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Vaporwave Aesthetic

Vaporwave Aesthetic

It’s hard to explain the Vaporwave aesthetic in the same way that it’s hard to describe the taste of water. It’s such a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of misaligned parts– liminal spaces, technicolor dreamscapes, and off-beat anime references come together in a cacophony of visuals, set to a smooth, synth soundtrack.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a full breakdown on Vaporwave as a concept, so I’m going to plagiarize myself a bit here:

Meant to be an ironic take on the Chillwave movement, Vaporwave attempts to take current pop culture and make it retro before its time. It’s ghostly, unsettling, and flecked with Pepto Bismol pink and other pastels that should be pleasant to look at but just aren’t.

The anonymity of online communities allowed Vaporwave artists to reveal themselves in one fell swoop. You either liked it or didn’t. There was no marketing, no hype, nothing other than a shared post on Reddit or 4chan that quickly grew in its reach until a small following of nostalgia-hungry weird kids cultivated the electropop subgenre into a socially acceptable mish-mash of sound, style, and political critique.

The first instances of Vaporwave as a music genre came in 2011, with pioneers like James Ferraro and Ramona Xavier leading the charge. Xavier’s Floral Shoppe is often noted as the seminal album for the genre, sparking inspiration in other artists across platforms like Bandcamp, Turntable.Fm, and Soundcloud to try their hand at bastardizing muzak by sprinkling in chopped and screwed samples of classic digital noises.

Think elevator music + the sound of AOL dial-up + Chilledcow’s lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to all mixed into one.

If you’re confused, don’t worry. That’s kind of the point.

It’s purposeful in its vagueness and takes great pride in being ungraspable. Both traits have served it well in keeping it (mostly) out of the hands of commercialization because unless you “get it,” you just don’t really get it.

Vaporwave Aesthetic Design Motifs and Themes

  • 80s and 90s nostalgia, particularly older technology (cassettes, CDs, Gameboy Advance, CRT TVs) and retro, 8-bit pixel graphics
  • Liminal spaces, like abandoned shopping malls, school hallways after dark, or cities devoid of humans
  • Effortless irony; looking down on those who “try too hard” to be ironic
  • Japanese typographical characters
  • Lo-fi photography and “glitchy” overlays
  • Marble busts
  • Hypersaturated palm trees and sunsets
  • Neon lights
  • Older animes, like Sailor Moon and Akira
  • Simplified computer windows, often displaying cynical quotes
  • Windows95
  • Rejection of consumerism is expressed by placing branded objects (often drink cans or tech companies) in strange places where they don’t belong
  • Geometric lines and grids
  • Romanticizing pessimism, sadness, and addiction by making it look more visually appealing through the use of Vaporwave aesthetic colors and visuals
  • Disconnection from others and the world at large; visualizing spaces devoid of human contact
  • Creating a sonic ambiance that sounds pleasant but is strange or slightly “off” with careful listening
  • Sarcasm and patronizing speech, particularly towards those who want to dissect or elevate Vaporwave in an effort to present it as something deeper than it actually is
  • Favoring aesthetic over meaning, feeling, or thought

Vaporwave Fashion

In most cases, Vaporwave fashion is simply pieces of clothing featuring visuals associated with the aesthetic.

  • Casual clothing, including sweatpants, joggers, sneakers, ankle-height socks, hats, hoodies, and t-shirts
  • Retro-style graphics blown up to cover an entire piece of clothing
  • Censor bars
  • English words with matching Japanese characters
  • Metallic and neon color palettes
  • Macintosh and Windows computers
  • Grainy filters
  • Cartoon characters with pessimistic quotes
  • Dolphins and Lisa Frank-esque animals
  • Geometric shapes in teal, pink, purple, and yellow
  • Bomber jackets
  • The “Jazz” design from disposable Dixie cups
  • 80s and 90s “bus seat” patterns

Vaporwave Aesthetic Influential Media

Video Games

“A humorous adventure set in a 3D parody of the internet. Diverse puzzles, beautiful worlds, friends, experiences, upgrades and more, await those who ‘log on’!”

“Life was an adventure for Ecco, the young dolphin. The ocean seemed endless, with rolling breakers to race through! At high-speed, Ecco could burst through the waves leaping through the air – almost flying! Until one day, all of that changed. A freak whirlpool of air and water tore the life from Ecco’s home, leaving Ecco all alone. Now he must fight to stay alive while traversing the vast ocean in search of clues that will help him save his family and return them to the bay.”

“Cyberpunk 2077 is an open-world, action-adventure RPG set in the dark future of Night City — a dangerous megalopolis obsessed with power, glamor, and ceaseless body modification.”

“Blast through a stylish, neon landscape in this story-driven, racing adventure. DATA WINGs deliver critical data throughout the computer system, following Mother’s orders without question. But when the system comes under attack, and Mother becomes irrational, something must be done!”

“It’s 3:00 a.m. Your neighbours are having a loud party. Stop them. Party Hard is tinyBuild’s award-winning stealth strategy game about ruining parties by any means.”

“Malls are technically places where you can go and have a good time, given the fact that you can find restaurants, pubs and a variety of shops there. However, they can also be quite stressful and annoying if you are not in the mood for it. Unfortunately, you sometimes have to bear with it and just go find what you need.”

“The familiar becomes magical in this critically acclaimed interactive artscape. Explore ten scenes inspired by the everyday and let your expectations of reality be transformed. ”

Online Series and Shows

“A satirical media corporation that delivers various assorted comedic (and sometimes disturbing) sketches (alongside various vulgar production logos) in a decayed VHS style evocative of the late 80s and early 90s.”

“Retail Archaeology explores dead malls, retail history, and retro games & toys.”

“Informative tours of some of the most depressed shopping malls in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond.”

“Two comedians, average nobodies, and celebrity guest stars perform bizarre low-budget comedy sketches.”

“The cosmic and comic adventures of Space Dandy, a handsome space explorer tasked to tour the universe and discover new alien beings.”

“An absurd workplace comedy set in a neglected dream therapy facility where a rotating cast of desperate patients have their dreams recorded and analyzed by Dream Corp’s absent-minded professor.”

“An idiosyncratic FBI agent investigates the murder of a young woman in the even more idiosyncratic town of Twin Peaks.”


“This movie explores the possibilities of interaction between man and computer, with some historical background. It demonstrates techniques introduced in the Walt Disney movie _Tron (1982)_, combining computer-synthesized animation and real-life object photography.”

“Young Blade Runner K’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former Blade Runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.”

“In the near future, an intrepid investigative TV reporter does his job with the help of his colleagues and a computerized version of himself.”

“Two melancholy Hong Kong policemen fall in love: one with a mysterious female underworld figure, the other with a beautiful and ethereal waitress at a late-night restaurant he frequents.”

“A secret military project endangers Neo-Tokyo when it turns a biker gang member into a rampaging psychic psychopath who can only be stopped by a teenager, his gang of biker friends, and a group of psychics.”

Vaporwave Aesthetic Resources and References

Internet Personalities and Social Media

Spotify Playlists

Subreddits and Tumblr Blogs

Pinterest Boards


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