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Celebrating the Great Combovers of Asia

In his new book, Australian artist Paul Schonberger captures the unique ability of older men to "not give a fuck."

by Paul Schonberger
30 April 2015, 3:05pm

All images by Paul Schonberger

Australian artist Paul Schonberger has a new book out called Up and Over. The book is about combovers, specifically the combovers of middle-aged men in Asia. To be clear: He isn't giving these guys shit. Nor is he presenting a sad picture of faded glory. Rather, he's approaching his subjects as an overlooked part of society, one that's worth celebrating. When you speak to Paul, as I did over the phone, it's evident that he puts them on a pedestal, even suggesting he's not worthy of joining the great bald fraternity he loves so much. Here's what we talked about.

VICE: Is this project something you set out to do, or something you saw in your work that you became more focused on over time?
Paul Schonberger: Originally, it was just a hobby. I was out predominantly in Asia with my camera and was just inspired by all the old eccentric characters I saw. You can call it stalking, but in a friendly way. A book was definitely not something I set out to do.

Honestly, I'm just inspired by generally older people. What they're doing, where they've been, and their attire on a daily basis.

There's kind of an amazing level of not giving a fuck when you're an older man. I saw a guy the other day wearing a clean crisp business shirt and tie, well groomed hair, and the comfiest pair of track pants I'd ever seen.
You're right, they don't give a fuck. Yes, there's humor, but I'm putting these guys on a pedestal. I think we should be worshipping them and looking to them as leaders in style.

Sometimes it seems like it's easier for old men to build camaraderie too, it's like there's a bald fraternity.
A lot of them are pretty comfortable in their skin. They're happy to be alive and aren't really worried about other shit. They're just out there playing chess or whatever they're doing.

The photos are mostly from Japan, Korea, China, and Singapore—what were the main differences you noticed between each country in the people you photographed?
I suppose it depends on the areas you're in, blue collar, business people etc...

So there's almost a class divide between the different combover groups?
Yeah, I would call it a class divide. Some men are proud, and with some you can sense a level of paranoia and denial, it's just fascinating. The prep that goes into some of these combovers is nuts.

There's all kinds of terminology for them too in different parts of Asia. The barcode, the eight to two, the sprinkle, and spray paint jobs. The list goes on.

I guess there's never really been a better solution, other than hair plugs, which are horrible.
You see a lot of balding athletes, because of performance drugs or whatever that they take. I think the combover is the way to go, I don't know if I'm worthy of having one myself though.

Andre Agassi wore a wig for years, he was so paranoid about his look and the millions of dollars he was getting. Eventually he just said, "Look, I'm bald." I'd throw all that advertising money at old men sitting around though, I think they deserve it way more.

Were there any parts of Asia that you're dying to go back to?
There's an area in Korea where I've been taking a lot of photos. There're some kids doing some interesting stuff—but a lot of boring kids just sitting there. The old people are outside at 2 AM, listening to live music, eating street food, dressing in whatever they feel like with some crazy combovers at the same time.

It's beautiful to see people who don't just dress or act like they don't give a fuck, but actually not giving a fuck.
They're just going about their business and having fun and just being alive. Celebrating being alive every day until they drop.

Interviewed by Ben Thomson. Follow him on Instagram.