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Graffiti in Seoul

There are no graffiti in Seoul? Not any more. Just get on the No. 5 purple subway line and get off at Yeouinaru Station in western Seoul and walk some four hundred yards down the road parallel to the river bank towards the Korea Life Insurance 63 Building. Near Yeouido High School, you'll come across the entrance of a small tunnel that leads to the Han River citizen's park. It was while passing this tunnel (which is about thirty-feet-long) to the open green by the river bank that the photographer noticed a remarkable phenomenon unseen before for the last five and a half decades since the Republic of Korea was born: Graffiti.

At first, these sprayed writings and drawings seemed like nothing special and did not catch the eye of the photographer. However, after passing through the small tunnel, a sudden, strong wave of shock made him realize this was the first time he had seen graffiti in Seoul, or in fact anywhere in Korea.

It was difficult to explain why the illegal scribbling on the walls inspired a sense of warmth and amusement, and even admiration, rather than a sense of repulsion or frustration. The drawings in the dark underground spurred no fear nor did they spark any anxiety as to whether Korean youths are following in the footsteps of American gangsters. Rather, the colorful diversity expressed by the graffiti's creators expressed a pleasant kind of freedom and seemed to symbolize the growing freedom of expression and thinking in Korea.

The first question one may ask could be: "Who is doing is this?" or "What time of the day do they venture to commit such an act?" Maybe the reason for not feeling antagonistic about the Yeouido graffiti is because graffiti is fairly common in American, European and even some Korean movies. Or could it be the influence of the numerous pictures of the graffiti marked on the torn-down pieces of the Berlin Wall, depicted in newspapers all around the world and some of which are even being exhibited in museums.

Most of the graffiti in this underpass at Yeouido contains English letters and cartoon drawings. At one glance, a part seems to represent several characters or a white ghost that also resembles the alphabetical letter "B," while another part seems to be formed of a group of red eyeballs. It is difficult to distinguish whether some of the scribbled writings are signatures of the graffiti writers or just a drawing, but one layer upon another blend together to form a type of harmony all its own.

In short, it does not seem to matter what the drawings represent, or who drew them, or why someone took pains to decorate this tunnel. For some people, like the writer, it is a fresh, undisguised, non-commercial and absolutely liberal creation, symbolizing a change occurring in Korea.

However, could this Yeouido graffiti be only the tip of an iceberg? The photographer recalled commenting on the New York subway trains being covered with graffiti to a professor he met while studying in New York in the late seventies, and how the latter had told him: "Ah! Just wait until it gets introduced in Korea!"
"Never!" thought the photographer, but who would have imagined that in less than three decades "it" would appear in Seoul -- right by the financial center of Yeouido, near the National Assembly, the 63 (floor) Building, the road of Yunjongno famous for its cherry blossoms.

(Written by Jinna Park, Photos by Namkyu Lee)


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