Steampunk 101

Published: 26 March, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 223, April, 2013

Unless you’ve been spending your days in a deserted cave or on a secluded island, you’ve likely heard of, read about, or maybe even worn something related to steampunk.

Smart narratives and rad looks are things we can easily get behind, so we’ve decided to (briefly) venture into unknown waters and investigate another subculture that has exploded into the mainstream in recent years in the hope that a million steampunk tattoos come out of the woodwork for us to dig deep stories out of.

Who better to guide us through it all than revered steampunk lecturer and author of The Hellfire Chronicles and Ouroboros Cycle series G. D. Falksen and fashion designer/stylist/marketing advisor extraordinaire Evelyn Kriete:

First off, what the heck does ‘steampunk’ mean?

G.D.: "The term ‘steampunk’ was basically made up off the cuff as a joke, playing on the fact that the man who coined the term – K. W. Jeter - and several of his colleagues were best known for writing cyberpunk, but were now writing steam age fiction.

"I think the easiest way to deal with the confusion is to simply avoid trying to break the term down. After all, you can technically have steampunk without steam since steam power is just one, albeit very important, aspect of 19th century technology."

What would you credit steampunk’s rising popularity to?

G.D.: "The thing that really kicked it off was probably the 2008 New York Times article by Ruth La Ferla. It was a very respectful and well-researched article and it was the first time steampunk as an aesthetic was covered by a major news organization.

"Its growing popularity is also directly tied to a much larger neo-vintage trend that has been heavily influencing fashion and art for several years now; Downton Abbey is a perfect example.

"I generally ascribe the popularity of neo-vintage to a sort of rejection of what I like to call "The Cult of the Casual". Historically, one of the ways a younger generation rebels against its elders is by becoming more casual, both in clothing and in manner. You can look at the frock coat giving way to the three-piece suit, the three-piece suit giving way to the two-piece, the two-piece giving way to shirt and slacks and ultimately everything giving way to the jeans and T-shirt look. For the current generation to rebel, it can't become more casual, so it becomes more formal."

Is there a risk of steampunk becoming too mainstream?

Evelyn: "Steampunk is an artist movement, so the fact that it's getting into the public eye is a good thing. It means that the artists who created it and are its lifeblood are able to eat and pay their rent. It only goes too far if people forget about and stop supporting the artists who give steampunk its vitality. When that happens, the movement will die, whether it's mainstream or not."

G.D.: "It's a simple fact of life that any subculture trend that becomes widespread and successful will inevitably be absorbed by the mainstream. It's not necessarily good nor bad, it simply is. But I think it's import to remember that just because the mainstream begins to create its own version doesn't mean that the trend is done for, it just means that more people will know about it, which is potentially good."

Do you see any links between steampunk and tattooing?

Evelyn: "Tattooing has a much longer history than steampunk, but both have longstanding backgrounds and have only recently developed into their current subculture forms"

G.D.: "There's no overt link, but that doesn't mean there isn't crossover. For tattoo enthusiasts interested in steampunk, I would highly recommend looking into tattooing in the 19th century.

"One of the main points to make is that steampunk helps point out the parallels between the 19th century and today and I think anyone interested in exploring the history of tattooing in the 19th century will find much that is familiar.

"On top of that, there is a simple aesthetic link one can draw. Steampunk aesthetics, being so heavily inspired by the very beautiful styles of 19th century art and of 20th century art nouveau, can be a wonderful source of inspiration for anyone looking for a tattoo style that is at once iconic and classic and also very different from what most people are getting."

What’s the key to keep steampunk growing without losing merit?

Evelyn: "New blood. Having a constant influx of new people who enjoy the trend, wear the fashion and support the art is the key to keeping any trend alive. If people keep innovating, if entertainment keeps exploring it, if companies keep producing products for it, it will stay alive. Otherwise, it will stagnate and then it will become just a fad, like snap bracelets."


Text: Barbara Pavone