Steampunk LA: An Inside Look at the Subculture of "Futuristic Vintage"

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In an industrial neighborhood, a giant mask looms over the street hung on the outside of an otherwise ordinary-looking building.

Music pulses from some unknown source, and here and there men and women trickle from both sides and step into an open area. They don’t wear your usual outfits. Puffy Victorian-style skirts and striped dark vests with dress pants make up the outfits of these partygoers, laughing and talking in the language of this era but looking like they stepped out of one from centuries before.

They walk towards the outside portion of The Vex Arts, a locale in East LA that night houses the music and art mini-festival extravaganza entitled “Steampunk Los Angeles.” Birthed from the minds of artists Sketch and Deadmundo – up-and-coming curators that we previously interviewed for their vinyl-themed show – the one-night event included independent vendors, live music, drinks and arts all revolving around the steampunk aesthetic.

The steampunk movement – like the subculture surrounding Rennaisance Faires – is one that is rooted in the past; it began as a science fiction genre set in the 19th century. Typically featuring steam-powered machinery (hence the name), the novels re-envisions the era as one filled with retro-futuristic technologies, like the steampunk computer pictured below.

Artist Obscure, an Oceanside resident and custom toy-designer, explains “It’s basically kind of like an alternative history. You know, it’s like Victorian era or Wild Wild West but everything is steam-powered and there’s all these cool gizmos and weapons and machinery. It’s kind of like if you’ve ever seen the Will Smith “Wild, Wild West” – it’s like that… it’s like sci-fi mixed with Wild Wild West or Victorian Era.”

Like Trekkies or comic heads, steampunk fans soon began developing a subculture of their own – congregating online and at conventions, dressing up in extravagant costumes, and creating steampunk art and technology. In Los Angeles, a city where people are unafraid to make all sorts of out-there fashion statements, steampunk seems to be a natural fit.

“People are ingenious with what they make,” said Obscure. “They make these super elaborate costumes and its amazing what these genres bring out in creativity. It’s really amazing.”

MUA: Teresa Garcia and Angela Navarro. Photo credit: Hoa Jessie Cao
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On Saturday night, the vendors kept visitors staring at and touching all types of curious objects for minutes on end. Outside, each vendor set up camp to present their precious, one-of-a-kind products.

Take, for instance, the fantastic flasks designed by Bleu Rose Designs, including an Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired beauty with the words ‘Drink Me’ written in cursive on its exterior. All the tiny details made for some sick-looking flasks that would make any sober or drunk friend jealous – no matter the time period.

And if you felt more flashy, a number of vendors offered unique jewelry. The Zombies Den presented cutesy and punk-y leather designs – some made with real bullet shell casings – including leg pouches to store your objects in style (think Lara Croft-type gun holders but leather and antique-looking). Corsets came courtesy of Butterly Frillies Corsets – enough to fulfill any wild or color pattern desire – and names like Tyrannical Pirate Treasures, The Angry Mushroom Emporium and The Mystical Apothecary quenched your thirst for steampunk bounty.

Photo Credit: Hoa Jessie Cao
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These and other vendors gave hints of the steampunk style to even the most normal-dressed, low in number amidst the dedicated group, and inside everyone could bop their head to tunes like those coming from Steam Powered Giraffe. Mixing an oldies music genre with an almost Three Stooges sense of humor, they got the audience laughing and dancing.

Photo Credit: Hoa Jessie Cao
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As if that weren’t enough, the art on the walls revealed the talent of the creative minds that took steampunk to canvas – and plenty of other mediums. Along one wall, artist Derby Kinetic placed his two imaginatively constructed pieces with a red button near them for curious viewers to push. One button released smoke from a coffin-like object, while the other made a curious series of drawings on wood spin in a circle while a phonograph reared its head.

Mark Encinas presented drawings and Obscure showcased his own brand of steampunk-influenced toys, including a steampunk Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse. Oh, and a very different, cutesy Hello Kitty. Other artists also adopted pop culture characters or made up their own complex creatures.

That night, many ages and ethnicities co-mingled in the same look and feel of the steampunk culture. It’s something that Obscure has seen grow more and more in conventions and he hopes Latino artists will get more involved now that LA hosted such an involved steampunk event.

Judging by the turnout on Saturday, he might be on to something.

“It’s really dedication to what you love and I think, you know, Latinos they caught on with all sorts of things and certain types of subcultures have stuck,” said Obscure. “And steampunk is definitely something that will last and continue to grow.”