My Sister Set Up an Online Shop to Sell Jars Full of Fingernails
Welcome to the craft-oriented e-commerce site where artists can sell NSFW work and weird shit without the risk of censorship.
This article originally appeared on VICE US
Today, artists are increasingly supporting themselves not by selling a small amount of large pieces, but by selling a large amount of enamel pins, patches, and cheaply produced digital prints. It's a neat and proletariat thing that's the inverse of the way the art market has operated for a long time. In other ways, it seems to encourage creatively-minded folks to try to appeal to the lowest common denominator and produce "merch" instead of art. I'm not here to judge, though. Everybody's got to make a living.
For about a decade, the pre-eminent online craft fair has been Etsy. Whereas it may have started off as something sort of like eBay for crafts, it's become many artists' primary means of selling their art and supporting themselves. My sister, Penelope Gazin, is one of those people—an Etsy Queen, if you will.
My sister makes a lot of art that some people would consider offensive, and Etsy has regularly frozen her store when they found something for sale that they felt wasn't family-friendly. This becomes an issue because a corporation like Etsy needs to maintain a clean image, but sometimes art isn't pleasant or inoffensive. When anonymous website moderators can suddenly halt an artist's ability to make money, a fun cool thing becomes a restrictive and shitty thing that can hurt artists and influence them to move into bland ways of doing things.
In response to feeling unnecessarily restricted and stifled by Etsy's changing and controlling rules, my sister joined forces with her friend and bandmate Kate Dwyer to create a website called Witchsy. It's an online marketplace for artists, like Etsy. But unlike Etsy, any artist who sells work on the site have to meet the approval of Kate and Penelope, and they don't restrict what can be sold based on content. Once you're in, you can do whatever you want.
I've watched my sister and her friend who are neither coders or business school grads make an online business from scratch. I'm overwhelmingly proud of what my sister has accomplished, and interviewed her and Kate about their new endeavor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: How'd you originally meet each other?
Penelope Gazin: We met because my band, Sadwich, played a show with Kate's band, Feeling Feelings. Kate then bullied me into being her friend and I'm very grateful she did.
Kate Dwyer: I call people, leave them voicemails, and call people back. I am truly a relentless bully. I'm also playing bass in Sadwich now and have another music project called Family Pet.
What inspired you to make this website?
Kate Dwyer: We were inspired because we heard Etsy was going to start kicking people off their site for selling "occult" items. Penelope had been selling her art and pins on Etsy for six years and had regular problems with their censorship.
Penelope Gazin: They would shut my shop down once a week each year. Art is my main source of income, and a week is a long time. One time Etsy shut my shop down and wouldn't tell me which of my listings they had a problem with, so I went through my shop and black-barred every painted nipple and curse word and inserted the word "MATURE" to any risque listings. After taking three days to respond to me, Etsy said that I didn't address the listing they had an issue with, which turned out to be a figure drawing where you could see pubic hair.
We thought it would be cool to have a site without censorship, where all the artists are handpicked by us so you don't have to trudge through a ton of crap. We initially thought this would be a really easy side project for us to do, but boy were we wrong.
How's the site doing so far?
Kate Dwyer: It's doing well. It's only a few months old. We're growing it as quickly as we can without compromising our vision. We're completely self-funded and we've almost recouped our development costs.
Penelope Gazin: We've grown a large Instagram following pretty quickly, so it's clearly resonating with people.
It seems goofy to acknowledge that the amount of Instagram followers you have is the truest way of judging someone's cultural currency.
Penelope Gazin: Fifty percent of my income comes from my Instagram following. Instagram is also my primary means of self-promotion. This interview is the first real press we've done for Witchsy. We've put no energy into the marketing of the business yet, so the success Witchsy is seeing is entirely based on our Instagram popularity.
People were messaging us for months asking when we were going to finally launch Witchsy. We were surprised at how excited people were for a thing that didn't exist yet, and it kept us motivated to keep going in the face of adversity. There were three events that caused us to consider throwing in the towel, but Kate just kept focused on the next step we had to take and here we are.
Have you faced any challenges entering the entrepreneurial world as young women?
Kate Dwyer: Being two women entering into the business world poses additional hurdles. There have been numerous times where there's been an undertone of "Are you sure you ladies are up for this? Do you really know what you want?" The frustrating part about being young is that people assume someone else is paying for what we're doing. I would love if we had a Daddy Warbucks footing the bills so we could do whatever we wanted to.
Penelope Gazin: We ended up creating a fake male employee named Keith Mann so we could avoid unsolicited advice on the best way to create our vision. He's still available to chat now about sports, his pregnant wife, or his two crazy lady bosses via firstname.lastname@example.org.
How many people have you dealt with in the guise of Keith Mann?
Penelope Gazin: Keith steps in anytime we need a little help communicating. We noticed one guy we worked with would use a very different tone when conversing with "Keith," and would start every email addressing Keith by name which he never did with Kate or me. We started to have fun with it, and would include dumb jokes in the emails. He has his own Twitter account, @keithmannjr. We decided he is a very nice, basic businessman in his mid-thirties.
Kate Dwyer: Keith is still on payroll as a consultant.
Besides the name of the site, are you into witch culture?
Penelope Gazin: I enjoy it, but I'm not that into it. Kate is more into it. I'm not Wiccan. Sometimes Kate will text me things like, "My creativity candle exploded today and the glass melted. I brought it into the witch store and they said they'd never seen anything like it and were afraid of me!" Kate's's pretty magical so if anyone has powers it would be her.
Kate Dwyer: Whatever can bring us luck, whether it's candle burning or a crystal altar, I want to believe.
You curate the artists who get to go on Witchsy. Who are your favorite artists on there currently?
Kate Dwyer: We select all of the artists on the site personally, so it's fair to say that we love all of them. Some recent pieces I liked were made by King Drippa, Ali White, NIN3 and Crystroll.
We're currently doing a special collaboration with Porous Walker for an exclusive piece which will be out next week. We're also in early discussions about making a Witchsy nail polish set.
Penelope Gazin: My favorites are Noah Harmon, Officialseanpenn, John F. Malta, Parker Day, and Wizard Skull. We did a collaboration pin with Gary Panter. We also did a collab with this awesome weirdo German artist named Robert Deutsch who I met on Facebook. I felt like I discovered a special little treasure.
What's the "Mystery Pit?"
Penelope: The Mystery Pit is my favorite part of Witchsy's website. It hasn't really caught on yet since I think it only has 50 listings, but I was inspired by Ebay's "Everything Else" page where people would go to sell their hair, socks, and abstract concepts. Ebay has tightened their restrictions on people trying to sell these types of things, so it's not what it once was.
When people ask what the Mystery Pit is, I usually say "nobody knows," but I created it in the hopes that artists would use it as an avant garde gallery, or post weird things for sale that aren't actually meant to be purchased. I'm selling a jar of my fingernails and Homerun Press is selling their baby blanket. Goblinko is selling vials of grave dirt. Matt Crabe is selling hand-written death threats. Kate's about to post her "ex-boyfriends haunted power strip."
I'm proud of you for making a place where people can sell dirt, threats, and fingernails on the internet. Thanks Kate and Penelope.
Follow Nick Gazin on Instagram.