Korean artist Kim Joon discusses tattoos, taboos and his inspiration – interview


KOREAN CONTEMPORARY ART

The powerful works by Kim Joon depicting intriguingly ‘tattooed’ bodies beg for context. However, to more deeply understand Joon’s meditation on the meaning of tattoo as a social phenomenon and uniquely human act, a viewer must first appreciate the man and his personal experience. Kim Joon, born in 1966 in Seoul, has walked many paths in life: he is a renowned contemporary artist, a professor at Kongju National University in Korea, and is a former soldier in the Korean military.

Recently Joon has established a growing presence in the international art scene, gaining exposure in London at this year’s highly successful Korean Eye show, and in October 2009 his ‘Birdland-Armani’ piece was auctioned at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong for almost twice its estimated price, selling for approximately $17,560 USD. Art Radar catches up with Joon before the opening of his ‘Tattoo and Taboo’ exhibition, which runs from November 18th-Dec 13th at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Hong Kong, to discuss his fascination with tattoos, his surprising journey to finding inspiration, and the Korean art scene.

Note: Kim Joon’s comments were directly translated by Ms. Inhee Iris Moon, an independent curator based in New York, with whom he has worked extensively. Any references of Joon appearing to speak in the third person are attributed to this. Interview by Erin Wooters.

Kim Joon, Bird Land - Chrysler, 2008, digital print, 120 x 210 cm. Image courtesy of the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Where did you grow up and where were you educated? Were there major influences or people in your life pushing you toward or discouraging you from the arts?

Joon: He was born and raised in Seoul, and attended Hongik University, a well known school for art education. No one encouraged him to enter the arts, in fact his father was very opposed to him becoming an artist.

When did you first start creating art?

Joon: He started creating art in college. Generally he doodled as a child, but did not consider becoming a serious artist until he was attending university and studying art.

In which countries and cities do you spend most of your time?

Joon: Korea and Seoul

Do you have a deep connection to places or cultures outside Korea?

Joon: Although he was born and raised in Korea and really never spent time outside of Seoul, he has and maintains a close connection to Western culture through AFKN, which is an English radio program. It is produced by the U.S. military—it is a military station. He was deeply influenced by the things that he heard from radio… Also through entertainment, such as movies and rock music. He has built his connections to the outside world through media culture.

Kim Joon, Cradle Song - Ferragamo, 2009, digital print, 160 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Do you have any any tattoos, and if so did you get them before or after joining the military?

Joon: Just one. I got it after joining the military.

Which artists do you admire?

Joon: More musicians than artists, actually. Jimi Hendrix is my hero, my personal god.

Which artists do you personally collect?

Joon: Young Korean contemporary artists, like Joonsung Bae.

When did you first become interested in the idea of tattoos?

Joon: I developed a very strong interest in it when I was in the army. But it was during college days that I first started working with the notion of tattoos.

What are your favorite things to do when you are not making art?

Joon: Listen to music, watch movies, and play with my daughter. She is 4.

Regarding your images, how do you create them?

Joon: First he uses 3-D animation software to create the body or bodies he wants, and he constructs them. Then after building the 3 dimensional body, he works to get the image he really desires. Then, he grafts on the type of skin he desires—it could be animal skin, artificial skin, human skin. It could be skin of a leather bag or skin of a shoe. Any kind of texture- it could be a hard baseball. He uses this surface skin and grafts it onto the 3 dimensional image he created. This computer program is called 3-D Studio Max. It is the program used to create Shrek and other 3D animation films.

So there is never any physical painting of models involved?

Joon: No.

How and why do you choose which gender and body type to use in the images? Is there a significance in your preference of male and female models?

Joon: He likes both, he is neutral. However, he has a strong admiration for black bodies. The ebony series represents his desire for a perfect black male body.

I notice in your previous work you sometimes use male models with less muscle tone. Is there a reason for this?

Joon: It could be the images with less muscle tone are the body types of Asian men, which are different from highly idealized perfected bodies.

Are the images intended to be at all sexual?

Joon: Because he is working with bodies, especially nude and highly idealized bodies, it became that way. However, he hasn’t intentionally created erotic images. The images in former series were not erotic bodies, they are more real bodies. As the work developed it became more sensual.

Some of your works include tattoos of logos. What is the significance of this, and how do you choose the company logos?

Joon: The selection of logos is pretty random, but the process involves digging out the pre-inscribed images that are embedded in his own mind. As a result, it could be any random logo. Of course he doesn’t have a special contract with any company. However, he tries to use logos that are really well known, that are universal and that everyone will recognize.

What special meaning does tattooing have to you?

Joon: There are two ways to identify his way of using tattoos. One is to express things that he cannot really negate. The other one is something that you really want to do but cannot do… It expresses things that cannot be erased, because tattoos are an inscription, a kind of mark that cannot be erased because it is a scar.

Is your work an expression of physical or spiritual beauty? Inner beauty or outer beauty?

Joon: You are absolutely right in saying that tattoo or tattooing is beyond the physical beauty because it encompasses the realm of repression and desire and beauty and scar. It is the doer side of tattoo and tattooing that he is much more interested. The process of tattooing itself is very painful, and the outcome could be very beautiful or ugly. You don’t know, but the willingness that goes into it is very spiritual.

Kim Joon, We - BMW, 2005, 190 x 120 cm. Image courtesy of the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Are these images also implying a group membership?

Joon: The ‘We’ series that he developed from 2005, with Starbucks and BMW, were the beginning of the idea of group consciousness. The Birdland series goes even deeper into that because it is a group of people all interlocked together becoming almost indistinguishable. It moves as a group consciousness.

What collective reality are the tattoos revealing?

Joon: In history, anthropologists will tell you that tattoos were used for different kinds of purposes. Sometimes they were used to define boundaries, or to have your own social groups. Then at other times it was to punish somebody in a negative sense, to reject you. There is a notion of acceptance and rejection- a sense of belongingness and non-belongingness. The tattoo or tattooing doesn’t have just one singular meaning, but has multiple meanings, and conflicting meanings.

Why do you want to explore things that are taboo, or feared by society?

Joon: I am intuitively very attracted to that, exploring the reasons behind our ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. Because, they can be changed, too.

How common are tattoos in Korea?

Joon: There is still a lot of resistance to tattooing in Korea. It is still illegal to have tattoos done in tattoo parlors, but the tendancy now is that a lot of people forgive, or have aetheticians perform this kind of thing.

Is it difficult to find an underground tattoo parlor in Korea?

Joon: There are many of them, but it is just not legal. There is like a cult of these groups, but they are not officially approved by the government.

What is your view on the Korean military’s stance of tattoos on soldiers?

Joon: It is not allowed in the army or military situation. Actually, if you do have a large amount of tattoos on your body you cannot even be in military service. The regular duration for men to serve in the Korean military is 3 years—that is the official army service that men have to observe. But there is this other type of service that comprises all the rejects from the regular service. These are people who might not have good eyesight or fall into a lower category of body weight, and also people who have tattoos covering large parts of their body. Joon was actually part of that army, not the official one. This is where he encountered friends…

So you found acceptance among a group of people with tattoos?

Joon: Yes, right.

Is there a certain amount of tattoos a man must have to be rejected from regular military service?

Joon: At the time there was really no strict rule of how much tattoo you must have to go to the second tier army. There were people with some kind of tattoo, physical disfunctions, or some kind of lack. It is a place the secondary male citizens went.

So, in the military tattoos were considered a physical disfunction?

Joon: The people he saw with tattoos were rejects, but were not rejected because of bodily disfunction, but because of attitude disfunction. He was surprised because he always regarded tattoo as an artistic form, but the people who had the tattoos were regarded as some kind of deviant or reject. The conflict actually lead him to explore more about tattooing, and inspired him to use that as his subject matter.

How did you first begin marketing your work?

Joon: Naturally through all kinds of exhibitions.

Kim Joon, Stay - Warhol, 2007, c-print, 87 x 150 cm. Image courtesy of the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

When and how did you become represented by Sundaram Tagore?

Joon: I was invited to a mini solo show with the gallery as part of the official program of Asian Contemporary Art Week, held in spring 2009.

Who are your major collectors? What nationality?

Joon: I am not quite sure who they are, but I do have many collectors in Europe and America (New York).

How long does it take to produce an artwork?

Joon: It differs from time to time, but anywhere between 2 weeks to 2 months.

What kind of space do you work in?

Joon: I have a studio in Seoul and Gong Ju.

What shows do you have planned next?

Joon: I am showing with Sundaram at Art Asia Art Fair in December 2009 during Art Miami Basel week and I have a solo exhibition coming up in March at ST’s Beverly Hills gallery.

What advice would you give young aspiring artists about becoming successful in the art world?

Joon: I am not sure if I am in a position to give advice, but I usually say to my students and younger artists that one must have sincerity in order to succeed in anything. Giving sincerest thoughts and effort maybe a long and painful process but a necessary one.

How has the contemporary Korean art scene changed since you began working with it?

Joon: Korean art used be more or less conforming to a dominant style when I first started to work as an artist. For example, Minjoong misul [mass art] and abstraction were the two most dominant styles while I was an art student and virtually everyone was doing things in one of the two styles. However, contemporary art has become much more diversified. Artists are not afraid of expressing individual ideas and having their own style.

Kim Joon, Neverland, 2009, digital print, 120 x 120 cm. Image courtesy of the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Which Korean institutions and galleries do you admire and recommend to art lovers?

Joon: The Han Mi Museum of Photography, Museum of Contemporary Art, Duk Soo Palace branch. In terms of exciting galleries, PKM, Kukje and Hakgoje galleries in Seoul are recommendable.

How did the Korean Eye show in London affect your career? Do you find more interest in Korean art at home or abroad?

Joon: I feel that more people in England know about my work, and that’s a great thing for an artist. Other than that I do not feel much change in my career – yet that is. I think we need to allow more time for people to absorb what they saw.

What role do you think contemporary art plays in society? Does it play a special or unique role in Korea?

Joon: Art provides new experiences to people, making people think within a different realm.. It provides new angles and perspectives to think about and view things. This is a very important role of art… I think the artworks in Korea that are made in Korea manifest the multiple realities of Korea much better or closer to the existing condition. However loosely defined that term “Korean Style” may be, I think their works seem to reflect “it” better because their comments and expressions are close rumination of their experiences (that have great affinities with mine).

What is your philosophy as an artist? Why create art?

Joon: My philosophy is to enjoy whatever it is that you do. One of the few things that can be done without having to worry about other people’s intervention is creating art. The ability to excercise this kind of independence and freedom is an utmost privilege. I enjoy this aspect of my work very much.

Are there any causes you would like your art to support or raise awareness of?

Joon: I want people to recognize and understand tattoo as my visual language which is synonymous to pain, complexity, desire, responsibility, fate, the past, memory, hope, inscription, compulsion, coercion, duress and constraint, etc. And I want people to be able to use tattoo to reflect their own realities.

What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your art?

Joon: I would like people to be able to think about their own tattoos and re-examine their lives through seeing my work. Tattoo or tatooing symbolizes the multi-layered composites of desire and will, emotion and action, pain and pleasure of self and other (tattooist) which can be translated as a complex system of complicit activities. This is much like the way in which our lives are conducted in the larger social matrix. I want people to be able to feel the tension between human (in)ability to control desires and situations. That we have less control than we think in defying forces in capital driven society.

What has been your biggest challenge in art?

Joon: Physical conditions- I work long hours in front of computers and that is really bad for my neck and back. I have been suffering from serious disc problems and am trying to manage that.

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Korean artist Kim Joon discusses tattoos, taboos and his inspiration – interview — 9 Comments

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  8. thank you for your astute observation and gracious comments. Your insightful response means a great deal to the artist and myself. Inhee Iris Moon

  9. What strangely beautiful works. I’m also heartened to see 3D animation software being used to a professional level in the fine arts. Stunning stuff. Very inspiring.

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