Korean Creatives: Yoonhyup Kim

In our last piece highlighting some of South Korea‘s burgeoning creative landscape, we speak with artist and multifaceted creative Yoonhyup Kim. Despite having worked on both sides of the coin including commercial work with the likes of Nike, MTV and Vestal, it’s Kim’s graffiti and skate background that has given him a creative mentality and foresight often associated with these subcultures. An all-around nice guy, the interview focuses on his past and his views on Korea’s current art scene.

Can you introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Yoonhyup. I’ve been painting and making graphic arts for a little over 10 years. I love doing art projects with my friends, who happen to be a talented bunch of people with a wide range of talents. They make music, skate, film, shoot photos, design clothes and toys.

How did you get involved into art?
When I was a young kid, my mom founded a big music school here in Seoul. Naturally I used to get involved with her educational program, but I couldn’t get interested enough in learning to play musical instruments. As her business grew, she had to handle her business and needed to take care of her kids at the same time so we had to be at the school everyday. While she wasn’t paying attention, my brothers and I would go off and make things that’d keep us interested. I used to make wacky maps of my town or crazy diorama sets. We’d run off and goof off also – like playing tennis with tomatoes or pulling stunts like jumping out of a window.

I got into skating and skate culture when I was nine years old. That’s when I became friends with a group of friends that would be a part of where I was heading culturally. For example my friend Dahahm, who became a photographer, used take skate photos with his father’s camera and we’d give each other drawings. My friends Dada went on to become a piano player and dope photographer. I also met my friend Kyungbin Chon during high school, who was a rapper back then. He went on to start the menswear brand “Fitbow.” Thinking about it, it was a formative time for us even though all we were doing was chilling at skate spots, going to concerts and galleries – we wound up inspiring each other and making a loose creative collective based on friendship.

Is it hard to make a living in the arts in South Korea?
Although the government finances cultural events and makes efforts to invest in creative projects, usually the underlying reasons are political. There’s always a bit of controversy about how well balanced their support is. Overall, it’s kind of a hassle to try and make a living here and get recognized by the local institutions.

But that being said, it’s obviously important to make art continuously, whether it’s profitable or not. And there is still a very cool, young creative scene here that is supportive of each other regardless of institutions or government agencies and even though it’s just growing, it’s filled with great people thinking outside the box.

Does a Korean identity factor into your work?
Intentional or not, it’s naturally a part of it. Sometimes I find that I had subconsciously reflected the layout of traditional Korean calligraphy. But I’m inspired by a lot of things… like traditional Chinese stories. I find it interesting to try and connect dots, even if it’s separated by continents. But I do love working with iconic elements and color palettes from Korean culture and have a strong personal interest in that.

Your Poker Face character is your signature, what does it represent?
That evolved out of another character actually. I made a robot statue over seven years ago with my friend Dahahm and other skater friends. I was super bored at the time of painting on flat canvas. I recall I was skating and grinding the city at the time and I started to collect discarded items on the streets to build a robot. I wanted to use it for a short narrative that depicted ourselves as a poker-faced automaton in an urban setting. I was also inspired by this one crazy-looking creature from traditional mythology.
The cloud-shaped poker-faced character is a second version of that. I felt it reflects urban life – how we can exist anonymously on the cyber space as another world.

With the street art starting off outside of Korea, how do you put your own spin on it?
Although it’s difficult to learn what other kinds of techniques that street artists elsewhere work with or how they approach their medium, it also leaves me a lot of room to look for my own sources of inspiration and develop methods without interference from the mainstream.

You’ve lived outside of Korea in the past, how does it affect or influence your work?
Yeah, I’ve lived in New York not too long ago. It was great to meet and mingle with people from a diverse range of ethnic cultures. And I found it important to find a balance between my cultural identity and my identity as a global citizen. I was fortunate to meet really good people, make good friends and talk to New York artists in person. It was refreshing to see their attitude toward their work. It was definitely a great opportunity to see how relevant one’s originality can be in the bigger picture.

Do you think that sometimes Korea’s creative scene does a lot of copying?
Wherever the main motivation is making money, you’ll find that’s the case. Whether it’s a brand or an artist. I find any case of that weird and disagreeable.

How would you describe Korea’s street art scene?
Compared to any other city, there are much fewer artists. But that means there’s a lot of freedom and room. If people support the culture, there’s a lot of potential.

Can you talk about your art that is based on finding old materials and recycling?
I enjoy incorporating that sometimes. But I also enjoy discovering through traditional arts and myths as well. I think the main interest is connecting things that are almost forgotten in this era and finding a fresh approach to it. That, for me, would never change.

Any last words?
My time in New York City was really recent, so I’ve been feeling really refreshed and inspired. The energy in both cities are so different but so amazing. I’m just digging into a new body of work so I’m stoked to get into it with my friends both here and overseas pretty soon.

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