At first glance, Justin Yi seems pretty normal. He’s in LA, finishing up some videos before heading home for the rest of the summer, and when I call him to chat, he’s sweet, curious, and a little nervous about speaking with me. But chances are, I’ve caught him in between takes of sculpting special effects wax to mimic human skin, sipping fake blood, or reclining in a bathtub of milk, fully clothed—which he’s done a few times now.
While he’s probably cool enough just to press record, churn out a few trendy dance videos, and bask in internet fame, Yi spends his weeks constructing sets and realistic props to perform for his 4 million followers on TikTok. With a shoestring budget, an old camcorder, and just a few seconds of video, he evokes the unnerving fantasy-horror of Guillermo del Toro or Ari Aster, warping universal experiences beyond recognition.
For me, there’s something else familiar about him, even beyond his nostalgic content. As I scroll through Yi’s TikTok, as he mops up an unholy amount of fake blood, a familiar face peers back at me. It’s someone I almost can’t recognize from the drab halls of my high school, probably on his way to the film classroom with his skateboard in hand.
Yi and I grew up in a sleepy city outside of Atlanta, the kind of place where you only get internet famous if you’re a cute white kid like Matty B (our suburb’s pride and joy). I’m not sure anyone else from high school knows about Yi’s iron grip on weirdcore TikTok, and I’m not sure they would care: The moms who rule our local WeChat opine that online stardom doesn’t hold a candle to a Google internship or a medical degree.
Yi graduated high school two years before me and attended our state college before skipping town to move to LA, disillusioned with a classroom film education. That same summer, I moped around my house during the pandemic before jetting off to an Ivy League college and landing a VICE internship, eventually finding his TikTok through a high school classmate. Growing up, I was taught to measure success by GPA and college bragging rights, so I wanted to know what it was like for a guy from our unassuming town to skyrocket into internet stardom. As we sat on opposite sides of a video call, he told me how crazy this is and how he was looking forward to going home in a few weeks. “Georgia is where my soul is,” Yi said. And, over 2,000 miles away, working my 9-to-5 at the desk in my childhood bedroom, I couldn’t help but agree.
VICE: Hey, Justin, thanks for agreeing to speak with me.
Justin Yi: Yeah, of course. This is so weird.
Let’s talk about your content. When did you start making TikToks?
It was a combination of a lot of things that all went together at the right time. Once I got to college, I was doing freelance videography, and I started working with the whole social media space on the back end. Then quarantine hit, and it was something I had always wanted to do—I’d always had a vision of it—so it just gave me the opportunity to finally put the puzzle pieces together and create this.
What was it like transitioning from doing freelance videography to acting, filming, and producing your own work?
Honestly, it’s still weird in my brain. I’ve always been behind the camera, and I was like, “I’ll never be in front of the camera,” and then this happens. It was quite a transition because I’m not used to it, but then I realized that I kinda do enjoy it, the whole acting sort of thing. I’m really appreciative of this opportunity, that I can be in front of the camera, but I do enjoy still being behind it sometimes.
What is your creative work like now? I’ve seen people describe it as “weirdcore” or “retro.”
To this day, it’s so hard to put the blank-core to it, because I have no clue. It’s kind of like a nostalgic, liminal representation of a lot of things I’ve seen. It’s so hard to explain—it’s like taking the 80s and 90s, early-2000s aesthetic and applying it to this weird, surreal world that I’ve created with the videos. That’s the best way I can explain it.
What drew you to that type of content?
Growing up, I was raised on 80s and 90s music from my mom, and I was really immersed in that culture and that era. I always had this idea in my head to bring out this feeling of nostalgia in a video format, but in a way that’s slightly unsettling. I had that vision, so I just needed to actually, physically put it out there. I’m really intrigued by the idea of nostalgia and liminal space. Like, have you heard of the backrooms?
It’s just such a cool phenomenon how every person can feel nostalgia, and how the backrooms gives that really fucking weird, unnerving feeling that a lot of people can relate to. I was always so curious how that works in our brains. In my childhood, there are a lot of moments that I personally missed, so it’s kind of like recreating the feeling of pure joy, but then it gets fucked up and weird.
What’s the weirdest or most uncomfortable thing you’ve done for a video?
There are a lot that are very evenly matched. I filmed a video last night, and I literally gave myself a phobia. The video was about phobias, and I was doing [trypophobia], you know the holes, so I made that with SFX makeup. At first when I was doing it, I was like, It can’t be that gross, and then as I kept going, I’m like, Oh, man, this is disgusting.
Other than that, when I would sit in the bathtub with all of my clothes on in milk was weird, but that’s actually kind of comfortable. With the warm water and all that, it's like you’re getting a nice hug. That was far back when I was just going for shock factor. I did one with a hangnail, and pulling at myself was just… disgusting.
It’s weird, because people love it.
I mean, if they like it, I’ll keep doing it. I enjoy it.
How did you get started as a creator?
I went through a huge YouTuber phase. In elementary school, [my two best friends and I] were making skits. I also had a channel for my pets and music, and I would take it so seriously. I made this laminated YouTube door sign that I would flip on when I was filming, so my family knew that I was filming. I was very aware of YouTube really early on, and I watched a lot of Asian creators, like Ryan Higa and Wong Fu Productions.
In middle school, my two best friends had older brothers who were attending our high school and were part of the BVP (Broadcast Video Production) class. The three of us were inseparable as friends and within film, so we took the class together starting freshman year.
What was the class like?
It’s so crazy that I’m talking about BVP class now. [The teacher] was quite a character. He didn’t teach me anything, technically, but at the same time, he taught me a lot. More like life lessons that transcend into film. That man literally had a day where he tried to not get out of his chair for the entire day. He would send me to get his Dr. Pepper or whatever from the teacher’s lounge because he was trying to not get up. The BVP class was an episode of The Office every single day.
I remember him! Wow.
I filmed his wedding, too. It was when I was graduating, so it was kind of like the finale episode, where I filmed my film teacher.
Did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker then? What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was trying to become a professional downhill skateboarder. I still wanted to do film, but at the time, I was really in that phase. The slightly smarter side of me was like, “That’s really dangerous.” I still try to skate here and there, but my bones crack when I try a trick. It’s also another thing that I do when I don’t have ideas. I just kind of go out and skate.
How have you changed since high school?
I feel like I haven’t really changed too much, but I hope I’ve matured. There’s one thing, the best way to put it is not letting people steal from me. A lot of the time back then, I would let people push me around and just go with the flow, but now I feel like I’ve become more confident.
What did you do after high school?
I went to my state college for a film degree, but I realized that it’s more about your portfolio and stuff like that. I was taking film classes, but realistically, I was just going out on my own and filming the majority of my stuff.
When did you move to LA?
I officially moved to LA in 2020, towards the end of my sophomore year of college, when I was actually taking finals. I was working with different YouTubers in LA, going back and forth, and I realized that this was actually something I wanted to do and that it would be worth it. So during finals, I was like, “Sorry guys, I gotta go.” And I just kinda left then and there.
One of my teachers was absolutely crazy. She called me while I was in LA, and she was like “Are you ready to take your final?” I gave the school proper notice, but she was being very adamant about it. I was like, “What do you mean?” and she was like, “OK, question number one…” I was like, “You’re doing this over the phone?” That’s when I knew I was too far gone. I just hung up.
When I permanently moved, I drove because it was during COVID. I weighed everything and I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to drive.” I was all by myself, and I drove maybe eight to nine hours a day, for like five days.
I remember vividly, one time, I was driving down the road and it was pouring, the speed limit was like 100 miles per hour, and I was falling asleep. This was the longest day, and I had driven like eight hours already. I had to slap myself and pinch myself to stay awake because there were no gas stations and the car was out of gas. It was insane.
I would definitely never do it again, but I’m glad I did it.
What’s it like coming home after living in LA?
It’s always fun going back, but at the same time, I can only be there for a certain amount of time before I start losing my mind. I sometimes think, Oh, I hope [my family] is taking care of themselves. It gives me motivation to be successful here, because I’m doing this for them.
You don’t participate in a lot of existing trends on TikTok, but your content still performs well. What’s your secret?
I've honestly surprised myself. I'm really appreciative that people still want to see these videos and stuff, but I realize a lot of creators aren't making the content that they were starting off with. As far as with the trends, I kind of just wing it. If I see a trend that I feel like I could add to my twist to it, I'll do it. It is somewhat strategic, because you kind of have to be [strategic] with TikTok because of the algorithms. At this point, I just get the feeling where I'm like, OK, this one's gonna do well, or, this one’s not such a strong idea. Recently, I’ve been doing pretty well, but there’s a lot of times where I'll either run out of ideas, and then there’ll be like, a whole week where I’m not doing anything.
What do you want to be doing in the future?
I think starting my own production and having a team behind it, whether it’s something that has to do with TikTok or something else. I want to eventually direct a film and start writing a script, but I guess right now I’m trying to find the next thing that I can take my aesthetic or brand to. I’m inspired by Lyrical Lemonade, or Cole Bennett, because he started from here, and that’s his whole thing now.
I almost forgot to ask—did you have a superlative in high school?
Yeah, actually. I got most artistic. It was pajama day too, and it was so goofy. I was like, Y’all couldn’t switch the days a little bit?
You know that’s really poetic, right?
Yeah, I guess it is.