Korea’s graffitists leave the shadows
“An art critic [Han Jemma] once said to us that graffiti has an aggressive side in that, like it or not, one can not help but see graffiti [when it is in front of you in the street]. I agree with this concept. I think it is one of the most attractive parts of doing graffiti,” he said.
As illustrated by the above comment, a distinguishing characteristic of graffiti is its impulsive urge to express.
“Without the permission of the city, drawing graffiti is quite violent in ways. It is impulsive, strong and wild,” continued Artime Joe.
However, although modern graffiti has its roots in “bombing,” or spray-painting areas like building walls, buses and subways without permission, it has now become more commercialized.
Starting as a cheap and easy form of expression for political activists during the late 1960s in the United States, graffiti began gaining legitimacy as an undeniable art form during the early 1980’s, as artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were able to take their work into galleries and studios.
In Korea, as hip-hop culture began gaining popularity during the 1990s, graffiti took off as well. “In the late 1990s, graffiti artists including Vandal were the first to open an Internet graffiti site,” said Artime Joe. Soon afterwards, “when the Daum portal site was gaining popularity, more and more graffiti maniacs started gathering in Internet cafes on Daum,” he explained.
During this era, many pioneering Korean graffiti artists gathered around the area below an overpass in the Apgujeong district, casually called “Apguree.” There, they began to showcase large-scale graffiti work on the 30 meters or so of walls stretching along Hangang Citizens’ Park.
Dubbed “the hall of fame” by Korean graffiti artists, graffiti is now banned in the area after complaints from neighbors.
“This was where the Korean graffiti scene took off,” said Artime Joe, adding that he recently visited the spot. “There were mixed emotions running through me. I first came to the spot as a beginner.”
Even though graffiti in Korea gained public attention with direct associations to hip-hop culture, both Artime Joe and Jay Flow said that they feel graffiti can stand as a complete culture and not necessarily be linked to hip-hop.
“In any form of art, many branches will grow as it evolves over time,” said Artime Joe.
Regarding the direction that graffiti art should take in Korea, both agree that they hope the genre will come out of its “indie” status and grow into a culture with mass appeal and recognition.
“[Graffiti] was seen by the public as scribbling on the wall by gangsters. Now, it has grown into an art genre that is displayed in galleries,” Artime Joe explains.
JNJCREW stresses the importance of this particular art form as a marketable genre that can retain its artistic integrity. The members crinkle their noses as they remember one of their first money-making deals with a bar in the Apgujeong district.
“The owner basically told us to outline and color in some graffiti art by Haring and Basquiat. I hope I never have an experience like that again,” said Artime Joe.
Since their pairing in 2001, JNJCREW have been working steadily to support themselves by drawing graffiti.
“I want to do this for a living and provide at least the essentials for my living from this career,” commented Jay Flow.
The two met while serving their mandatory military time in 1999. After leaving the army, they practiced graffiti on the roof top of a mutual friend’s apartment. In 2001, they had their first showcase, doing a graffiti performance at the Cartoon and Animation Expo Bucheon 2001. It was two to three years after that before they began to earn a living from their graffiti.
“We’ve done just about every part-time job imaginable,” said Artime Joe, as Jay Flow laughed and added, “From putting up posters to being concert staff, you name it and we have probably done it.”
Since that time, they’ve moved to bigger projects including painting the concert stages of musicians such as Seo Taiji and Drunken Tiger, as well as musical stages for “Hedwig,” designing album jackets for hiphop artists including PALOALTO, and featuring in exhibitions like the “Street Writers’ Exhibition” held in Style Cube Zandari, and in the Seoul Design Festival.
One of their most recent projects was with the global sports brand Nike in January of this year. The duo was asked by the company to be part of an exhibition along with graphic designer Kim Sung-tae and tattoo artist Yushi.
“We asked JNJCREW to take part because their art speaks to this generation’s cultural sensibilities,“ said Oh Eun-jung, the public relations manager for Nike Korea.
“With graffiti artists coming out of their shells, companies also need to invest in ‘indie’ culture and art in order for subculture genres such as graffiti to develop,” Artime Joe explained.
by Cho jae-eun