This month our graffiti columnist will be writing about his tour of Asia's most interesting graff scenes. Read more from the series here.
When I went to Seoul this spring, South Korea was covered by a blanket of smog. Koreans will be quick to tell you that the gray haze steamrolling their city wafts over from China and Mongolia, but the unending parade of cars in this sprawling metro area of over 20 million are probably not entire blameless. Seoul is affluent, expensive, and ruthlessly modern. New glass towers are budding into the already impressive forest of office buildings and luxury apartment complexes wherever you turn, none more imposing than the giant new Lotte Tower that is nearing completion on the southern bank of the Han River. At over 1,800 feet, it's taller than New York's One World Trade Center.
But I wasn't here for the architecture, I was here for the graffiti. In such a cutting-edge city graffiti might seem anachronistic, but while the art form is still a very young concept in this country—especially illegal bombing for the sake of fame and personal gratification—Seoul has a fervent core of emerging writers. The city has also become a destination for members of an international circuit of high-profile vandals in recent years, including, to name just a few, the notorious American pair UTAH and ETHER, BUKET TKO, France's MOSA, WANT from Tokyo (along with other members of his trans-continental 246 crew), MINT, BUNI, and non-stop grinders SODUH and CHUB.
To Seoul's writers, the fact that much of the city is virgin territory represents a huge opportunity. "There's a lot we can do," NANA, one of Seoul's early bombers and a rare woman in the scene, told me over coffee. "It's a city with a lot of possibilities. I think that's special."
NANA started writing ten years ago because it looked fun and because at the time most graffiti in Seoul consisted of colorful, artsy productions rather than illegal bombing. "I noticed that in photos and magazine articles about different cities around the world you could often find tags and throw-ups," NANA said. "I thought, why don't we have more here? We really should."
According to BARNES, an expat who has lived in Seoul for ten years, the country's graffiti culture dates back to the early to mid 90s. The first generation of writers adopted graffiti along with hip-hop and B-boy culture from the US, taking cues from magazines and the internet. Artists like HUDINI, PICASSO, VANDAL and others focused on creating colorful, intricate productions, generally painting with the permission of property owners and constantly striving to develop their technique and craftsmanship. With few exceptions, local writers adopted the Roman alphabet, graffiti's lingua franca, rather than working with Korean characters.
While there had been a few occasional bombers, including tagger WK and HONG3, a small group of writers including NANA, DIMZ, and later 4BLK have taken illegal street bombing to the next level in the past few years. They gradually took over several neighborhoods, including Hongdae, popular with students for its nightlife and shopping, and the expat hotspot Itaewon, viciously defending their turf against toys, newcomers, and, occasionally, visiting foreign writers.
"Everyone hated me when I first started," DIMZ told me. To older artists who had been focusing on developing their artistic skills with pieces, bombing was almost sacrilegious. "They didn't do throw-ups. They thought it looked too easy."
As it is all over the world, public reaction to graffiti in South Korea is mixed. Graffiti's aesthetic has permeated popular culture, but illegal graffiti is so new people don't know quite what to make of it. Seoul's cops have also been ramping up their efforts to stop writers.
DIMZ told me about a close call with undercover cops from Seoul's vandal squad. "I was doing a fill-in over some other stuff, but it looked like I was just buffing the wall. I told them my friend was the shop owner," he said. He got away with it.
"We got dissed a lot," NANA recalled. "Now people understand tagging a bit more. Compared to other Asian countries, graffiti is still not as common here, but I think things are changing."
See more photos from our graffiti columnist's Seoul visit below, and stay tuned for more dispatches from his trip throughout Asia.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.