Illustrator finds inspiration from cafes for cup art: New York-based artist Shin Moon-sub draws favorite spots on cups

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Illustrator finds inspiration from cafes for cup art: New York-based artist Shin Moon-sub draws favorite spots on cups


New York-based illustrator Shin Moon-sub says he “captures the moment” on takeout coffee cups from places where he’s enjoyed good coffee. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Whenever illustrator Shin Moon-sub craves a cup of joe, he tries to visit a new cafe and orders himself a cappuccino and two empty takeout cups.

The two paper cups are not for him to split the coffee amongst friends, but instead are his canvas for sketching the cafe he’s in. Moon, a 36-year-old New York-based illustrator, has been drawing on coffee cups since January 2017 and now has more than 100 cups in his collection, featuring mostly cafes in New York and some from Korea. Moon’s detailed sketches on paper coffee cups attracted the organizers of this year’s Seoul International Cafe Show, and they invited Moon to be one of the show’s art exhibitors. Initially, Moon thought about just sending his cups to the event, but he worried his fragile work may get lost or damaged. So, he decided to carry them by hand and flew to Seoul to stand with his work during the exhibit held from Nov. 8-11 at Coex in southern Seoul.


Six of Moon’s more than 100 coffee cup drawings. From left: Manufact Coffee Roasters in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul; Toby’s Estate in New York; Fritz in Mapo District, western Seoul; Cafe Grumpy in New York; New York Coffee Week; and Stumptown Coffee Roasters in New York. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Why does Moon ask for two cups?

“I make two illustrated cups and give one to the cafe,” said Moon. “The owners really appreciate it and I enjoy the whole process. My coffee cup illustration project is not simply an art project that I started for myself.”

It was a cold New York winter afternoon in January when Moon, who makes location drawings as a hobby, popped into a Birch Coffee to get out of the cold. The cafe looked cozy and the coffee was so good that he wanted to sketch the shop, but he forgot his sketchbook. Unable to control his urge to draw, he began sketching on the coffee cup he had been drinking out of. The final product turned out to be “cooler” than he thought, so Moon decided to give it to the coffee shop as a gift. The baristas admired his work, and when he posted it on Instagram, the response was so huge he decided to turn it into a project.

“At first, it wasn’t easy to draw on cups,” said Moon. “Because cups are a curved surface, I initially had too much force in my fingers and I thought I was drawing a straight line but it wasn’t straight at all. I often got cramps, but now I think I’m more used to drawing on cups than on a flat surface.”

Moon began to draw on the takeout coffee cups from his favorite cafes, keeping one for himself and giving away the other. It takes him about an hour to draw on both cups, and no two cups are identical.

“I try to find different focus points and come up with two similar but different designs,” he said. Although Moon loves coffee and enjoys sketching cafes, not all coffee shops make him want to get his brush out.

“The coffee shop has to have a distinct identity, or a characteristic,” said Moon. “When I go to those kinds of coffee shops, I see what their coffee making philosophy is or how they serve coffee and I try to emphasize that in my drawing.”

This is why there are no drawings of large coffee franchises like the Starbucks or the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Moon’s coffee cup collection.

“It’s not that I’m against franchise coffee shops or anything,” he said. “It’s just that everything in large coffee chains is so systemized, from taking an order to calling your name to pick up the drinks. The coffee bar is so large that the physical space between you and the barista is also quite far. There’s no space or time for any kind of small talk or a chance to really get to know the people over the counter.”

He does have one Starbucks sketch though, drawn at the original Starbucks in Seattle.

“I thought I could sketch this one because it is well known for being the first Starbucks.”

“I also had the opportunity to visit a popular coffee shop in Daegu, which is my hometown,” he continued. “It wasn’t a franchise, but I didn’t sketch anything there as I couldn’t find any special characteristics. It was well decorated and big and really popular, but there was no story.”

Before Moon starts sketching, he observes the cafe, looks at the menu and sees what kind of people work there and the type of people who come to drink there.

Giving his work to the coffee shop as a sign of appreciation has opened doors to some new opportunities, like commission works.

“I was in Toby’s Estate Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster in New York,” said Moon. “I really liked the atmosphere and the coffee there so I worked hard on the sketches. But when I finished the two cups, I was hesitant for a bit about which one to keep and which one to give away.”

One sketch turned out really good, he said, but the other did not meet his standards. Moon wanted to keep the better one for himself, but felt bad about giving away something that he wasn’t satisfied with. He decided to present the coffee shop with the better drawing and, surprisingly, the coffee shop contacted him via Instagram and requested that they work on something together. Now, the sleeves used for Toby’s Estate’s takeout cups all feature Moon’s illustration.

“I really feel proud whenever I see it,” he said.

Some of his coffee shop illustrations have also ended up on the coffee mugs of several other coffee shops in New York and he is currently working on projects with several coffee shops in Korea as well.

Moon hopes to continue expanding his collection, visiting different coffee shops in different neighborhoods across the country.

“There are so many stories to tell on this paper cup that is often regarded as trash,” said Moon. “I intend to continue as long as there’s good coffee to be served.”

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