A Journey Behind the Walls

City by Eileen Kim, age 17, South Korea
Bird by Eileen Kim, age 17, South Korea
Cheetah by Eileen Kim, age 17, South Korea

A Journey Behind Walls

In recent years, the search for graffiti has taken up a big portion of my time. Within the monotony of my school routine, finding tags and art hidden in building corners or behind walls was akin to a treasure hunt. I have often taken pictures of the latest artworks I found and saved them in my photo album as if they were pieces of a collection. As an artist, I feel inspired to create my own signature style and to learn more about the interesting world of graffiti.

But, growing up in South Korea has reminded me of the impermanence of the culture here. I’ve often observed buildings being demolished and supplanted by newer, shinier structures. Stores I would visit frequently would suddenly close down, and the art that I once cherished would no longer exist. It’s unfortunate that we are so busy moving forward at a fast pace that we can’t appreciate the creations around us. Society doesn’t provide ideal conditions for graffiti in terms of conservation.

On top of the ever-changing nature of Korean street art, COVID-19 has made it even more challenging to explore as frequently as I had in the past. However, last month, I found the perfect opportunity to revisit the childlike wonder I have felt while observing graffiti. While browsing the internet, I came across tickets for URBAN BREAK Art Asia, a three-day fair showcasing street artists.

At the fair, it was almost as if time suspended, and the pandemic didn’t exist. I was surprised to see that people from all walks of life came to see the show, from teenagers donning denim bucket hats to older professionals in their weekend attire. Despite everyone wearing masks, the individuality was compelling and echoed Korean life exactly as it is—one of constant sounds, smells, and colors intermingling. The exhibit echoed the cacophony that citizens experience in their daily routine. I distinctly remember one artist playing the piano in his booth, surrounded by paintings of traditional Korean houses. Meanwhile, an underground rapper signed autographs for his fans a few booths down.

There were numerous exhilarating artists that caught my attention, but the one who stood out the most to me, personally, was a female artist named Junkhouse. Toward the end of the show, I recognized a familiar artwork hers that I’ve seen numerous times on a building during my walks home from school. Luckily, I was able to contact Junkhouse after the show, and she was more than happy to share her thought processes with me.

As Junkhouse compared graffiti in Korea to that in foreign countries, she confirmed that South Korea’s tendency of getting rid of old buildings rapidly prevents street artists from experimenting with their artwork and freely using the city as their own sketchbooks. Furthermore, with the law being strict in terms of interfering with property, young artists move further away from the traditional street art culture. Younger generation artists would rather choose social media as a way of presenting their work and connecting to the greater public.

As she spoke of her free-spirited artistic process, where she draws organic shapes onto existing structures, my mind kept going back to a recurring thought: there is always room for freedom within constraint. There exists a certain, and often justified, stereotype of Korean art as being highly elite and institutionalized. Proprietary gallery owners are often part of a closeted establishment that promote lucrative art forms, such as porcelain from the Goryeo Dynasty or paintings by artists within their inner circles. But unlike traditional art galleries holding the key to the next generation of artists, some people are ready to break the mold and directly communicate with the audience themselves—even teenagers like me.

As I reflected on my own conversation with Junkhouse and on the vibrancy of the works at the art fair, I felt encouraged to challenge my own perceptions. In a rapidly modernizing country like Korea, what would finally allow graffiti art to soar to its highest potential? As for me, what are some preconceived notions and existing barriers that prevent me from reaching my maximum potential?

The answers to both questions are yet to be found, but I am slowly on my way to discovering them. In the meantime, I have added forty new pieces of art to my virtual graffiti collection, which I can browse freely from home. These pieces serve as a reminder to seek freedom even amidst the busy days that lie ahead.

By Eileen Kim, age 17, high school junior in Seoul, South Korea. She adds:

“I am an active artist and writer who enjoys learning about the intersection of culture and the environment. Born in the United States but raised in Korea, I am a bilingual Korean and English speaker with the privilege of examining different perspectives. My interest in environmental conservation, particularly in reducing the use of plastic, has led me on many exciting journeys. Recently, using my art skills, knowledge, and love for the environment, I designed environmentally friendly, reusable masks. My ultimate goal is to create a sustainable system for the future in populated cities, such as Seoul and New York. 

As an artist, I am also highly invested in the emergence of street art. In search of works from creative peers my age, I came across your magazine and felt the courage to submit some of my works. “A Journey Behind the Walls” details the street art culture in South Korea and how our strict society has led to a creative underground movement. Though street art is forced to take on a more limited form in Korea compared to other cities like New York or London, it is surprisingly pervasive and thought provoking.

I have also attached my original artworks, “Bird,” “City,’ “Cheetah,” and “Venus.” The recurring theme of these works is the impact of the climate crisis on the ecosystem, from animals and humans to the environment itself. My essay and art attempts to relate to the universal longing of community, freedom and change.”

Leave a Reply