Punk Rock Hits Seoul

Punks gather in the mosh pit at Skunk Hell, a punk rock music venue in Hongdae now closed. / Courtesy of John Dunbar

By Cain Barriskill
Contributing Writer

Among foreigners, South Korea is often perceived as both a conservative and conformist society and to some extent this is true. Koreans seem to drive only three colors of car, are very concerned about what those around them think and tend to avoid what they deem strange or different.

But if you were to go to the Hongik University area of Seoul any given weekend and delve a little deeper, you might just think differently. There is one element of Korean society that does not conform and certainly isn't conservative.

They openly sport tattoos and piercings, dye their hair an array of colors and don't care what others think. They are, of course, the Korean punks.

Punk rock first emerged in Korea in the mid-1990s, a period of great social change for the Asian republic. The country's youth found themselves increasingly exposed to outside musical influences, such as grunge, alternative and punk from the United Kingdom, United States and beyond. Despite its late arrival, punk rock exploded with force in Seoul's underground scene.

They got all of punk rock history at once ― The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Nirvana ― explained Timothy Tangherlini, an American filmmaker here at that time. ``It was like being in London or New York in 1978 and Seattle in the mid-1980s, all at the same time."

Although the early Korean punks mimicked the looks and sounds of Western bands, they gradually developed their own style, what was to become known as ``Choson Punk." Centered on the famous Hongdae venue Club Drug (now DGDBs), bands like No Brain, Crying Nut and Lazybone are widely considered the godfathers of the Korean punk scene.

Despite the closure of seminal punk venue Skunk Hell earlier this year, the Korean punk scene is as thriving and fragrant as it ever was in the days of the Choson punks. In fact, it has fragmented into many different subgenres: from Ska to Hardcore, from Rockabilly to Skate-Punk.

Even though the scene has become much more diverse, the community remains as tightly knit as it was in the early days of Club Drug.

This is not to say that a foreigner can't attend an event; in fact, foreigners have been involved in the punk scene since its outset. If you go to any punk show in town you are sure to see a few white faces.

In fact, for those particular expatriates, far from their homes, family and culture, the punk rock community means just as much as it does to their Korean counterparts. Jon Dunbar, photographer and editor of the Korean punk zine ``Broke in Korea," is just one example.

``When I first arrived, the punk scene was very welcoming. Everyone wanted to meet me, and I had free rein to run all over the place and take photos of anyone I wanted. Getting involved in the punk scene meant, from the start of my time in Korea, I had a home. I've always found it ironic that the most well-adjusted foreigners in this country are punks, skinheads, and miscellaneous. I'm more at home here than my own hometown.''

Even if punk rock isn't your thing, this unique aspect of modern Korean culture should be experienced at least once before your time in Korea is finished.

For information about upcoming shows or simply to get in contact with those involved in the scene, check out www.brokeinkorea.proboards46.com, www.myspace.com/koreanpunks or the Korean punk facebook group.