Seoul is the only city I’ve ever encountered that has as many skate spots as skaters. A mere 35 miles from the DMZ, Seoul has thousands of smooth marble ledges with nothing but a bit of air pollution and the city's notorious dust standing in the way. And while that proximity to the North might sound nerve-racking, the looming threat of war has been a constant reality for skaters in South Korea for years (although there has been a significant easing of tensions between the two countries recently). When asked, Korean skaters acknowledge the danger posed by their northern neighbor, but also note that this is simply the environment they grew up in. “I was born in 1994, a few weeks prior to Kim Il-sung’s death, and it’s always been like this,” a 24-year-old skater and engineering student from Chuncheon who asked his name be withheld, told me. “The tests do frighten me, but I try not to think about it too much. I mean, what else can I do?”
Instead, skaters are much more concerned about the problems within their own borders. A popular phrase among young people is Hell Joseon, which Wikipedia roughly translates as "Korea is close to hell and [a] hopeless society.”
“Hell-Joseon: I’m surprised you’ve even heard about it,” laughs Kim Youngjoon, founder of Candlroute, a South Korean skate brand, when I ask him about it. The reality is that, even as a foreigner, it’s hard not to hear about it. I have lived on and off in Seoul and Suwon since early 2011 and am constantly reminded about the inferno that South Korea is said to be. Bee-jay, a Korean-Singaporean skater, explains to me that Hell-Joseon signifies the feeling that, “It’s simply very difficult for Koreans who aren’t born with a golden spoon in their mouths. It stands for our shared dissatisfaction of the current state of the Korean society. There’s lots of great stuff happening here, but I frequently worry about my future, and I’m not alone in this.”
Though Korea has been championed as an economic success story, this is also a country whose former president was recently impeached over massive corruption claims involving Samsung executives, a former minister, and university officials. As video producer Min-ji tells me, “It’s mainly the broader societal and familial pressures that take a toll on us Koreans. It still is a hierarchical society with lots of impossible expectations and not a lot of hope.” Suicide is the country’s fourth most common cause of death—the highest rate in the industrialized world. Min-ji points to K-pop star Kim Jonghyun, who many suspect committed suicide in December 2017. “Even he didn’t see a way out of his insane work schedules and the harsh clauses in his contract.”
Many young, disenchanted Koreans are now searching for a talchul (escape) from the social pressure. One talchul is to take advantage of work visas and temporarily move to Japan or Australia; skateboarding is another. As Jin Yob Kim, founder of the Seoul-based skate mag The Quiet Leaf, explains to me: “Think of the deeply embedded values of Confucianism, the hardships of war and poverty, the suppression and denunciation by occupational forces, the urge to gain economic independence, the aforementioned patriarchal and hierarchical tendencies, urbanization, digitalization, and so forth, and compare this to the anti-social, laissez-faire lifestyle of skateboarding.”
And a hopeful escape it is. Take Gyesok Gyesok, the first full-length skate video by Vans Korea. Filmed and edited by Jisuk Hwang, it is a VX showpiece that, at times, is reminiscent of Colin Read’s Spirit Quest (2016). It’s a video of muted colors and visual facsimiles: Tightly edited and framed, Gyesok Gyesok renders Seoul as one huge urban skatepark.
Of course, there’s so much more to skateboarding than the act of riding a skateboard. The activity and the lifestyle that come with it serve as a counterweight to the country’s relatively conservative sociocultural and political backdrop. One of the featured skaters in Gyesok Gyesok is Hyunjun Koo, who stands out off the board by having facial mods in a country where it’s illegal to be a tattoo artist. As he explains in a recent promo: “It doesn’t matter if you’re different, what matters is to find what you truly want to do and go for it.”
After Ko Hyojoo became a fashion sensation when her longboard "dancing" videos went viral in 2016, more and more girls are getting into skateboarding. Skate schools, including those run by by One Star and Tussa skate shop, are regularly attended by as many girls as boys. This is a massive thing in a society with distressing gender inequality, where feminism is still a taboo.
A queer skater I spoke to from Daegu, South Korea’s fourth largest city, praised the skate scene for being relatively accepting: “Even though homophobia permeates all aspects of Korean society, I feel safe and acknowledged among skaters. Very occasionally, a skater calls me out, but that’s mainly because they’re ignorant about queer people. My sexuality is less of an issue here than it would be at work.” He asked me to keep him anonymous, “Not because I’m afraid what my skater friends may think (as most of them know who I am anyway), but because of what it might mean for my social status and professional opportunities.”
While South Korea’s skate scene is small, it’s been growing rapidly. After all, it’s only been six years since a Korean skater first qualified for an international pro event. While skateparks were virtually nonexistent in the mid 1990s, there are now more than 75 skateparks built by the construction company ESP Korea alone.
In the late 2000s, as skateboarding became more popular, so did American brands like Thrasher and Supreme (and their counterfeits). K-pop artists started posing with skateboards, leading to an influx of new skaters. But for clothing designer Kim Youngjoon, this trendiness is also emblematic of Korea’s street culture: “Korea’s fashion industry moves too fast and has a short attention span. It changes as soon as K-pop artists start wearing new stuff. These days, Thrasher has a big impact on street fashion, even though 60 percent of those who wear it don’t know it is a skate mag… So the funny thing is that nowadays skaters in Korea don’t wear Thrasher hoodies anymore.”
Instead, local brands like Kadence Skateboards and Kim Youngjoon’s own Candlroute appeal to skaters precisely because they aren’t on the radar of K-pop and K-drama idols. The Korean skate scene, in other words, is more than ever shaping its own identity. If you don’t want to work as a salaryman, it’s no longer impossible to make a living as a skater—if not by skating professionally, then perhaps as a videographer, clothing designer, or magazine editor. And more importantly, skateboarding remains one of the few feasible escapes from the mainstream, offering marble instead of hell.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.