WORDs AND ARROWS: Hipster

By Essayan Hart

The word hipster causes a sonic phenomenon inside my head. Every single time you use it.  For this reason, I selfishly request that you use it less.  My little philosopher’s brain can’t take it. 

Words exist in a state of flux. This fact was well established by folks like Derrida and Foucault right around when American youth dropped the pot and headbands and discovered freakish levels of paisley and neon.  In case you don’t read French deconstructionists on the toilet, here’s an absolutely worthless summary of their work, which will serve the purpose of this rant.

The basic design of an object can evolve (a phone still connects human beings attempting to communicate at a distance), so we hold on to the signifier  (the word telephone) while the signified changes. i.e. We still call a phone a phone, even though over time it has evolved and distorted into unrecognizability.  Elisha Grey (August 2, 1835 – January 21, 1901) would have a heck of a time locating a telephone were he to pop around today, all ghost-like and wanting to make a call.  Words are arrows, they point at things.  We decide what they point at, and those things can change drastically.

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Now to my point.  When I first heard the word ‘hipster’, I was deeply immersed in a work-hard-play-hard all-art-all-the-time community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Yes, Williamsburg, the now famously overpriced playground for wealthy graphic designers and foreign dilettantes.  My friends owned small cafes that forgot to charge you, or worked impulsive hours at those same cafes, showing up at will to try a new recipe or let a friend off early.  It was communal chaos, and we all made just enough money to buy each other overly indulgent meals from the restaurants that had followed the first wave of artists into the neighborhood.  We were gentrifiers because we couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.  Young queers, art-school drop-outs.  We were hustlers and we made the area a little more enticing just by being there.  The by-product of art is beauty.  The old ghetto started to struggle, the rents started to rise, and we rose to try and stop it.  We fought the rezoning of the neighborhood.  We knew that our presence there had uprooted people, and the rezoning would push them out entirely (generations of Polish immigrants, no longer able to afford their own neighborhood, among others).  We tried to help, and we failed.  We kept making art.

People called us hipsters.  We made 7 dollars an hour in cafes.  We made music in the subway tunnels for hours each day, raking in wads of cash that covered our basic expenses.  We ate well, and lived well, but we lived hand-to-mouth.  We didn’t always care or notice what we were wearing.  Dregs of party clothes from the late nineties, faded band shirts from high school, functional boots.  We ducked loan officers, made art more important that anything and then… they started showing up.

Hipsters.  We called them hipsters.  They consumed the culture we had created but they didn’t add anything.  They were graphic designers from the mid-west who worked freelance from home.  They could afford the rising rents, and they bought clothes from local designers.  The few artists in their midst had rich parents who were well connected in the art world.  They painted trash and joined our art market without a glance in the rear-view… without needing put in the years we had.  Some of our bands got successful, because these new hipsters went to all of the shows.  They started to dress like the guys in the bands.  They started calling our lazy hair ironic, they started growing over-quaffed beards and buying pre-faded band shirts for 60 bucks a pop.  We made the shirts, because we needed the money.  The market was there, so we grew the market.  Maybe some of us became graphic designers.  It became hard to distinguish the old neighborhood from the influx of young adults chasing culture.  We had made something beautiful once, hadn’t we?  The reality of the market, and our fear of living at subsistence level pushed us to take advantage of the new, rich hipsters.  We started being rude to customers at the café.  We charged everyone.  They called our enmity ‘ironic’, and they started acting bitter and disaffected.  Then came the next wave.

American Apparel, Urban outfitters, Free people, Anthropologie. The cultural beauty standard that we had created our own culture to avoid came swooping down on us like a swarm of vultures.  Out of basic financial need, or genuine desire to succeed in the larger market, we had curbed our artistic temperaments just enough to make money from the second wave, and slipped into the realm of “marketability”.  ‘They’ saw that people were making money, so they stole designs, ripped off small artists, and carbon-copied the whole ‘scene’ into the urban marketplace.  Suddenly teenage girls were paying 30 bucks for railroad tie necklaces (once significant only to kids who travelled by hopping trains, always handmade, and symbols of deep trust and friendship). 

 When the neighborhood rezoned, I bought an RV with the spoils of my then thriving dog-walking business and hit the road.  The neighborhood wasn’t home anymore so I figured I would go on tour.  I landed in Durham, NC, where the art scene was just hitting ‘play’ for the first time.  There were warehouse shows and post-punk houses, local musicians who stayed close to each-other like family.  Artists who didn’t take themselves too seriously.  Dinosaur t-shirt parties.  People seemed to generally like each-other, even if they were into different things, or came from different class backgrounds.  People wrote articles about what was happening in Durham and called them hipsters.

I ended up in Portland, Oregon, where the word hipster was in so much flux that people actually got into arguments.  According to local lore, the word once (originally?) described a unique community of Pacific Northwest eco-post-punks.  Black carhartts, anatomical heart tattoos, antlers on the wall, pagan leaning, tarot reading, art-making, crafting coffee drinkers.  These ‘hipsters’ felt like kin to the art community in New York that I still sorely missed, although they were a bit more ‘craft’ than ‘art’ in sheer numbers (art vs. craft: a discussion I never want to have).  I made a temporary home for myself there.  Being a transplant, the word hipster confused the hell out of me there.  Some people owned the word! It was a good thing! Others still hated hipsters.  Some of the haters looked like the people I hated on and called the ‘hipster invasion’ in New York.  Some of them looked like Pacific Northwest ‘hipsters’ but they were from the South.  Everyone claimed or aimed the word differently. 

That was when I started to hear it.  The ego gong.

Buddhist philosophy suggests that we all exist in aversion and craving.  We define ourselves based on what we ‘want’ or ‘don’t want’.  Example: I am a person who loves coffee and hates Dave Matthews.  Our identities (our egos) are partially (or entirely?) built of our attachment to “who we think we are, or who we think we are not”.  Suddenly, every time I heard the word ‘hipster’ all I could hear was the ego gong ringing out “I am this”, “I am not this”.  I still hear it.  The sonic disturbance: The ego gong. 

The word became so inconsistent that it became meaningless. Check out these awesome things that contradict each other, all said about the same bar:

 “That’s kind of a hipster bar… I don’t feel like getting dressed up tonight.” – kid with antler earrings

“That place is full of dirty hipsters” – kid in a knit sweater with an otter on it

“They hate hipsters in there, fuck that place” –kid in 200 dollar jeans

 So who are hipsters? Do they have more money than you, or less? Do they like pretentious and obscure music, or do they listen to whatever Spin magazine tells them to? Do they patch the same black Carhartts for five years, or buy a new pair of 200 dollar jeans every other week.  Are they the people in successful bands, or the people who buy their merchandise?

 Yes.  The answer is yes.  When a word becomes so diluted, or is so in flux that its arrow is just spinning wildly out of control, what is it?  In my worn, exhausted head, having passed through the Bay area (where hipsters are maybe wealthy fashionistas who made the mission unaffordable), and now here in LA (where the East side and the West side both call each other hipsters) all I can say for sure is:

I don’t want to hear it.