July 22, 2020
Today's story is about how I came up with the concept for Our Back Pockets (stationery to celebrate queer lives, heyyyy), as well as how I came up with the name Our Back Pockets.
The idea for Our Back Pockets, as a concept, is the closest I’ve come to that lighting-strike kind of inspiration we hear about in all those creative myths.
For context, it was spring 2016. I had left my archaeology PhD program, was working a largely admin job at a publishing company, and listening to a ton of podcasts about creativity and small business. I had come out to my parents only a year prior, and it was raw and messy.
I was also, notably, joining art classes and making more art than I had in years.
I knew I wanted to merge the more scientific techniques I had learned via archaeological illustration with the more conceptual and abstract doodling I turned to when my brain got too loud. I also knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t consistently work at it unless I had A Project. I had a ton of thoughts about the false dichotomy between fine art and craft (another blog post?), and I wanted to work towards something. I wanted to start doing, not just in class, but as part of a self-driven project.
I had recently commissioned a tarot reading from a friend (bear with me here), and focused my questions around whether I should continue searching for this something, or if my art should just stay as a personal, ultimately private, practice. Remember, I had only recently left archaeology, aka the career I had been pursuing since I was 13. I was pretty wary of just jumping into the next thing I felt a glimmer of interest in. I was (and still am, if I’m honest) terrified about burning out again, and insecure in my abilities.
The tarot reading was a turning point for me. It was almost entirely majors (for those of you that don’t tarot, that means Big Things are going on), and my friend’s interpretation of these particular cards was that my art was not only meant to be seen, but that it was meant to be in service to my community. It was meant to bring people together, and support the people I love. Well, ok then.
With this reading on my mind and my recent coming-out in my heart, I took a notebook to my favorite fancy tea shop, and started to journal. After weeks of frustrated brainstorming, the tarot reading had loosened something and it came to me: I wanted to make cards for queer people, about queer things.
Looking back, I was already doing this. I had been making Alexis (my now-wife) cards since we started dating. She would carry them around in her pocket, because she’s the most romantic person alive. A friend was about to get an orchiectomy, and I had just made her a hilarious card about it - the spiritual first draft of this card, actually. I knew this was a thing I could do, and a thing I wanted to do. I could give myself briefs, work on my illustration skills, and create a resource for my community - a resource that as far as I could tell, didn’t exist.
The more I thought about it the more I knew this was it.
I wanted to make art that lived in the everyday. I wanted to make tiny things that were used to celebrate the huge things. I wanted to make things that queer people gave to each other - that not just reflected community but that facilitated it.
I had only recently come out to my family, and that was only a year or two after I had come out to friends, or even really claimed my identity for myself. Around the time I came out to my friends, I had gone to Autostraddle’s A-Camp - an adult summer camp for queer women (and women adjacent people). It was a huge part of me saying “ok I really am bisexual, I can stop waffling and debating, IT’S ME.”
Now, at A-Camp there were different teams designated by different color bandanas. Bandanas were particularly useful in this context, because you can tie them around your bicep in a super hot butch way, or go a little more rosie-the-rivetter in a super hot femme way. My team was red, and my cabin mates started talking about how red bandanas signified fisting in the hanky code.
I had no idea what they were talking about.
I got a brief rundown - the hanky code, or ‘flagging’, was mostly used by gay men for cruising but basically meant you could signify what sex/kink acts you were interested in, and whether you were a top of a bottom. Different colors meant different things (e.g. red = fisting), and if you wore it in your left pocket meant you were a top and in the right pocket meant you were more of a bottom.
Soon after, a friend of mine (the same friend that did the tarot reading, in fact), showed me her tattoo of a nautical star on her wrist, and explained that it was a symbol that was used by lesbians in the 40s to call to each other. It could be easily hidden by a watch or a bracelet, and allowed women to find each other while slipping under the radar.
This aspect of queer history is endlessly enchanting to me. We have always created codes, languages, and networks to find each other, hook up, and remain safe.
So when I was thinking about greeting cards, I was also thinking about pins and stickers and nail polish and haircuts: all the things my friends were using to call out to other queers. It was all part of a queer tradition, and I wanted to be part of it.
I did some brainstorming and pretty quickly settled on the name Our Back Pockets. I hadn’t made anything at all, I certainly hadn’t sold anything, but four(ish) years later and the name still feels so right. It keeps bringing me new layers of meaning, and the name itself is one of the things I’m most proud of.
So, yes - the name Our Back Pockets references hanky flagging very specifically: the pockets that hold the hankies. It reminds me to create for my community, not for the people looking in at us. It also reminds me to keep an eye out for shame, and to not shy away from the sex part of sexuality (as is my inclination, what’s up religious upbringing).
The name is also a nod to our history of creating these kinds of languages and codes more broadly. The ephemera we exchange and hold on to (or not!) is woven into every human life, but it seems to me that these seemingly innocuous physical objects and symbols have a particularly special place in queer history. Things that are small and normal, that you can just as easily stuff into your pocket as you can frame and hang on your wall, those are the things that interest me.
And it’s Our Back Pockets because the mission is about a shared project of meaning making, a shared legacy. You don’t usually buy a card for yourself (although you certainly can and I definitely do!) - you buy a card to give to someone. The act of giving a small piece of art, with a small personal note, strengthens your connection with that person. It’s the thing humans have been doing since we were humans - exchanging gifts, forming support networks, and sharing our lives.
All this is to say: I love making you art, and I have a lot of emotions about all the different ways we can scream about being gay!
P.S. Wanna get some super gay cards for your own queer self?I got you.
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