[Life In Korea] Delivering ‘taste of life’ via street art

Walking down the streets of Seoul, your senses are in for a treat. High-rises tower, K-pop spills out from nearby shops and the preserves of historical buildings sit proudly among Seoul’s busy traffic. Amid this modern symphony, your gaze may be drawn to a contrasting sight — shanty houses with weathered shutter doors and neglected alleyways adorned with bold graffiti, a testament to the city’s harmony of old and new, and fusions of the popular and subculture.

As South Korea has grown as an exciting tourist destination over the past years, many internationals have also chosen to make it their new home. For Mr. Tongue, a street artist from New York, that journey started more than nine years ago.

One of the reasons he moved to Seoul was because it seemed like a blank canvas, both figuratively and literally.

“At that time,” he recalls, “street art and street culture were not as prevalent as they are now. When I walked around in the streets, it seemed like there were many possibilities out here compared to the US, where, oftentimes, it’s very saturated so it takes a lot of work to get noticed.”

As young Koreans revel in the kitsch and nostalgia of “Y2K,” referring to the trends and pop culture of the late 1990s to early 2000s, an increasing number of high-end global brands and local businesses have begun incorporating street art as a “cooler and younger type of marketing,” according to the artist.

Mr. Tongue spray-paints his signature tongue in The Korea Herald's episode of

Mr. Tongue spray-paints his signature tongue in The Korea Herald’s episode of “Life In Korea.”

For Mr. Tongue, this was both a point of excitement and caution, especially in Korea.

“Because it is an imported culture, a lot of the general public lack the knowledge of it. When I talk to people (in Korea), they know it’s from New York and they say it’s through vandalism. Yes, that is all true, but it is also the biggest art movement that is happening all over the world — there has never been anything quite like this. So I hope that collaborators would not just utilize street art as a temporary commercial appeal for younger generations, but also really dig deep into the significance of both the artists’ work and the street art culture.”

Mr. Tongue added that the respect goes both ways. For international street artists coming to Korea, he hopes they would take time to respect and get to know the depth of Korea’s culture, community, architecture and people.

“There’s a lot of beauty here,” he said.

Street art and hip-hop culture — from New York to Seoul

The style of street art that originated in New York and Philadelphia in the 1960s is believed to have been introduced to South Korea in the early 1990s in tandem with influences of hip-hop culture.

Gatherings in underground tunnels near the Han River by some of Korea’s first-generation graffiti artists such as Vandal, KOMA, Houdini, Santa and Garu soon spread to areas of Seoul like Hongdae, Apgujeong, Sinchon and Itaewon, according to a TimeOut report. However, in 2015, the Korean government stepped up punishments and cracked down to curb the growing number of graffiti works across the country.

For Mr. Tongue, being a street artist in Korea without speaking the language or understanding the culture posed unique hurdles. For street artists, knowing how to hide in the shadows is crucial, however, not only was Korea teeming with surveillance cameras, but being unable to speak or read Korean street signs often slowed him down.

“In one instance, there was a sign saying that it was a construction site, but because I couldn’t differentiate on the spot if it was about construction or if it was about some legal issues, I avoided having contact with that area entirely. So it does help if you’re able to read Korean a little bit so that you can better navigate the streets while living in Korea.”

Before and after images of Mr. Tongue's artwork in Seoul (mysturtongue/Instagram)

Before and after images of Mr. Tongue’s artwork in Seoul (mysturtongue/Instagram)

Asked about his future prospects, Mr. Tongue says he hopes his artwork can continue delivering messages of hope and serve as a source of inspiration for everyday people. “When people see my artwork in the street, it can be as simple as, ‘Oh, it’s a cute little character’ or whatnot. But for those who know the meaning of my tongue, it has a whole new impact on them. You can’t speak without a tongue. You can’t taste without a tongue. It is also one of the strongest muscles in your body.”

“The beauty of street art is that it doesn’t cost the viewers much to look at it, nor does it cost much for the artist,” he added. “When people view my art, I want it to be a reminder for people to get away from their devices, get away from the stress, and instead, enjoy the scenery and get a taste of life.”

So the next time you are sitting in traffic or running to your next destination in the middle of Seoul, be wary of different corner streets or bridges because you might be able to spot a tongue or two — a casual reminder that there is a community of artists out there, splashing colors and brewing a culture that belongs somewhere between the old and the new.

Mr. Tongue's mural is sandwiched between old shops and new buildings in Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul. (Tammy Park/The Korea Herald)

Mr. Tongue’s mural is sandwiched between old shops and new buildings in Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul. (Tammy Park/The Korea Herald)

To learn more about Mr. Tongue and how he first got into street art, why he chooses to stay anonymous and more, check out “Life In Korea” on The Korea Herald YouTube channel.

For readers in Seoul, Mr. Tongue is holding his first exhibition in three years, titled “Strokes: Of Nature,” open to the public from Oct. 27-Nov. 12 in Mullae-dong of Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo-gu. The works of art in the exhibition embody the abstract life experiences of Mr. Tongue and represent his inspirations from nature. For more details, check out Mr. Tongue on Instagram, @mysturtongue.

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