Making Art in Public Places: Perilous Yet Priceless

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Making Art in Public Places: Perilous Yet Priceless

Installation artist Yu Ji-hwan says he originally considered painting murals after watching his nephew's delighted reaction to a mural he had painted in the boy's room. So enchanted with the mural was the little boy that he took visitors into his room to explain the painting's meaning.

Since then, Mr. Yu has painted in cultural centers and playhouses for children; and more recently he created a 140-meter-wide mural in the Euljiro 3-ga subway terminal. This ambitious project was part of Mediacity 2000, a blockbuster art exhibition organized by the Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Yu considers these murals "assignments" in one sense, since he has to compromise his ideas to some degree for the client. On the other hand, these productions are his own art projects. The artist explains that he does not like to draw a clear boundary between the two arenas.

"I did get lot of requests from 'room salons' for a while," he says with a laugh. Room salons are the cluster of private rooms within drinking establishments where female bar hostesses often serve male business clients; Mr. Yu was often asked to make sexually suggestive paintings on the walls.

"They need murals to cover up ugly holes on their walls," he says. Due to frequent fights between drunken customers, the bars often need mural artists like Mr. Yu to act as make-shift maintenance men, filling in patches that needed to be re-wallpapered. "For a while I did paint for them. Now I try to limit my projects to things that I like," he adds.

The difficulties of painting murals are endless. Mr. Yu says the artists who are involved in projects for the city often work under terrible conditions, since speedy progress is the municipal government's top priority when commissioning an artist. Toxic fumes from industry paints is another workplace hazard.

"It was a haunting experience," Mr. Yu says, recalling the Euljiro 3-ga project.

"It was better during the daytime, because we could get fresh air at outside every hour or two. But at night, all the entrances were shut. The ventilation was off too. This really put our team in a life-threatening situation." He also noted that the 15-day labor-intensive project nearly caused some artists, woozy from the paint fumes, to fall onto the subway tracks.

There were also complaints to the city concerning the "indecent nature" of the animated characters in the painting. Some older citizens of Seoul were less than charmed by some mural images such as a urinating mouse.

Mr. Yu's next project is to create paintings of soccer players on the sides of apartment buildings near the World Cup Stadium in Mapo-gu. Negotiations have not yet been made with the Mapo Ward Office, but Mr. Yu believes the project will be worthwhile for himself, the buildings' residents and international visitors who come for the World Cup.

Many previous subway drawings and mural projects have made public statements, such as Keith Haring's symbolic icons, which raised public awareness during the outbreak of the American AIDS epidemic. Mr. Yu hopes that his murals will also have an impact on passers-by.

Mr. Yu stresses the importance of public interaction in his art.

"You know how thieves always go back to the houses they robbed, to see if the place is any different," he says. He explains that it is likewise his instinct, or perhaps his bad habit, to always return to his paintings, to observe the reactions of those passing by.

by Park Soo-mee

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