The Granite Tower
A Deeper Look Beneath Subculture
Lee Dawoon, Song You Jin  |,
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승인 2014.12.02  17:13:45
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In any society, there is popular culture, on which all constituents of a society basically agree. Yet this does not mean that a single culture dominates the society and neither does it mean that all constituents share the same culture. There exists a variety of groups, and therefore a variety of cultures. These subcultures, such as indie music and graffiti are drawing a wider audience, but they have a long way to go. What exactly is subculture, and where does it stand in Korea?

When we hear the term culture, we usually think of what kinds of entertainment - music, literature, movies - we enjoy, or on a bigger level, what kind of hobbies we enjoy. That is, however, only looking at a shallow meaning of culture. On a broader level, culture is a way of life. Because every individual possesses different lifestyles, characteristics, personalities and sense of values, people’s way of life differs accordingly.

Despite these differences, particular cultural practices are embraced by the majority, and are thus often considered normal. Such cultures are referred to as total culture, values and behavioral patterns that are accepted in the society. In contrast to the culture of the majority, there are cultures of the minority, called subcultures. Just as the prefix sub- insinuates, the subject of these particular cultures are social minorities in terms of class, race, generation, and interests. Members of subcultures have their own distinct way of life, which differentiate themselves from the typical mass, and the reasons why they prefer to follow such lifestyles vary. 

To find out how the concept of subculture emerged, it is necessary to look back at its historical background. The idea of subculture is based on the social background of the West, particularly in the United Kingdom (U.K.) after the end of the second World War. Historically, England was a nation that had distinct class differences between the commoners and the royals. However, with the end of the war, England underwent rapid urbanization and industrialization, which brought about cultural identity confusion among the newly emerging working class that consisted mostly of the youth.

Here, the emergence of subculture originated from the conflicts between the older and the younger generations. The former opted to stick to the conventional norms and established social systems to continue accumulating wealth. This was certainly dissatisfying for the youth because the laborers that were the main working force in the industrialized era saw inequality in the current class system and desired a society that offered opportunities for the underprivileged to climb up the social income ladder. Such a social atmosphere was boosted by immigrants into the country, who introduced more diversity.

Thus, the culture of the youth was a subculture, and it was expressed in ways that reflected their identity through different styles in language, fashion, appearance, music, and behavior. A prime example is the Mods and the Rockers, which was a youth movement that resisted the tradition. When looking at the fact that the rock and roll has become a familiar, popular style of music to the mass, the term subculture is a comparative concept, since a subculture can become integrated into the total culture.



Korean Subculture


Unlike the U.K., Korean society had a weak foundation for subculture to develop. Korea has a very unified and integrated social structure due to its lasting Confucian influence, to legacy of Colonialism, and long-term suffering under dictatorship. The opportunity for the youth to call for independence from the conventional and to express their desire for freedom and uniqueness was either suppressed or discouraged. For these reasons, there are opinions that subculture in Korea takes on a form of limited subculture, which merely imitates superficial aspects of Western subculture and has a strong tendency to commercialize them.

However, although the background of subculture in Korea does not exactly match that of England’s, the Korean youth formed their identity of resistance through student movements that took place from the 60s to the 90s. In an interview with professor Kim Soohan (Department of Sociology), he explained the reason behind why Korean subculture is sometimes evaluated as limited. “Personally, I disagree with the premise that Korean subculture was not resistant and that it merely reflected consumerist behavior of the youth. People say that it was not truly resistant because it had a lot of factors that were entertaining. However, that’s because those entertaining factors were promoted through the media, which had strong impact in leaving a symbolizing image of youth culture.” Professor Kim added that movement against the regime during the 70s, 80s, and 90s can be explained as subculture that embodied generational conflict and identified new social identity. Simply put, Korean subculture refers to the new generations’ cultural preferences and lifestyles and also resistance of the youth during times of political unrest.



Youth Culture in the 1970s


The youth culture in the 1970s clearly demonstrates the Korean subculture. The 1970s was a period of socio-political convulsion when the Park Chung Hee administration strengthened its dictatorial power along with his five-year development plan. Although there were a lot of young university students involved in the movement-energy formation, the dominant atmosphere in universities across the nation was sentimental liberalism and elitism. It was liberal in that students wanted to break away from the dirty reality, and it was elitist in that the youth wanted not only to differentiate themselves from the older generation, but to distinguish themselves from the youth laborers, who could not afford to receive the same educational and materialistic privileges.

For this reason, most young college students during this time enjoyed a part of youth culture by wearing jeans, growing their hair, listening to and playing acoustic guitar, and drinking beer, even the ones who resisted the regime. This shows that in Korea, the youth’s animosity towards the government, and the corresponding culture of such emotion, did not accord with the resistant subculture of the West. Consumerism was a way to show off their comparative wealth and a part of their subculture.



Culture of New Generation in the 1990s


The youth culture in the 1970s was a departure from the corrupt reality. In the 1990s, the youth formed another form of subculture in resistance to the suppression of political expression and unjust education system of the 1980s – the culture of a new generation. During the 80s, the youth revolted against the authoritarian system, and this eventually led to an internal demand for creative personalities. The difference between the new generation culture and the youth culture was that the former possessed a more positive and creative energy that inspired the mass, and also took responsibility for the freedoms they enjoyed.

The main agents of the new generation culture spent their childhoods during the materialistically wealthy period of the 1980s, accompanied by a natural movement away from the conventional power and toward increased individuality. This period also coincided with the contraction of the student movements, which directed all the youth’s attention to intellectual curiosity and cultural desires. The introduction of technological devices and the Internet during the 90s also spurred the free spirits of the youth.

One of the groups that represented the new generation culture was the Oranges, also called Orange jok in Korean. The Oranges refer to the upper class youth that habitually spent lavishly, and used up the material wealth that their parents had accumulated during the 70s and the 80s. It can be observed that such practices of the Oranges were individualistic, and their luxurious consumerist lifestyle was a sort of outlet that rewarded the hard work that their parents had done.

Another group that symbolizes this culture is the N generation (N stands for network), indicating the generation that has grown up with the development of digital and computer technology. The people of the N generation learn much faster than their parents by using digital technology and also communicate in different ways. The introduction of new methods of communication inevitably leads to a revolution, a revolution that makes the life of the N generation very different from their parents, and it is this difference that encouraged them to form a suitable culture.

The new generation culture also affected the popular music styles among the youth. In the past, the new generation’s right to speak out was oppressed by the older generation through political means, and they remained as less significant, weaker citizens. However, a musician that instantly put the spotlight on the youth by emphasizing their existence and individuality excited people. Seo Tae Ji, the legendary icon of Korean pop culture, emerged as the opinion leader that represented the free spirit of the youth during the 1990s.

From the Oranges to the popularity of Seo Tae Ji, the cultures of new generations exerted their uniqueness through people’s consumption behaviors, sense of values, and preferred music. Because all of these were practiced to distinguish themselves from the existing norm, they were a part of subculture. They quickly integrated themselves with the popular culture, which shows the distinct nature of Korean subculture. 



Moving onto the Subculture of Today


Along with technology, culture has also evolved into forms that best fit the overall sentiment of the common people. In the 21st century, the youth culture and new generation culture that once prevailed as subculture in Korea now have became widely accepted. The young people of the 21st century express different kinds of dissatisfaction about the status quo, which leads us to the subcultures of today, such as indie music, underground hip-hop, rock, and many others.

As opposed to mainstream culture, some forms of arts are categorized as subculture because of their fringe characteristics. The wider public may be unaware of such subcultural arts, but arts in subculture add to the diversity of the overall arts and culture of Korea.

What are some arts that can be categorized under subculture?



Indie Music – a New Trend in Music


Most of the indie music in Korea has its roots at Hongdae, the area near Hongik University (HU). Indie originates from independent as indie rock bands have independent labels associated with live music clubs. From the 1970s, young artists and musicians started to congregate in the area in front of HU and worked on their arts and music there. The streets were filled with music, art, and freedom – the images that the public now associates with Hongdae. Then came various music festivals like the Fringe Festival, experimental arts festivals, and even sidewalk galleries.

The indie music industry grew rapidly at the beginning of 21st century since individuals could record and arrange music at home. Today, Hongdae is the home of more than 300 indie bands. As a subculture, indie music resists mainstream music and ranges from hardcore, modern rock, punk, hip-hop, and indie rock. Its diversity stands out in the music industry where commercialization often overrides musical variety. Its independence can be attributed to their diversity, as indie bands are mostly free from the influence of major music labels.

As opposed to mainstream singers and bands in the industry, most indie bands refrain from appearing on television. Even though indie bands produce only a few copies of their albums, indie bands sometimes fail to break even without a presence on television. Commercialization is not their main goal, and indie singers instead focus on conveying their messages to the public. Music for them is a vehicle for embodying their inner thoughts. In recent times, however, indie music is gaining listeners as their music is being exposed on various media. Delispice, Nell, and Sister’s Barbershop are a few indie bands that have gained more publicity.

Currently, there are many music festivals that feature indie music, such as the annual Zandari Festa and the Green Mint Festivals. Dissatisfied with mainstream music, a wider spectrum of audience is tuning into indie music.



Fan Fiction – A Girl’s Dream Come True


Fan fiction may not be new to fans of boy bands. As the name suggests, fan fiction is a fictional story written by fans about characters of the original work, such as those of novels and movies. Usually, fan fiction is not professionally published, but rather left available on fan-based community sites or private blogs. In countries abroad, for instance, fans of the Harry Potter series have created fan fiction, illuminating parts of the characters’ lives of the books do not talk about. In Korea, however, what composes most fan fiction is fictional stories about band members.

The first-ever fan fiction is that of “Star Trek” from the U.S., and the first one in Korea was that of the American TV show, “The X-Files”. When it was first aired in this country, Korean fans shared information about the characters and even created stories about them. The fan fiction that is normally referred to today in the media, however, is cyber-based fiction created mostly by teenage girls who are fans of boy bands. Fan fiction of boy bands started with the groups g.o.d. and Shinhwa back in the early 2000s, when the Internet had become more accessible.

Fan fiction takes effort to write, and even read, because fans have to take the initiative to find it. Writing and reading it seem very tedious. Why do fans write and read fan fiction then? Fan fiction makes fans feel closer to their favorite stars as they flesh out desired images of the singers through fictionalized stories. Fans even identify with the characters in the fiction, so they vicariously involve themselves in relationships with their celebrities. Fan fiction also  allows fans to share thoughts and emotions, even fantasies, with other readers.

“As it has become easier for readers to become writers, fan fiction readers want to create literature for themselves,” explained Professor Lee In-Hwa (Ewha Women’s University, Department of Digital Media), who is a critic and novelist herself.  In 2006, the Korean entertainment company SM Entertainment held a fan fiction contest for its boy band Dongbangshinki, and over 3000 stories were submitted. Fan fiction is still popular today, and fans usually only read fan fiction about their favorite singers.



Graffiti – the Underdog of Arts


Its name derived from the Italian word graffiare meaning scratch, graffiti is a form of street art that takes the form of sprayed images that range from words to paintings on the surfaces of buildings, walls, and bus stations. Graffiti belongs to hip hop culture, a marginalized subculture, and has evolved with hip hop music and b-boying. While the world’s first graffiti appeared in the U.S. half a century ago, it took a score of years after that for graffiti to reach the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately because of the time lapse, there are no famous graffiti artists like Keith Herring or Banksy, and graffiti in areas not permitted by the government are illegal and seen as vandalism.

Graffiti was first introduced in Korea, artists sprayed their works on the walls of a pedestrian underpass in Apgujeong until the underpass was completely covered in graffiti. That forced the Seoul government to ban all graffiti paintings and even to remove all graffiti from the underpass. Currently in Seoul, graffiti can be seen in areas like Apgujeong, Samcheong-dong, Itaewon, and Hongdae. There are about 200 graffiti artists nationwide, from teenagers to those in their thirties, and they usually form guerilla groups, often termed as gangs or crews, when they produce graffiti.

As a subculture, graffiti is now being recognized as a new form of art that embodies youth, resistance, and freedom. The growing popularity of graffiti can be attributed to the wider acceptance of hip hop music and b-boying in Korean culture. Graffiti artists are being paid to spray works, for instance on the walls of a café or a restaurant, or at corporation-sponsored events. There are graffiti schools for newbies and educational programs for youths. Sejong Center held a three-month-long exhibition of different forms of artworks into which the effects of graffiti have been incorporated, and Gyeongi Art Museum held a graffiti art exhibit.



More Insight into Subculture


Professor Kim further explained about subculture and emphasized its importance in our society. “Subculture arises because distinctive groups have different rules that when accumulated, create a new culture.” While subculture exists within the main culture, it deviates in some way from the prevailing one.

That, however, does not mean that subculture is inferior to popular culture. Professor Kim cautioned on making distinctions between a good culture and a bad one. “We sociologists try not to think that there really are good or bad cultures,” Professor Kim said, “because each culture has its own values and experience that account for why it is the way it is.”

Unfortunately, as Professor Kim explains, our society today is not too receptive to subcultures. “People usually feel a sense of belonging to their own culture, so they can be very clannish and insular, excluding others outside the group,” he said.

He thus called for the need to acknowledge the presence of diverse subcultures. “Cultural diversity is essential for a healthy and well-functioning society,” he said. When asked the consequences of not embracing different subcultures, Professor Kim answered, “If the value systems of one culture are forced on to another, cultural identity is lost and conflicts are triggered.”

Indeed, it is important to accept cultural diversity as our society today is no longer comprised of one common and homogeneous culture. All subcultures have something to add to human values, and when each of them are embraced, together they can create a richer and more varied society. For one thing, distinctive subcultures will certainly make our society a much more interesting one.


▲ Subculture group, the Punk, in London. Provided by
▲ – Korean youth playing the acoustic guitar, a popular practice in the 1970s. Provided by
▲ Free spirits of the youth.
▲ University students resisting against the government in the 1990s. Provided by
▲ Professor Kim believes that subcultures enrich our society. Photographed by Lee Dawoon
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