A Couple Defaced a $450,000 Painting, and the Artist Is Fine With It

“What is this shit?” the artist remembers thinking. He soon changed his mind.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
훼손된 부분
The dark green strokes added by the couple, who are in their 20s and have not been identified. Photo courtesy of BrandArchitects, CCOC, MINOA ART ASSETS

Brushes and cans of paint lay strewn on the gallery floor under an abstract painting, and a pair of young visitors had an idea. This, the couple thought, must be one of those art projects that engage with the audience. They each picked up a paint brush and added a few dark green strokes, not knowing that the $450,000 painting was a finished work.

What could possibly go wrong? 

As it turned out, almost nothing.

JonOne Graffiti Seoul South Korea Art Vandalism

The painting before (top) and after it was defaced. Photo courtesy of BrandArchitects, CCOC, MINOA ART ASSETS

Alarmed by the defacement, the organizers of the Seoul exhibition called the police and reviewed surveillance footage to track down the couple, who said they mistook the setup as an invitation to collaborate. (It was not; the display of paint and brushes was a nod to the artist’s creative process.)

JonOne, who painted the graffiti-style piece, was initially shocked by what he thought was an act of vandalism.

“What is this shit?” he recalled thinking. Then, he told VICE World News, he “realized their misunderstanding by watching the video.”

Born John Andrew Perello, JonOne’s reaction followed a flurry of global media reports about the incident at the exhibition, called Street Noise, that opened in February at a gallery in Lotte World Mall in the Korean capital.

JonOne Graffiti Seoul South Korea Art Vandalism

JonOne, an American graffiti artist, paints “Untitled” in South Korea in 2016. Photo: David Maginot, courtesy of BYNDR

“With just three brush strokes on my canvas, they have managed to cause a planetary buzz?!? There is strength in that,” the artist said in an email.

“It made me think about how in today’s world we’re all so closely linked and I hope someday to have the opportunity to drink tea with them in Korea,” he said, adding that he might even thank his uninvited collaborators.

JonOne Graffiti Seoul South Korea Art Vandalism

JonOne is known for his street art and graffiti. Photo: David Maginot, courtesy of BYNDR

The painting, titled “Untitled,” is estimated by the exhibition organizers to be worth about $450,000, a valuation that speculators said could go up because of the unexpected encounter on March 28.

JonOne Graffiti Seoul South Korea Art Vandalism

When the painting “Untitled” was later exhibited, it was accompanied by some of the brushes and paint cans he used. Photo: David Maginot, courtesy of BYNDR

“For artists, the public attention that their artworks get could be beneficial. The artist is the one who understands that the hierarchy between artists and viewers was already disrupted and shows that he is an artist who knows the trend,” said Kang Su-mi, a Korean art critic and an associate professor of Art Theory in Painting at Dongduk Women’s University.


Capitalizing on the buzz, the exhibition’s marketing team has even begun featuring news reports about the vandalism on online booking sites.

But Kang Wook, an organizer of the exhibition, said the work might be restored to its original condition, at the artist’s request. It’s unclear yet who would pay for the cost of repair, he said.

“We are still in the process of discussing how to handle this with the lender and artist since it has to be displayed until June,” he told VICE World News. “The final decision will be made by the lender and the restoration process will be started after it was taken down from the exhibition in June.”

JonOne Graffiti Seoul South Korea Art Vandalism

JonOne in South Korea in 2016. Photo: David Maginot, courtesy of BYNDR

He said the painting had been exhibited several times before, always with an explanatory notice, and had never been previously defaced.

Unintended interactions with artworks have been a recurring theme in the art world.

In 2015, janitors at an art exhibit in Italy “cleaned up” an art installation at the Museion Bozen-Bolzano, mistaking empty bottles of Champagne and cigarette butts as rubbish.

In 2018, a visitor to Portugal’s Serralves museum was hospitalized after falling into an optical illusion designed by the British artist Anish Kapoor. The work was titled Descent into Limbo.

Follow Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.

Hyeong Yun contributed reporting.