do you do everything or do you have someone else print it and bind it?
TH: My first six or seven I'll put everything together, I'll format it. I use YouTube if I don't know how. I have these amazing printers; shoutout to Ali and Jason from Printing Works in Pomona. They're really amazing and they help me print all of it and collate it. Then I'll bring it home and I'll fold and sew it. That's how I've always done all my zines.
My most recent one is in collaboration with L.A. Zine Fest. It’s called This is what community looks like and this zine ended up being gigantic. It’s 82 pages. I've never done a zine that big and I didn't think about binding until I finished the zine. Putting it together I thought, “Wow, I don't think I can sew 82 pages. That's probably going to break my sewing machine.” So I talked to my friend Rob and he's said, “Hey, you should perfect bind it with one of my binders in Santa Ana.” So that's what I did. I perfect bound it which I'm really stoked on because I've never done anything that fancy.
It's funny because I actually ended up sewing this zine, still. But just a page in there. That's a funny story. I accidentally left two entries out of this zine and I had already printed this whole entire thing, formatted it. There was no way I could leave these two out. I've never dissed anyone like that. I was trying to figure out how to do it, whether I was gonna glue it or not. So I decided to sew it. It's really cool because it's a fold-out now and it's also a surprise.
There's all these people that help me out with creating these projects that I'm really grateful for. They make it beautiful. At Printing Works, I did this Kimya Dawson zine and it was probably my fifth or sixth zine. This one is awesome because I decided to make the pages different colors. My guy Ali was like, “Okay, dude, I'm gonna let you deal with the machine.” Usually they'll just take the project, print it, and then I'll come back and get it. But he was like, “I'm gonna let you take care of this file because it was really confusing.” So that was really cool. He let me behind the desk and everything. I got to use a computer for it and print it out.
GR: Have you sent a copy to Kimya Dawson?
TH: Man, I haven't! You're like the fifth person to ask me that. I don't know her address and I don't know how to ask for it.
GR: You could go to one of her shows.
TH: True. Since I made this zine, I haven't seen her play anywhere where I could actually go see her. But if that happens she is getting this.
GR: Yeah, so Kimya Dawson if you're watching this...
TH: I made this zine about you. About your work and about your words and what you share with the world and us. It's pretty cool. It's just some illustrations of your lyrics and other stuff.
GR: What about your other zines?
TH: This is one of my first zines. It's called Skate Team. It's about growing up with skateboarders as role models through the means of magazines, videos, and stuff that I had available to me. I didn't really have role models growing up so I found my own through this subculture. That really shaped me into who I am. This is Geoff Rowley right here in the zine. One of my first professional skateboards was a Geoff Rowley board from Flip. This is just a zine about certain skaters that inspire me. It's an illustration of their face and some memory or recollection of them and how they affected me growing up.
TH: This one's called Summer Solstice and other things that are long. I made this one towards the end of 2015. This one was inspired by a camping trip that me and my best friend went on with my dog. We went to Bishop, we camped out and went on a bunch of hikes. While camping, all these memories came back to me that I couldn’t recall previously, but I was reminded of it. I had this amazing experience of hearing every single sound I've ever heard in my entire life all at once. It felt like an old friend. That inspired me to make this zine because that experience reminded me that things that happen in our life get collected somehow. With this zine, I would try to pull out memories. This one is about things that are long and things that may be mundane but it's this catalyst to talk about something that we don't usually talk about. This is about my grandpa's arms being really long and also how he's been a plumber for pretty much my whole life. There's some stuff in here like waiting at the DMV for a long time, but I enjoy that and I write about that. There's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook and his arms being really long.
GR: Do you look back on your zines?
TH: Yeah, the one I look back on a lot is Where it all goes. It's about heartbreak and loss. I look back on this when I'm feeling depressed or sad. It helps me a lot with knowing that, at least for me, my healing process is constant. It's not something I need to rush or feel like I have to reach an endpoint. When I wake up everyday it's just a challenge that you take on. You're going to deal with what you're dealing with. I'm really grateful for this zine because this is another compilation where I asked people about heartbreak and loss. I read other people's entries and see how they deal with loss and heartbreak. This is one of my favorite drawings from this. I was getting these cookies from Trader Joe's a lot and this entry says "Hoping she doesn't exist cookies." So I used that cookie package as a reference.
GR: So I looked at your Instagram leading up to this interview. Can you talk about the openness and honesty on your Instagram and social media.
TH: Social media is, for me, a platform where you can share. So whatever format that means, context, or level that is. For me, I'm just honest. I'm really myself, I guess. How do I answer this?
GR: You could write a post about it.
TH: Yeah, I could write a post about it. True that. Whatever comes to me, I'll share it but I'll keep in mind that it's this platform that other people are going to read and that it may affect people. I'm really careful in that way, too. I'm always thinking about that and being considerate with what I share. I just try to be as honest as I can. The thing about social media is that it can be so clouded and it can be such a mask. That's something that I don't want to do. Or else, what does it mean? What are we actually looking at? What are we sharing with each other when it's not real? Social media is cool, sometimes, and I just try to make it this good platform where I can share what I believe in and if people are down for that, that's cool. If not, that's cool too.
GR: I saw that you had some videos on Instagram of you walking around Pomona taking down the signs that say "We buy houses for fast cash." Can you talk about that?
TH: That's just a tactic to protect the community. Why I posted those videos and why I take those signs down when I see them and I'm able to is because it's a scam. The signs are trying to take advantage of families that may be in a tough spot that need fast cash for whatever reason as opposed to helping them. I feel like it'd be different if you saw signs that said, "Hey, if you're struggling call this number and we'll help you out. We'll work together." As opposed to "I want to buy your house and make a ton of money off of it." And then where are you going to go? That's why I take those signs down. It's just about protecting the communities that you're a part of and whatever that means to you. For me, that means taking those signs down. You'll see these a lot if you actually look around the freeways, especially in neighborhoods that are being gentrified. My grandma's neighborhood, Lincoln Heights in East L.A., is being gentrified. It's crazy to see that because I grew up there and seeing how it is now is kind of depressing.
GR: Yeah, so what do you think the role and maybe responsibility is of artists during this political climate?
TH: I don't think anyone has a responsibility for anyone unless they want to. I don't think there's a real straight answer for that. I think my role is to continue to make work that hopefully does inspire people to do good in their communities or wherever they are. To educate — that's something huge that I concentrate on with my work, to be able to share what I know. Then, however someone responds to my work is how they respond to it. Art is a platform for you to discuss what you want to discuss and share what you want to share, but I don't think artists have the power to then say, “Yeah, you better listen to this.” How I feel about my work is that I'll put it out there and see how it's received. Hopefully it's positive. I definitely want that. I wouldn't want someone to interpret my work in a different way that's really negative or something, because that's not what I'm putting out.
GR: Can you also talk about being from Pomona? I think, since Pomona and the Inland Empire are so close to Los Angeles, they are usually pushed to the side in the art world.
TH: Yeah, that's a good point. Pomona has an arts colony and it's really great. I haven't actually been there in years but I used to go to the art walks. It's a great little community, but I think the way Pomona is perceived is that it's sort of ghetto and dangerous. It's the last city in Los Angeles County. I've always felt like Pomona is this gem that most people don't know about until you go there. You just have to go there to experience it and really know what it's all about. I grew up there and I'm the person I am because of Pomona. I'll always love Pomona. I don't really know how to answer that. It's really tough. I never really thought about how they're not on the map, in a sense. I think when people talk about Pomona, they think of music venues like The Fox, The Glass House. They don't really talk about art. Yeah I don't really know what to say about that. Sorry Pomona.
Years ago, I did social activism and I was part of this environmental group and all these other groups. What I learned through those groups and those fights, is that I just want to take care of the people I can take care of. This is people I may know, like my friends and family in the city. But also people I don't know. Families that are just living in the city.
GR: I was wondering because I go to school in Claremont and there's this one club says, “We want to do trips to art centers in L.A." and I was said, “What about San Bernardino and Riverside and Pomona?” Because downtown Pomona has a lot of really cool things. They said, “I never thought about that.” So I was just wondering what your perspective was as someone who grew up there because.
TH: Pomona is a gem and you won't know it until you go. So I encourage everyone to visit any city, if you can, and find out what they're all about. There's some really beautiful pockets of Pomona.
GR: Are you part of any community groups in Pomona?
TH: Not right now, actually. I was for a long time, for quite a few years.
GR: The social activism?
TH: Yeah, I was a part of that for three or four years. But not anymore. The way I'm navigating community in Pomona is trying to live the best version of myself. Do what I can when I see it or I can foresee it. Help when I can. Be a part of community when I see that opportunity. When you asked me earlier about future plans, I have so many future plans. For community, I want to do a bike ride. Like a mini tour, just a three day or two day trip, to San Diego from L.A. or Pomona. I want to make it this inclusive, cool event where all levels can join and you can stop here or there and we can camp here and there. So I want to do that sometime in the summer. Maybe make it into an educational thing too. I was thinking, who can I invite to this? Who do I have in my life that's a bike expert or a nature expert or a city planning expert and maybe make it like a tour guide.
GR: I'm curious. Is there any reason why you left the community groups? Were you just transitioning to new things and moved on?
TH: I actually write about that in my zine This is what community looks like. That social activism group is called United Voices of Pomona for Environmental Justice. Our group had always been this solo community group that had no oversight, didn't have this mayor or this city council person controlling us. We were fighting the city officials and the corruption. We had always been an entity acting alone on what we thought was right. At one point in the group's life, we were invited to be part of city government in an oversight committee but we had to report to the mayor. We had to report to these city council people that were corrupt. The reason I started being part of this group was to fight these people. I thought, “Why would we collaborate with these people?” That coupled with the stress and exhaustion I felt from years of fighting made me decide to leave. I wasn't for merging our group into this committee. I said no. A few of the group members continued to ask me, “Hey, we need you to be a part of this.” Before this I had always been the person in the group who said, “Yes. Yes, I will do it. Yes, even though I'm exhausted. Yes, even though I'm just tired.” But I said no and at the time I was so distraught about it because they continued to ask me. I just felt disrespected and I didn't feel appreciated in the sense that I didn't really have the say to say no. That's when I decided to leave. I talk about it in the zine, if you guys ever pick this up you can read more about it. The group itself is still amazing, they're still active and they do a lot of work for community and I'm super proud of them.
GR: Have you heard the saying "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"? It's Audre Lorde.
TH: Yeah I have heard that. That's a great one.
GR: I'm also curious, does that translate to your art practice? Have you ever been approached or thought about published work?
TH: I haven't. Well, I've been invited to gallery shows and events I didn't really believe in. They were either these galleries that didn't make sense for the community or I would just look at the work in the gallery and thought it didn’t relate to any of my work. What I'll always continue to do is decide if it aligns with what I believe in and what I think is important to me. Then go from there. I don't think I'll ever tailor my work for someone else in that way. Or sacrifice its meaning. I make work for a reason and I don't want to contradict that.
GR: So what's next for you?
TH: What's next? Oh gosh. I'm gardening. I'm trying to plant trees. Have you guys had a jackfruit before? Jackfruit is the bomb. It's just cool to know that I can nurture something like that and then see the progress of it.
I'm concentrating on some new projects. I've been working on this three year long project about fear where I interview people about fear. Basically, it's like my compilation zines. The prompt is "What are you afraid of?” or "What does fear mean to you?" Then you talk about it and I record it and I take a photo. Eventually I want to be able to show this work in a space. I'm trying to get to the goal of 200 interviews. I'm at about 160 now.
And then zines. I have a ton of stuff I want to work on. I've been working on my bike tour zine — the bike tour I went on last June with my dog. I'm excited to get that done. I'm also excited to visit zine fests. I'll be at Long Beach Zine Fest, I'll be at San Diego Zine Fest, but I won't be tabling, which I'm really stoked about. Well, I didn't apply. I'm stoked I didn't apply because now I can really enjoy it for what it is and visit people.
GR: Do zine fests ever feel like work?
TH: No, never. Oh my gosh, it feels like time off. It feels like I get to go on vacation and just have fun and chill. I feel relaxed and happy.
GR: So going back to the zine about fear. 160 people. Are some of them strangers or do you know all 160 people?
TH: There are some strangers in there. I went to New York two years ago and I interviewed a few strangers. Most of them are people that I do know, or that I kind of know.
GR: How did strangers react to being asked by another stranger?
TH: The ones that did want to be a part of it were totally cool. The ones that weren't were like, "What are you asking? I don't even know you." I remember this one guy was smoking a cigarette. I was in Manhattan going to the Met. I was skateboarding there. I saw this guy, and asked him, "Hey, my name is Tony and I'm doing this project. Do you want to be a part of it? I would do this, I would do this, I would do this." He was totally cool with everything until I said, "I'm gonna take your photo at the end." He wasn't down for that. That actually helped me a lot because what I have done previous to that is take a picture of the person's face. But that encouraged me to think to take a photo of their foot, or their hand, or their chest. It doesn't necessarily have to be their face if they're uncomfortable with that. He said no but that encouraged me to change the format a little bit. But it's okay when people say no. When people say no to a zine idea, I'm totally cool with that. It's okay.
GR: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
TH: No, I just want to say thanks. I'm grateful. And I'm excited for life.