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Johannesburg Hipsters

Hipsterus Witwatersrandus

by Lynsey Chutel / 29.11.2010

In search of Hipsterus Witwatersrandus or the Joburg Hipster

Using Mahala as my urban 50/50, I want to capture and define the Joburg hipster – Hipsterus Witwatersrandus. It’s easy enough. Simply follow indie music to an ironic venue. Tonight it’s a Dance Me In gig at Kitchener’s in Braamfontein. They’re commonly found in Greenside and Parkhurst too but open to migrating to the inner-city, now with the promise of increased security.

Lord Kitchener presides in paintings with his hounds. The walls are all maroon brocade wallpaper. I soon meet ‘the girl with no shoes’. Twyla. A darkling pixie drinking Black Label. “I don’t know why we have to wear shoes all the time,” she coos. “I don’t think they’re necessary.” That’s Joburg outside, Twyla! Pavements besmattered with human whatever. I open another set. Why are you like you are?

“It’s a sense of belonging,” explains Roxy. “We’re the Ninja Generation. It’s like – why do we buy Macs? They’re twice as much. Why did you buy those kicks?” She waits. Lets the suspense mount. “Because they’re cool.” She strung out the vowels. “You see guys walk in here,” she says. “Wearing their jackets as pants!” No blaser-trousers yet but lots of graphically-endowed T-Shirts and grandpa’s lounge coat thown over. “We got our own style and places,” Roxy says. “Go to Mary Fitzgerald Square – that’s like the hipster of hipster there.” A friend is adamant he’s not a hipster. I beg to differ. He’s at the opening of everything. He hasn’t combed his hair in a decade and could list his occupation as any of the following: artist/filmmaker/graffiti generator. That’s if he ever filled out a form. He doesn’t pay tax. All of the above suggests he protests too much against being one. Which is standard hipster-ese.

Dance Me In’s lead singer Linda is wandering around in utterly black skinnies. The band are black hipsters. Total blipsters. He avoids my camera like its an office job. Fact is the hipster uniform is often unflattering. Bunched up mini-skirts and vests make for shapeless scrunchies with legs. I write down ‘Big-Girl in Big-Denim-Sack-Dress-Thing’. Then flinch at the pain of my own disguise. These super high-waisted jeans are chowing into my post-winter boep. Plus I seem to have started a pointless drunken debate about the meaning of hipsterkind. About as vital and interesting as the dorky Dawkin one about god. Nu-Afrikaaner hipsters, Wim and Maki, swear even Pretoria is breeding pockets of racerback vests and skinny jeans at Hotbox, Tings ‘n Times and Square.

“You see people here that are very uncomfortable,” says Roxy’s housemate Jared. “They’re shy, they don’t know what they’re doing, or if they’re doing it right – they’re posers.” The issue of authenticity immediately invites a shared fortifying vocabulary of hipster touchstones: the reliable retro smirk of dayglo and neon, anything 80s. We’re soon talking about Brooklyn like we’ve all been there. Williamsburg, where hipsters reign but are hated by ordinary folk for replacing honest stores with air-kissing galleries and expensive supermarkets boasting organic deli counters. Hipsters are the unappreciated future. One day soon, just like their Connecticut-to-Brooklyn cousins, the Jo’burg hipster will trade Greenside for Fox Street.

Outside Tariq Munshi and Sibs La Mer talk.
“Are those your hipster names?”
“I can’t do this. I just can’t!”
Sibs is off. Obscurely wounded and inflamed. He’d have whipped his hair if he hadn’t already shaved off half of it. Precisely. Exactingly. Half.
“He’s an artist,” mumbles Tariq. An animator. What else? Hipsterism, Tariq claims, is all about feeding off the great culture heap hanging over our heads like a massive suspended piano. “The Beatles brought us here – they invented this. They were really successful and great and real. That’s what people were doing back in the 80s and that’s what we’re trying to do.” A wonky pick-and-choosy sense of history is common to the hipster herd. Lennon was dead by 1980! Moving on.

A guy with an iPhone flicks his touch screen to distort a Joburg sunset. He’s showing me a folder of an impromptu photo-shoot from Arts-on-Main. It’s Joburg’s newest gentrification project and forcefeeds investors urban moondust: where ‘creatives’ and gays are income spikes and real estate bubbles. Brazen Eve tells me gadget douche isn’t a “real” hipster. She’s wearing faun pants with a sheer lace top and outsized 80s glasses. She looks and feels authentically inauthentic. An image magpie. A fashion bricoleur. She decides I am The Hybrid. With a tribal name Eve says I’m ready for the svelte OverLord of the Braamfontein hipster colony: Derek.

Eve Rakow

He could be anyone ‘in the media’. Only more so. A bouncy Jimmy Dean coif. Vintage stovepipes clasped by redundant braces. A blaring Disney T-shirt. This is the heart of hipster darkness. Derek instantly clocks me for the infiltrator I am and turns away. Bridge on fire. Hipsters don’t explain themselves – especially to journalists. He’s way up the hierarchy on my Tree of Hipster Life! Faultlessly cool. Collar bones deep enough to bury a budgie. Shoulder blades like wings. A hipster angel. A jutting spinal chord making X-rays virtually unnecessary. He has what no other hipster here has: sub 2% body fat. Bullimic Derek. Derek the Martyr. Kafka’s Hunger Artist in skinnies.

And we’re done here.

Back across Joburg in a thunking club inside a desultory suburban casino, I begin to miss hipsters. In the VIP area Egoliwood’s indebted and infamous are sobering up. Apart from the aging DJ hitting on undergrads, everyone looks underwhelmed. At least the hipsters jumped. They had a kind of weary verve. High on their own supply of angular self-regard. They ‘just want to have fun’ by checking if you get the song that phrase comes from. Get it as in how it connotes a lapsed era (around the false dawn of MTV) when fashion happened to you innocently, by choice, by predeliction. There was still bits of reality left to itself. There was still room to manouvre. Hipsters are nostalgic futurists. Which is another way of saying they’re very much in the moment. It makes them powerful cultural indicators. They’re here for good. Lucky for the Jo’burg hipster, the CBD is already deserted, all they have to do is paint it mauve, and move on in.

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