One day, “Juju” came to Korea for a visit for the first time. She was not very familiar with the country and certainly did not know where all the popular places were. She heard that there were so-called “핫플,” (hotples)” which means popular places, like Hanam (한남), Gyeongnidan-gil (경리단길), Hongdae (홍대), and many more. But what does “hipster” even mean? What is it like to be “hip” in Korea? Where are they all going?
What is Hipster?
Originated from the United States, “hipsters” are people who pursue an indie lifestyle. They became globally prevalent in the mid-2000s, and their main features include attention towards subculture and an aversion to the mainstream. In other words, it is the act of pursuing a non-mainstream culture.
Hipsters do not follow trends, but rather have their own independent ideas and thoughts. They value original and unknown fashion and brands.
Hipster Culture Is Going Viral in Korea
Just like the United States, hipster culture in Korea originated from the younger generation wanting to escape “societal oppression” by the older generation. They started to give their own special meaning to things they consume. Korean hipster culture originated in Hongdae (홍대), home to many artists and indie bands in the early 2000s. Rental prices increased as time passed, which consequently led to the expansion of the culture. Nowadays, Korean hipsters try to entail a sense of meaning to their consumption via social media platforms, or what is commonly referred to as SNS in Korea. They post pictures of places they visit, foods they eat, and music they listen to onto their SNS platforms. Though such entertainments do not receive public attention compared to popular mainstream entertainment, there are random instances when such things go viral and receive unexpected attention, and subsequently, make it a mainstream culture.
Characteristics of Korean Hipsters: Freedom, Independence, Escape
The values that Korean Hipsters base their identities upon is that they do not follow trends, but rather focus on their own style. They do not feel obliged to force themselves to fit into what society considers to be trendy. They stress aesthetics-oriented culture, which has to do with making visual appeals. Therefore, they “decorate” their social media pages with a certain theme they consider to best express themselves.
The stabilization of the Korean economy has thus contributed to a rise in hipster culture across the country. As the average income of South Korea drastically increased, people began to stop feeling obliged to fit into societal norms. Rather, they started to value and cultivate their own individuality. As a result, they have switched from consuming what is popular in society and started to consume products and services more suited to their own preference and personality. That is why many Korean people are increasingly not feeling pressured to follow the so-called “success track,” such as attending a well-reputed university, getting a good job, getting married, and having children. As a result, small businesses (골목상권) with distinctive identities have become popular lately.
This trend has become even more popular nowadays, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many people spend most of their time indoors, they have discovered the true meaning of their home and daily life in a new light. Prior to the outbreak, many Korean people were busy with their work and day-to-day life. However, as they now have more time to themselves, consumers have started to value the purchase that best matches their identities and interests, and has therefore become the main catalyst driving the hipster culture across Korea.
From hipsters’ point of view, material goods do not have to be fancy or plentiful. Even if it is just one simple item, it is a purchase that is worth the price as long as it suits their taste and identity. Clothing brands such as ThisIsNeverThat, Stüssy, and Yohji Yamamoto are popular among hipsters. Musinsa online store is also a very popular platform for outfit shopping. Since they value being distinctive and conspicuous from others, people with hipster preferences widely purchase limited edition items. Vintage stores where hipsters can purchase items that distinctively show their identity are also gaining popularity amongst consumers.
Some hipsters also imprint tattoos that can best express their identity. Not necessarily having to be excessive, small letters or drawings are amongst the popular designs. Since Korean society still has a negative perception towards tattoos, many people getting them tend to choose invisible body parts for inking, such as the collarbone, upper arms, and ankles.
Hot Spots for Hipsters
Popular places are often referred to as hotple (핫플) in Korea. Hipsters call any place that best matches their taste and interests as being their own “hotple”.
Here are KOMMON’s hotples:
I found this retro-themed bakery called “Quafe'' near Hongdae, Seoul. It mainly sells twisted doughnuts, better known as kkwabaegi (꽈배기) in Korea.
While these doughnuts were thought of as old-fashioned, outdated snacks sold at traditional markets, this bakery tried a variety of adaptations of kkawbaegifor young hipsters. For example, at Quafe, you can find kkwabaegis that taste like strawberry cheesecake, tiramisu, earl gray tea, and even mint chocolate! You will have to wait in a queue for these kkwabaegis, but it is totally worth the wait.
In my opinion, the hottest hotple in Korea at the moment is Hannam-dong, Seoul.
There, you will encounter so many hipsters -- holding Freitag bags and wearing Stüssy hoodies and long boots -- hanging out at a record store “VINYL & PLASTIC (Korean link)'' and buying LP records they like. Some hipsters enjoy drinking coffee at an “urban resort” and shopping mall called SOUNDS Hannam (Korean link).
I’m planning to visit Mullae-dong (Korean link), Seoul. As it became more of a hot place recently, the neighborhood is now called “Hip-lae.” Mullae-dong is the home of many artists as well. Alley by alley, you will come across many small and vintage craft shops, cafes, and restaurants. I will also visit Old Mullae (Korean link) soon to have some coffee and look around the Mullae Artist Village (Korean link).
I think Jeju island (Korean link) is the most popular hotple these days. Because of COVID-19, people are finding it hard to go for a trip abroad, so many people are heading to Jeju by flight and taking a few days off from their hectic daily lives. Like in any other hotples, you can easily find many fancy restaurants, cafés, and photo spots for Instagram. Try visiting beautiful shops on the beach, too -- it will make you feel like you’re in a tropical country outside of Korea.
When Hipster Culture Becomes Mainstream Culture
Hipsters usually venture out for places, music, movies, and books that they consider to be “hip.” However, as this phenomenon receives public attention, it has garnered interest from the mainstream media as well. As a result, new hipsters are born and created. To this end, places known only among hipsters have now become viral through social media.
Side Effects of the Hipster Phenomenon
🤨Low-Quality Goods and Services with Rip-Offs
“I visited this popular hipster vibe café one day, and a regular cup of black coffee cost ₩13,000. The taste wasn’t even that extraordinary compared to regular coffee franchise chains. What shocked me most was that this coffee was the cheapest drink on the menu. I felt like the café was playing tricks so that the customers feel like they don’t have that much of a choice.”
As hipster culture focuses on appearances, there is less emphasis on the quality and value of products and services. Instead, visual aesthetics are emphasized, which creates a sense of superficiality. Moreover, in order to make customers leave the stores as quickly as possible, businesses install uncomfortable, low-seating tables and faulty chairs. Many believe that there is little consideration for customers' comfort.
This picture satirizes interior trends of cafés in different time periods.
As new hipster places receive popularity, stores that were originally in the area lose customers and are forced to move out, since they are unable to bear the expensive rental prices. The government is aware of this issue and is attempting to prevent such unfortunate events from occurring. For example, Seong-su district (성수동) has proposed a Gentrification Convention, in which the local government designated Seong-su district as a “sustainable development area,” meaning an area that has been designated by the local government to prevent gentrification. As a result, the rental increase rate has fallen to 0.16%. In addition to the issue of gentrification, the artists also suffer from getting work spaces due to skyrocketing rents throughout the city of Seoul. As a result, homes of many aspiring artists are turning into mere fantasies.
1. Hongdae Byeong, Hongdae Syndrome (홍대병)
Anyone with Hongdae Syndrome thinks they have their own taste and preference that only they are aware of.
Generally, anyone with Hongdae Syndrome still possesses puberty-like vibes and deviates from mainstream trends. They are especially into minor stuff not so popular in society. For instance, they listen to Indie music, appreciate contemporary arts, enjoy wearing vintage outfits, and love reading literature.
Should any artists that they thought only they knew become popular, they get upset.
A: 너네 혁오를 알아? 나만 아는 밴드였는데 유명해지다니 말도 안 돼. 😱
B: 너 홍대병인듯.
A: Do y’all know Hyukoh? I thought I was the only one that knew but they’re everywhere. I can’t believe it! 😱
B: You’re on Hongdae Syndrome.
“What?! Y’all know Hyukoh? Every single one of you?” - In shock, she collapsed on the floor. -
2. 갬성 (Gaemsung)
By giving the original word a little twist “gamsung (감성)” as “gaemsung (갬성)”, It gives off the feeling of being more “trendy” compared to the original form of the word. On the other hand, there are people insisting it describes personal feelings (Korean link), which implies to be gaemsung.
A: 사진을 왜그렇게 어둡게 찍어?
B: 요즘엔 이게 갬성이야.
A: Why did you take the picture to be so dark?
B: This is today’s gaemsung.
Popular Korean Hipster Artists
Yerin Baek is well-known for having a distinctive music style that stands out from other famous K-Pop female artists. She is known as a prime hipster icon among the younger generation of Koreans. Her merchandise has gained popularity as well.
Are you a Korean hipster too? Check if you qualify!