A nostalgic-but-gritty new aesthetic is animating the fashionistas who are on Seoul's cutting edge of cool. Model: @y_eezi. Photo: Michael Hurt

This is Part 1 of an AT series “Kool Korea by hashtag” by US-Seoul-based American street photographer and academic Michael Hurt.

SEOUL – For people under 30 in South Korea, Instagram is all. It is the positive definition of the world, the summary of all categories of social existence, the definition of all that is worthy and trendy.

If you are one of the few people remaining on earth who is not familiar with this, “Insta” is the photo-centric, visual version of Facebook or Twitter. Users make their posts around images.

The dominant visual information is synched with textual information, posted in the form of captions or comments. What defines the lanes of thought that make up what’s trending in the Korean popular consciousness are the trending hashtag categories on Korean Instagram.

Despite the male-centricity of Korean society, this trend discourse is dominated by girls and women, generally under the age of 30. And it is Seoul-centric, as that is where virtually all South Korea’s leading ideas emanate from.

So what are the current markers of trending thought, and how and where do they find expression?  

Seoul’s Euljiro – ‘Hipjiro’ if you prefer – has been colonized by a cool crowd which favors retro, old-school ambience. Photo: Michael Hurt

‘The Beauty of Decay’

One high-visibility hashtag in Korea today is  #퇴폐미 – “The Beauty of Decay.” This points to the fact that South Koreans on the cutting edge of aesthetic sensibilities are in the midst of an intensely nostalgic reverie.

On TV, this is visible with each round of the wildly popular drama Reply 1988. On the ground, neighborhoods around a capital that is one of the most wired and wireless on earth are awash in the marketing of analog, used, obsolete and otherwise old things. 

For a city that is all about new and shiny, this is revolutionary. And it is an edgier and far more challenging look than the bright, squeaky clean images that the Korean Tourism organization pushes.

One of the coolest, hippest, gentrifying areas in central Seoul is Euljiro 3-ga, also known by its English-Korean portmanteau, Hipjiro. For decades, it was a low-end ‘hood dominated by back-alley print houses inhabited by gruff, grumpy men who sought out cheap beer and spicy squid after a hard day’s night.

No more. Gentrification has hit with a bang.  

The major flavor notes in this neo-gritty district are colorful and moody American Chinese or Vietnamese-themed bars-bistros that look like set pieces out of a Won Kar Wai film.

Cyberpunk or vaporwave? Model @_42agassi_ prefers the latter: cyberpunk is so 20th century. Location/stage courtesy of @thestudiohbc. Photo: Michael Hurt

On Instagram, key image elements depicting this neighborhood include grainy film and other forms of old school visual distortion such as light leaks, scratches on the negative – even dust through filters in various apps.

Other notes added to the mix are aesthetics picked up from other artistic depictions of urban decay, such as 1980s-’90s #cyberpunk or in the 2010s’ #vaporwave genre of art and music.

Imagined yesteryears

In the 1980s and 1990s, South Korea seized upon perceived cultural loss in the wake of the take-no-prisoners, compressed and often violent modernization of the 1960s and 1970s that saw the country accelerate from an agricultural backwater to an industrial powerhouse in ultra-short order.

This sentiment found expression in blockbuster films such as 1992’s Sopyonje, covering traditional musicians’ struggle to survive in the modern world. It also came alive in newly-invented, modern-masquerading-as-traditional musical forms such as samulnori and pungmul drumming and dance groups.

These neo-traditional art forms spread across South Korean college campuses and throughout the Korean global diaspora like wildfire. Indeed, today many Koreans are unaware that these formats are, in fact, products of the 1980s – imagining them to hail from a far more ancient past.

In parallel, the Korean popular consciousness is now also concerned with notions of loss. However, this is not the universally common notion of the middle-aged who pine for the markers of their youth and express it through the purchasing power of their demographic.

Model @seol_kee goes Gothic Lolita with a backdrop – Incheon’s Chinatown – that offers a spooky, retro outdoor studio. Photo: Michael Hurt

It is more elevated, a lament for a loss of things never had by young people who never knew life without social media, instant digital gratification and their related complications.

Judging by the memes this generation finds cool, the average 20-something is pining with a romanticized nostalgia for the greener grass of a slower, easier time. This concept provides fertile soil for many aesthetics currently in vogue.

From rap to trap music, over to K-pop or the graphic and gritty realism of genre-blending Bong Joong-ho movies – all are considered cool because of their 1980s-90s antecedents.

The cool kids these days all know Run-DMC – at least, judging by their T-shirts – and the grimy aesthetics of pivotal films in Korean auteur cinema such as 1997’s Green Fish or 1994’s From Me to You, even if they don’t know the names.

Hipsters with this viewpoint are mistakenly called out for mawkish displays of “irony.” However, irony is not the issue.

Junk bonding

What the kids with this nostalgia fetish forget about cassette tapes or negative film is that they are now-forgotten relics for a reason: Those media were imperfect, prone to error and as unwieldy as they were relatively expensive.

However, older forms of things like film or phonographs forced a more tactile, personal relationship with the things we did, like listening to music or taking pictures of friends and family.

That’s what made the acts of enjoying or recording personal and almost ritualistic – and it defined an additional layer of fun if you weren’t born in the era of doing those things.

The fetishization of retro and kitsch runs strong at Doohwadang Cafe (@duhwadang) in Yeoljeong-do where model @justkim_ wears a dress from Ukrainian designer LIME. Photo: Michael Hurt

This was all forgotten as we became bedazzled with the delight of the digital.

To be fair to older Koreans, for them “new” meant “good.” “Traditional” or “old” meant bad. Old-timers are more than happy to gleefully chuck old totems in the garbage, where the cool kids scramble to pick them up, re-examine them and put them up on a wall to guide the way to that next, newer, cooler thing.

For younger Koreans who never experienced the poverty, the struggles or the shear inconveniences of the past, old or decayed or analog is an interesting, new style point. The romance, rituals and fetish objects created as byproducts of analog life are what the cool kids are into and what boomers have abandoned.

This is why the hashtag “the beauty of decay” is so hot, and this is why Seoul street photographers now prioritize Hipjiro. It is old – hence, hip. It is just dirty enough to be trendy and thereby full of low-enough rents to drive Korean-style gentrification forward.

Model @_42agassi_ lives in the shadow of analog which is romantic, tactile, gritty, seemingly more real, and with a sense of messy danger. Photo: Michael Hurt

A Seoul-based visual sociologist and fashion photographer, Michael Hurt (Instagram @kuraeji) lectures in Cultural Theory and Art History at the Korea National University of the Arts and Visual Sociology and Technomethodology at the Daegu Institute of Science and Technology.