Tattooist's Work a Celebration of Scarred Masculine Identity

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Tattooist's Work a Celebration of Scarred Masculine Identity

The tattoo artist Kim Joon says the object of his work is both to ornament and to wound. It's this paradoxical nature of tattooing which first led him to get his hands on needles ten years ago. Mr. Kim makes tattoos on the surface of objects made with stuffed sponge carefully coated with shiny latex. With this close imitation of human flesh, his work has been raising provocative questions about the human body.

For Mr. Kim, a tattoo is a metaphor for memory, sexual desire and a nostalgia for American popular culture that was prevalent when he was growing up in the 1970s. It was a time when Korea was experiencing rapid modernization under the influence of American military culture. The images of Jimmy Hendrix and skeletal figures frequently appearing in Mr. Kim's work are a result of the influence of this dominant culture.

"In a sense, I have a very deeply etched tattoo in my mind and that is to not get tattooed," he says while talking about his first encounter with tattoos. Mr. Kim confesses that in his adolescent years he feared to get a tattoo on his shoulder because of the conservative social environment. He also hints at an important idea about tattooing, which is directly related to human desire for ownership.

"People get tattooed because they want to leave physical marks on their body, so they can create a permanent link with a significant moment, or the person precious to them." Such ideas are apparent in his performance series "You are Mine."

In that work, the artist stirred up a controversy by asking the viewers to pick the pair of sculptured hips that most resembled their lovers' and getting them to sign their name on it. In doing this, the artist explicitly critiqued human obsession with owning the object of their desire.

The endless possibilities about our bodies are carefully translated through the artist's interpretation of body parts. He picks arms for example, as usually suggesting masculinity and male narcissism. In the work "Guys with Tattoos," he displayed a line-up of tattooed muscular arms on the gallery wall. He attempted to discuss tattooing as a subject of low art, a symbol of violence and as suggesting a possibility for embellished masculinity.

In another work titled "Please Believe Me," he exhibited an array of grotesque-looking tongues in a similar format to "Guys with Tattoos." Presenting a rather disturbing survey of human tongues, the artist made a visual pun about the habitual lies and duplicitous nature of human beings.

Mr. Kim says his works are products of lifelong doubts about his own identity.

"Men are full of contradictions," he says while explaining the process of creating his performance work titled "Brothers." In the work, he asked people around him to mix their blood with his own as a sign of bonding, a creation of a brotherhood. Of the 100 participants, 80 were women.

"Maybe they were scared. Maybe things would have been different if I were a woman. But men often have these conflicting ideas." He thinks this uncompromising sensitivity in men reflects the saying that "people always crave kimchi after tasting butter," and comes from contradictory teachings about gender roles and expectations.

Apart from offering these serious socio-political ideas in his works, Mr. Kim also remains faithful in fulfilling the artist's role. Though he humbly explains that he is only replacing the canvas with objects, the process of preparing one of these surfaces is about five times as lengthy as wrapping up a canvas. Each object takes him between a month and three months to prepare. This makes the artist's livelihood difficult and is one of the reasons why he recently shifted his medium to video.

In a recent group exhibition at Ilju Art House (02-2002-7777), which runs through April 10, he contributed a video piece in which he digitally manipulated the process of making a tattoo, making it appear as if blood is pouring out of the artificial flesh. When the reporter expresses curiosity about how he did it, he calls it "magic" and leaves it at that.

Having repeated the same intensive labor for nearly 10 years, he says it is about time that he opened up a tattoo shop.

But that is only if the tattoo on his mind heals.

by Park Soo-mee

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