Can the Southsea Hipsters Lead a Portsmouth Revolution?

Sam Ward walks us through the growing trend of the Southsea Hipster with a critical eye, questioning whether this a movement with the potential to benefit the whole city.

Hipsters have that rare accolade of being an amorphous group, yet individually they seem easy to identify. They lack form because they lack a unifying feature. They pick their influences from past sub-cultures like a bearded shopper in the market of history. The music is diverse and the fashion slides up and down on a slim spectrum like a train in a depot, painted pink at one end and red at the other.

Unlike Hipsters, powerful social or artistic movements are typically unified by a cause. They are for something, or against something, or most often a poorly mixed saccharine cocktail of the two. But here, with cherry-picked roots and a visually saturate but vacuous artistic presence, we find only a vague political antagonism. An Anti-Corporation gift-set, hand-made and yours for only £99.99. Even aesthetically there is no discernible iconography.

The Hipster has spread through Southsea like a tarty knotweed bringing with it a patina of pleasant progress. I’m not looking to cull the species, but what happens when the food source runs dry? What about the less aggressive Flora, less shined-on by the Southsea sun?

What happens when Southsea – from coast to Fratton bridge, Highland Road to the Square Tower – is a veritable cornucopia of artisan bread and microbreweries?

For the spotter keen on acquainting himself with the oft-spotted Hipster, Castle Road is a fitting starting point; a thin street reminiscent of quaint market towns, filled with quirky cafes, artists’ studios, and the remnants of a military surplus store begging to be turned into a restaurant for barefooted diners. It even comes complete with the birthplace of Portsmouth’s famous-but-not-as-famous-as-the-others son, Peter Sellers.

Since I sometimes eat in one of those quirky cafes, and even have a hat bearing their name, I should probably put a disclaimer of sorts here. I am not immune to the pull of the Hipster. I buy some of their products and frequent their haunts and faux-dives. I am a young man with a degree, I wear my hair long. I exist by default on the edge of Hipsterdom. But if I am invited into the house, I was never invited into the family.

From Castle Road, we can meander through Southsea to the Hipster’s spiritual home, Albert Road.

By now that elusive unifying feature starts to become apparent. There is money, or the intention of money, in the Hipster project; like a salvage crew that comes in and carves up the carcass of industry to turn into profitable artisan ventures selling logos and brands as artwork. Their most prominent artistic discipline is a hybrid of Graphic Design and Marketing, the corporate wing of artistry.

But beyond the local pride and commodification of authentic Pompey, away from this post-card picture of a sea-side revival, there is another city. That city is one of struggle, diversity, and the ghosts of vacant industry. For those of us who leave the island via the north there is an emblem of this city straddling the dual-carriageway. A tower block on its side, and behind it the poorest estates in Portsmouth. A decaying arc for the orphans of the dock, tethered to the edge of town.

Within this sharp contrast lies my problem with the Hipster.

For surely, the Hipster will only ever be a shallow appropriation of a sub-culture, perpetuating itself on an orchestrated authenticity until it breaks away from the confines of its petit-bourgeoisie scene and becomes of the people. The siege mentality of the Southsea scene fractures the community. I’m sure they do some good. Run minor campaigns and hold charity events. But this is like giving small change to the homeless, soothing the guilt with tiny kindnesses.

What can be the legacy of a scene so concerned with the superficial imagery that it lacks any cultural depth? It only helps those designing it. As it grows out it swallows up territory and pushes further back all of those outside of the castle walls. It becomes myopic and homogenous and so loses authenticity.

I’m not asking for everyone in Southsea to stop doing their thing, or stop making money. An idealist I may be, but a realist too.

Instead, I want the Southsea Hipster to dissolve, or evolve, into something new and expansive, that breaks out of the Southsea walls and looks at the city around it. Imagine the power a collective movement that big could have. Creativity extends to more than branding. It can lift people, offer solutions to living problems. A backlash to hyper-materialism would be a welcome shift.

A unified Portsmouth arts scene that dedicated itself to lifting the city as a whole would be a minor revolution.

Image credit: Daniel Lobo (Flickr: Hipster) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons