Inside cleancore, an aesthetic sterilising the internet with flashy cleaning supplies – Screen Shot
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Inside cleancore, an aesthetic sterilising the internet with flashy cleaning supplies

Imagine squishing a soft sudsy sponge and running it under cool water to wash all the foam from your hands. Now visualise the slight resistance of the spray bottle as you rub a mirror squeaky clean with a wiper blade, hang warm laundry that smells like fabric softener and circulate bubbly bath water with your hands before getting into the tub at the end of the day.

If you’re currently on the verge of a ‘cleangasm’, I’d like to introduce you to your soon-to-be comfort aesthetic: cleancore. On the other hand, if these visuals have left you a bit uncomfortable, then I urge you to stay and join the community in critiquing the capitalist imagery we’re conditioned to associate with sterile settings. Either way, you’re in for a well-sanitised ride into an aesthetic we’ve all been trying to achieve since 2020.

What is cleancore?

Also known as ‘safetycore’ and ‘safety goth’, cleancore is an aesthetic centred around clean objects or products intended to sanitise—think antibacterial soaps, UV lights and antiseptic creams—as well as places that have been recently disinfected. Claimed to have originated in April 2014 on a Tumblr blog called Safety Corp created by Redeem Pettaway, cleancore has two contrasting sub aesthetics: high cleancore and low cleancore.

While the former is a more mature approach to the aesthetic, featuring commercial products like Clorox, Febreze and Purell, ASMR soap cutting videos, latex gloves and steam carpet cleaners, the latter is aimed at a younger audience—with imagery hinging on rubber duckies, bath sponges, Hello Kitty, Lander and, of course, Johnson’s Baby products. In high cleancore, visuals embrace capitalist imagery in a cynical manner, thereby sharing elements with poolcore, icepunk, laundrywave and vaporwave. Sporting key colours like pale blue, white and mint green, this sub aesthetic has a sharp focus on cold and sterile emotions—evoked by antimicrobial hand soap, deodorants, sanitiser sachets, humidifiers and operation rooms—which often overlap into the realm of medicalcore.

Before we move onto its childhood counterpart (low cleancore), let me also acknowledge the looming presence of high cleancore fashion. Yes, it’s exactly what you think it looks like: anything and everything worn while cleaning an object or place. Surgical and gas face masks? Check. Rubber gloves? Locked and loaded. Hazmat suits and reflective vests? Say less.

As for low cleancore, reminisce the time you were left in a towel while your parents decided how to dress you for the day. Featuring a bright colour palette, this sub aesthetic is a kidcore twist on high cleancore. Here, visuals include bath toys, baby shower caps and powder pouffes.

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Spic, Span, and Squeamish

Close to 24 million views on TikTok, the cleancore community can be seen sharing articles on Top 10 cleaning products, stocking up on screen and lens solutions, mouthwash bottles and facial towels—while refilling body wash containers and trialling different types of face masks. Their natural habitat also features cleaning supply hauls at their local supermarket and cupboard tours filled with room fresheners, tissues, q-tips and dryer balls. They can even be found Googling synonyms of the word ‘clean’ and reiterating instructions on how to wash clothes and do the dishes on Tumblr.

“I’m not sure if anyone else experiences this problem, but I can only really use clear or see-through gloves without becoming anxious,” a user admitted on the platform. “Very rarely I can use other types, as long as I open them and know where they’ve been.”

While cleancore caters to an anxiety-stricken audience who find comfort in its imagery, some believe the aesthetic is borderline unsettling, in turn, calling out low cleancore as the infantilisation of hygiene. “Add a stain on the side or something, I don’t know,” reads the comment section on cleancore’s Aesthetics Wiki page. “Just something. It looks too clean and sterile.”

Then comes the entire sphere of cleancore artworks. Branching off the Weirdcore movement, creations often feature PNG images of cleaning supplies, bathtubs, taps and blue skies—to name a few. But just like its parent aesthetic, cleancore artworks evoke both satisfaction and discomfort for audiences. On a quest to analyse this contrasting perception and peek into the community ourselves, SCREENSHOT reached out to Parshall, one of the most prominent artists in the cleancore space on Instagram.

According to Parshall, cleancore is an aesthetic “that revolves around the idea of a place or object appearing clear, fresh, or sterile, but also somewhat surreal.” The artist believes this definition is exactly what grants viewers of the artworks a sense of both cleanliness and uneasiness. “The art shown is based around dreamy-like clean settings,” she explained. “These art pieces typically include bright cool colours and settings that appear very flawless, sanitary, and give somewhat of a nostalgic feeling to it. The overall environment feels clean and items such as household cleaning products, pools, baths, and tile flooring are seen frequently.”

On the other hand, however, the artist highlighted how some cleancore artworks may also have a more distorted effect to them—remember that this is a branch of Weirdcore we’re talking about here—in turn, making them feel somewhat unsettling.

Nurturing a fascination for surreal and whimsical settings, Parshall admitted to being very invested in the dreams she had at night. This is how she eventually discovered the Weirdcore community in late 2019. The following year, the artist stumbled across other smaller subcultures that branched off Weirdcore, one of them being cleancore. “I became extremely fixated on the [cleancore] aesthetic because of how much it reminded me of my dreams,” Parshall said. “At the time I discovered cleancore, there was too little of it and eventually I just kept finding the same images on different accounts. I wanted to see content that combined cleancore and incorporated more of the dreamy elements in it.”

Aiming to contribute to the community by showcasing her ideal cleancore-like dreamy world, Parshall launched her own Instagram account in 2020 and decided to create original content to both satisfy herself and others. “My work kicked off with simple edited photos, but eventually I started making more intricate landscapes and settings,” she added.

When cleancore artworks and edits usually make their way onto TikTok and Instagram, most of the comments echo the same reaction. “Guess who just picked up their mop and dustpan?” users go on to admit, outlining how they feel like running a bath and doing some spring cleaning in December. However, Parshall believes cleancore is not necessarily aimed at encouraging people to disinfect their homes and clean out their closets.

“When I think of cleancore, the first thing that comes to mind is more of an image that brings a feeling of cleanliness and serenity,” she explained. “The works I create are typically in more surreal settings, so I have had others tell me that it can be somewhat unnerving. I think the unsettling feeling comes because of the Weirdcore elements that are incorporated into them, and it can really be subjective for the viewer.”

Inside cleancore, an aesthetic sterilising the internet with flashy cleaning supplies

A sensational way forward

When asked about the design process and tools Parshall uses to make her artworks, she eagerly put Procreate on the list. “Typically when I want to make art, I go in with only a vague idea of what I want to create. A recurring theme in my art is having a bright blue sky background, so that’s always a good place to start if I’m completely out of ideas.” The artist then gathers a bunch of images she wants to use and plans what to make with them.

“Once I have more of a general basis of what I’m doing, I proceed to lay everything out more smoothly and create a scene,” she explained. “From here on, I begin to distort some of the items. This can involve using the ‘lasso’ tool to select parts of the object(s) to split it into little pieces and then put them back together—which makes the object look cubic and distorted.” Parshall also uses the ‘liquify’ tool to make other distortion effects in her artworks, later hand drawing more details and rendering the image before it’s complete.

When I previously interviewed Gib and Sanfor, co-administrators of Weirdcore’s Discord server, they mentioned how Weirdcore had only recently started flooding into the mainstream and escaping the realm of Tumblr to places like Reddit or Twitter. At the time, the community was still expanding the boundaries and experimenting with what is and what isn’t Weirdcore. As an aesthetic gaining traction as we speak, cleancore also seems to be following the same route. The tight-knit community the aesthetic has gathered, however, is one of the most interactive ones to date, according to Parshall’s experience.

“I’ve not seen many artists who have an account dedicated only to cleancore artworks. However, there are many that frequently post more cleancore-inspired content than others,” she said, mentioning @random1i1 and @gorekrampus in this regard. “Others may just repost non-edited photos that relate to cleancore. Instagram users such as @2nt1n, @638xx_____________ and are great accounts to find this type of content.” In terms of the cleancore community, Parshall also added how the members are very supportive of each other’s content. “They are mostly very open to talk about their work and where they get their ideas and inspirations from,” she said. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a progressive aesthetic, if you ask me.

Now let’s address the elephant in the room: COVID-19. For those of you who may have stumbled across cleancore over the pandemic, you may have an itch to comment “This should be renamed as ‘coronacore’,” and “Why is the pandemic an aesthetic now?” Well, for starters, remember that cleancore has roots dating back to 2014 and the emotions associated with cleaning, generally speaking, are not a new concept. Sure, the pandemic has pushed its importance to the forefront, but coronacore would have different elements than cleancore. Think lockdowns, work from home and vaxxies, for example.

However, it also can’t be denied that the pandemic has led to the gross fetishisation of all things “safe” as the new normal, while simultaneously making medical inequalities even more apparent. Take Madonna sitting in a milky bathtub sprinkled with rose petals, declaring COVID-19 as the “great equalizer” on Instagram, despite the fact that thousands of prisoners in New York State had been forced to make hand sanitizers—while being banned from using it themselves due to its alcohol content.

This is exactly the kind of cynical capitalism that high cleancore seeks to critique with its artworks and imagery. Communal bathhouses, despite their association with soap, sponges and bathtubs, are not considered cleancore because the aesthetic in question ties cleanliness to what is new, sterile and privately owned. Parshall advises translating this very vision as your guide, in case you’re interested in making cleancore art in the near future.

“Does cleancore make you feel more calm? Start by creating a setting where you think you would feel clean and peaceful,” she said. “Does cleancore feel more unsettling and you want to have more of that style? Then find what aspects of a cleancore image may make you uneasy, and incorporate more of those aspects into your work.” At the end of the day, don’t limit yourself and know that you have loads of creative freedom in the aesthetic—given how it’s still in its initial stages.

So what are you waiting for? Download some PNGs and do your own thing. And if someone finds hoards of Bath & Body Works logos on your laptop and calls you a “clean freak,” make sure to let them know that they’re the 99.9 per cent of germs hand sanitisers are formulated to terminate.

Inside Weirdcore, an internet-born art movement triggering nostalgia of the unknown

It’s a warm Sunday afternoon when you stumble across an interesting artwork on Tumblr. The crude editing style and image quality hits you with a wave of ‘vague nostalgia’. “I’ve been here before…but when?” you think out loud. The image and text are eerily familiar yet distant—leaving you confused, disoriented and reminiscent all at once. Welcome to the nostalgic voids of Weirdcore, an internet-born art movement evoking debatable emotions by leveraging elements of the synthetic underworld we now call the internet.

What is Weirdcore?

According to Aesthetics Wiki, Weirdcore is an “online aesthetic and art movement” featuring digitally constructed or edited images to convey feelings of confusion, disorientation, alienation and nostalgia. Also known as Oddcore, Strangecore and Creepycore, Weirdcore visuals are influenced by the general look and feel of images shared on an older internet. Think amateur editing, primitive graphics, lo-fi photography and image compression—harshly blended together to trigger nostalgia for those who lived their childhood in any time ranging between the late 90s to mid 2000s.

“What’s wonderful about Weirdcore is that it triggers this nostalgia in a way where the viewer doesn’t know why,” said Gib, one of the moderators of r/weirdcore and co-administrator of the Discord server dedicated to the art movement. Gib, therefore, described the feelings evoked as “nostalgia from an unknown place.” It’s on the tip of your hippocampus yet miles away from recall and recognition.

“Lack of context,” explained Sanfor, moderator and co-administrator of the subreddit and Discord server alongside Gib. “Often, images will aim to put the viewer into an unfamiliar setting—one that is designed to spark an idea in the viewer’s mind—but at the same time, it doesn’t give enough information to really form a story.” This is what leaves Weirdcore images up for interpretation, making it incomprehensible in a mysterious way.

On the flip side, this sort of autonomy can trigger two contrasting emotions among its audience—depending entirely upon their perception of nostalgia. “Weirdcore can trigger comfort in some because it probably reminds them of a nicer time in their life,” Gib said. “But it can also trigger a bad memory or a phobia, leaving them confused and scared.” Sanfor linked this aspect to the concept of ‘introspection’. “Weirdcore can be triggering because, at its core, it is about exploring one’s emotions and experiences,” he explained, adding how the meaning behind images are often unclear—in turn fostering one of the biggest strengths of Weirdcore in itself: vagueness.

“The aesthetic can be upsetting due to the way images sometimes contain elements that contradict one another: comforting visuals being paired up with upsetting ones, real with fake and so on,” Sanfor said. Juxtapositions like these are what contribute to Weirdcore images being difficult to comprehend, as one can never fully grasp what a piece is trying to communicate in terms of information or emotion.

“It is the fear of the unknown”

The controversial mix up

Given Weirdcore’s association with both light-headed comfort and heavy phobias, the art movement is often looped into the same category as Dreamcore and Traumacore. This ‘mix up’ is even more apparent on TikTok where creators use all three hashtags in their captions. So listen up fellow TikTokers, we’re here to set the record straight once and for all.

“Dreamcore and Traumacore are grey areas,” Gib started. Although Weirdcore has similar motifs as Traumacore, the latter addresses traumatic events with darker, off-putting and direct captions. “Traumacore opens a gateway to glorifying trauma and downplaying it instead of educating about it,” he added. “But it’s a whole debate because some people find comfort in it.” Dreamcore, on the other hand, is even harder to differentiate according to Gib. “Dreamcore tries to emulate dreams but they’re more linear and can have a bit more of a story than Weirdcore does.” In a recent article by NYLON, the publication even defined Dreamcore as the “sister to Weirdcore.” 

In my chat with Sanfor, the moderator highlighted the absence of one key factor in Dreamcore and Traumacore when compared to Weirdcore: a centralised community dedicated to preserving it. “This is something that has happened to Weirdcore in the past—the aesthetic not having people dedicated to its preservation and moderation led to the term ‘Weirdcore’ becoming a label with no meaning behind it. This, in turn, led to it being used interchangeably with Dreamcore, Traumacore and others.”

In response, Sanfor added how the Weirdcore community has worked hard to get in touch with original creators behind some of the classic images in the movement. “The ones that brought the community together in the first place,” as Sanfor describes them. This has not only helped members learn from each other but has also fostered a platform backed with proper credentials. The community also updates the Wiki article dedicated to Weirdcore regularly—in order to give it a definition that accurately reflects its original vision.

“I believe Weirdcore needs to be its own thing,” Sanfor added. “Not to say that there cannot be overlapping between Weirdcore and other aesthetics or things inspired by it, but I just think it’s important for it to not become completely meaningless as there are specific ideas and concepts behind Weirdcore that make it unique.”

Now onto all those people equating Liminal Spaces and Bastardcore to Weirdcore. The former is an aesthetic that features a place which is a transition between two locations or states of being. Think abandoned parking lots or school hallways during the peak of summer. Bastardcore, on the other hand, is an extension of the ‘cursed images’ meme. It aims to strike your fight or flight response by pairing friendly images with shocking humour to generate pieces that are uncomfortable to look at.

“A lot of what makes Liminal Spaces so effective is the feeling of ‘you’ve been here before’,” explained Gib. “That’s kind of what Weirdcore does but with more creative freedom.” Although Liminal Spaces are relied on for Weirdcore backgrounds, Gib outlined how it doesn’t play a huge role in the movement now like it once did. “Liminality, along with the sense of being in a transitory state and the feeling of uncertainty and instability, is an important part of Weirdcore,” Sanfor added. “Keep in mind, however, that the use of Liminal Spaces in Weirdcore is not obligatory. There are great examples of the aesthetic that do not rely on them at all.” While Bastardcore overlaps with Weirdcore in some ways, the latter is a lot more subtle about the ‘cursed’ aspect of its imagery—designed to be incoherent rather than unpleasant.

Then there is the entire debate about eyes being a key motif in Weirdcore. According to Gib, the element plays on scopophobia, human’s innate fear of being watched. Ironic, given how gen Zers are currently obsessed with meta selfies—least concerned about BigTech using their personal information. “It’s kind of an inside joke in the community that eyes and red text do not equal Weirdcore and that there’s a lot more to it than that,” Gib explained. “They’re not bad aspects, I use them semi-frequently in my creations, but I think a lot of it comes from the days when the movement wasn’t moderated.”

“They all share the commonality of being a medium for expression of abstract feelings—a way to condense complex emotions into a singular piece of art”

The initiated, enlightened and voidfolk

Although the exact origins of Weirdcore are unknown, its Wiki page previously noted how the movement may date as far back as the early 2010s. It was more recently that the community confirmed 2017 as its date of creation. The possibilities of earlier examples, however, cannot be ruled out. Although Gib stumbled across a Weirdcore Twitter thread in March 2020, it wasn’t until a couple of months—and a YouTube image compilation—later that he truly fell down the rabbit hole.

Gib noted how Weirdcore had been a small community up until now. “It only recently started flooding into the mainstream and escaping Tumblr to places like Reddit and Twitter.” As for Sanfor, the moderator and co-admin was initiated into the movement mid 2020—joining the Discord server in October following Gib in July. “I started to make images and improved the more I made—though it was a time when a lot of us didn’t exactly know what made images ‘Weirdcore’,” Sanfor reminisced. This is also why he believes his images weren’t exactly fitting up until around the start of 2021, when activity really picked up in terms of moderating and working on the Wiki page.

“In reality, both the subreddit and Discord server already existed when the two of us joined so—although we can’t really speak about the intentions of the people who created them—Gib and I (along with many other members of the community) worked on giving the aesthetic a more consistent look and feel.” As time went on, the two became moderators of the server and eventually became the owners, which is where they are now.

As for the tight-knit community Weirdcore has amassed, it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most wholesome and welcoming (although inside jokes may disagree) Discord servers out there. “The people I’ve met are extremely passionate and creative, they do a lot of volunteer work to maintain, moderate and expand the Wiki page as well as the subreddit,” said Sanfor. Among the list of channels on the server are also ‘resources’ which suggest editing apps, fonts, GIF makers and compression sites. A handy toolkit for everything required to make Weirdcore art—down to Spotify playlists you can bop to while editing.

Gib calls this wonderful corner of Discord a ‘collaborative effort’. “It’s a lot of people expanding the boundaries and experimenting with what is and what isn’t Weirdcore, coming up with new ideas and evolving it because any art form that doesn’t evolve ceases to exist,” he summed up. On the flip side, Sanfor noted how this heavy moderation has previously resulted in people disagreeing with how Weirdcore is approached.

“While I understand where they’re coming from, we have a responsibility to keep the aesthetic on track, to keep it somewhat consistent in terms of themes and general look,” he said. “We won’t prohibit people from expressing their own feelings however they wish or using the term ‘Weirdcore’ to tag things that we wouldn’t consider a part of the aesthetic, but we need to keep the aesthetic from devolving into something meaningless again.” So far, that work has led to a significant improvement in terms of Weirdcore’s consistency and it has exposed both the admins to new people who they’re now best friends with.

The (r)evolutionary way forward

In my experience with internet-born and internet-existing aesthetics, many evolve into a full-blown subculture to thrive—with its own music, movies and fashion style. Checking up on Weirdcore in these terms, Gib used the words ‘art movement’ instead of an ‘aesthetic’ to describe its present status.

“I think Weirdcore can definitely go beyond the boundaries of art,” Gib said, adding how ‘weirdcore music’ already exists (alongside others like Otacore)—essentially triggering an uncomfortably-nostalgic feeling in its audience. “It’s up to who listens and what triggers nostalgia in some people,” he continued. “For example, I was talking to my friend and I showed her the trance playlist I use to make weirdcore tunes. She went like ‘It’s got a nostalgic feeling to it but it just doesn’t trigger it in me. So there is no one genre. It’s not ‘just that’.”

Gib also believes that, in theory, Weirdcore can have its own fashion style—anything vaguely nostalgic or 2000s. Hello, Y2K. Sanfor, on the other hand, feels that the art movement is too abstract and intangible to translate into clothing or accessories that give off a similar sensation. “At least I have yet to see clothing that really captures those feelings,” he added.

Regardless of its potential for further expansion, however, Gib believes Weirdcore will soon end up being an “art movement started entirely on the internet” if the community keeps it up. “I’d like to see a lot more things that are classified as Weirdcore that aren’t the Weirdcore we know. I think that’s where we’re headed in and I’m really excited to see what people come up with next.”

Interested? Here’s advice from the co-owners themselves on getting started. “If you are new, the first thing you’re going to do is Google ‘Weirdcore’ and the first thing that pops up is going to be the Wiki,” Gib instructed. “Read that and look at the examples. After that, go nuts, make your own stuff and don’t conform to what everybody else is doing.”

Sanfor echoed this by stating the need to be open to criticism along with a willingness to learn. “Weirdcore is something none of us mastered the first time and so it might be frustrating at first, but don’t be afraid to ask for assistance, we’re more than willing to help, give tips on image editing, useful resources and more.” Just have fun and find the very comfort you’re seeking to evoke. “Weirdcore is also better learned by following others’ examples—it’s something that is a lot easier to understand by looking at it rather than having it explained to you. So take a look at what other artists are doing and try to add your personal touch into it,” Sanfor added.

At a time where we seek to disrupt realism with yearnings of a better past, with subcultures like kidcore on the rise, Weirdcore echoes the collective outcry for the need of a safe space—rooted in self-expression and a socially-distanced trip down the voids of our altered memories.