[Viewpoint] The signs are everywhere to see

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[Viewpoint] The signs are everywhere to see

I usually take the subway when moving around Seoul, but I recently found myself in a taxi late at night passing by the Samseon Bridge. As I looked out the window, I suddenly felt a surge of emotion while looking at the signs and billboards in the area.

It was strange to feel so emotional by something that’s quite common around the city.

In the early 1980s, a huge arched sign was erected at the crossroad of Gwanghwamun, celebrating the inauguration of the president who was a former general. The new first lady later recalled in a magazine interview that when she passed by this particular spot, she felt an urge to get out the car and embrace the sign.

That’s certainly understandable, because she was the newly elected president’s wife and all. But why was I so emotional looking at random signs and billboards nearly 30 years later?

Urbanites are so used to seeing signs everywhere we turn. Just as farmers are surrounded by green fields and islanders can see the blue ocean wherever they look, we are ensconced by signs on buildings made of concrete, steel and glass.

When those who have spent a few years abroad return to Seoul, many of them point out the ubiquitousness of signs here as soon as they enter the Gonghangno near Gimpo Airport. The facades of buildings are often completely covered with signs, so much so that you can hardly tell what type of material was used to construct the building. In some cases, even the windows are covered by signs. In a way, these countless signs represent the thriving business community, so you can take it as a positive signal as to the health of that segment of the economy.

But it’s becoming clear that there are simply too many signs in Seoul. Visitors from developed countries rarely express positive opinions on the aesthetics of the urban environment in Korea, and the ugly and ubiquitous signboards certainly contribute to that view.

In the 1980s, a pharmacy in Jongno erected a new sign that overwhelmed all other pharmacy signs in the vicinity. The signboard had big, bold white letters on a dark navy background. Other pharmacies then started putting up similarly overbearing signs, some in dark navy and others in red. Over the next 20 years, signs with bold white lettering on a blue or red background became the most common style in Seoul, and today it is a truly exhausting and terrible visual experience.

The vivid blue and red backgrounds just have no nuance and are way too harsh on the eye, as if they represent how rough our lives are.

The ugliness of the city is found in other places as well. The cars on the gray roads are mostly achromatic. The taxies in Tokyo are brightly colored, but even the taxies in Seoul are gray. It’s quite ironic. Didn’t Koreans, after all, create the inimitably beautiful celadon green? Why on earth can’t we get some colorful cars in this city?

We need to study the meaning of the trivial things surrounding us. Perhaps it’s the small things, rather than the large ones, that save or kill a nation.

Maybe our minds and emotions are eroding because we are surrounded by all the achromatic objects we created.

And that brings me back to my recent taxi ride. After adjusting to the uncharacteristic and unaesthetic signs that dominate the landscape, I was so impressed to see the beautiful, clean and unique displays on the newly renovated Samseong Bridge.

I’d be lying if I said I wanted to jump out of the taxi and give the signs a hug. Still, it was a nice change of pace, as so many signs in Seoul are excessive and lit with several dozen florescent bulbs. And it seems to me as if more companies and small businesses around Seoul are moving away from the lifeless displays of the past.

The trend now, although in its infancy, is to create unique signboards, helping to eradicate eyesores around the city. The trend of big, loud signs being replaced by more subtle and aesthetic ones is a welcome signal that Koreans’ pursuit of hegemony is starting to change.


*The writer is a senior reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Jung Jae-suk
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