Graffiti is a lesser explored art form in South Korea despite the mainstream popularity of Hip-Hop culture. Over the last couple of months we've noticed peculiar spray painted artwork popping up in the darkest corners of Seoul and tracked down the artist behind the tags.
Interview Gissella Ramirez-Valle, Photos via Fivebreath
Please introduce yourself! What is your name, age, and where did you grow up?
Fivebreath: Hello! I am an illustrator as well as a graffiti artist, working under the name Fivebreath (@fivebreath). I was born and raised in South Korea.
What did you study? Did you study art?
Fivebreath: I majored in a track known as Visual Identity, which combined both art and design at Gyewon Art University.
Do you have a philosophy when it comes to creating art? What is art to you?
Fivebreath: Because I was born as a human, I think about the things that I have to do as a human. All living things should be respected, and among them, humans have certain abilities that other forms of life do not have. For me, one of those abilities is drawing and I am in the process of figuring out where and how I can use my art for a beneficial purpose. My father is an artist himself; therefore naturally, I grew up around art. When it came time for me to decide on my path for the future, I don’t remember worrying about which field or area I would choose. For me, art was naturally something I got into and liked. I believe I am lucky.
"Visual pleasure and inner healing is my goal."
What does Fivebreath mean?
Fivebreath: I get this question a lot, but actually, this name is just a play on words. Between my friends, my nickname is Oh Soom, which comes from the shortened version of my name in Chinese characters. Oh in Korean is the number five and Soom comes from the word to breathe. Therefore it led to the name Five Breath. It is similar to the word play in G-Dragon’s stage name.
How did you get into graffiti art?
Fivebreath: When I was organizing the photos that I took on my trip to Europe, I noticed that a lot of the photos that I had taken unconsciously were of graffiti drawn on streets and walls. It was by looking at these photos that I discovered which specific areas in art I was really interested in.
What feelings do you get when you’re tagging public spaces?
Fivebreath: My heart flutters.
"I wish that there were more places to legally do graffiti."
Can you share with us a memory that sticks out to you in regards to doing graffiti art?
Fivebreath: When I traveled to Thailand in February, there was this one time I was tagging a wall at dawn. I didn’t know it then, but when I was discovered by the security team of that building, I found out that I had been tagging one of Thailand’s naval bases. Therefore, the police coming to the hotel the next day is the memory that sticks out to me the most.
Who are the characters that you draw? How did creating them come about?
Fivebreath: Visual pleasure and inner healing is my goal. These characters especially bring me a lot of healing. The smiley face characters that you saw a couple of years ago were drawn on Korean Independence Day, in commemoration, and because I ended up liking those characters, I continue to use them.
It seems like Seoul’s underground arts scene is thriving, especially around Itaewon. Are there more opportunities for young artists nowadays?
Fivebreath: People say that graffiti is one of the components that is included in Hip Hop culture. These days Hip Hop, as a music genre, is really popular in South Korea, so naturally, graffiti is also getting some media attention as well. However, there are only a couple of places in Seoul where graffiti is legal, but even while tagging these places, there are times when I feel like I am doing something wrong. I wish that there were more places to legally do graffiti. Traveling to other countries has made me realize that Korea is lacking these spaces. There aren’t that many graffiti shops here either.
What’s a typical day for you? When or how do you feel at ease to make art?
Fivebreath: On the weekdays I go to work as an illustrator and I also work overtime frequently. Haha...On the weekends, I like to go clubbing so I’ll play all night, but then the next day, I go to a coffee shop to draw. I like to draw at dawn, when everyone else is asleep. There is no reason for my phone to ring, and there are rarely any other disturbances. I also like the feeling of being awake when everyone else is asleep.
Do you have a favorite medium? Favorite colors?
Fivebreath: Although I like paper, lately, I prefer drawing on walls. When I draw on paper, I only use my wrist muscles, but when I draw on walls, I like the dynamics of using my shoulder joints as well as my entire body. It’s refreshing and pleasing. And of course, there’s the scarcity factor as well. Whenever someone asks me what my favorite color is, I always answer blue. But weirdly, there is more pink than blue in my works...
"when I draw on walls, I like the dynamics of using my shoulder joints as well as my entire body."
You’ve done some traveling. How did you pick the spots to do graffiti art at the places you’ve visited? Is it a personal goal to tag up as many locations as possible? Where are you going next or what is your ultimate goal to tag?
Fivebreath: Before I travel to a certain country, I look up what that country’s perceptions of graffiti are. There are countries where people will watch you graffiti and like it, and there are also countries where people will just report you immediately to the police. I also look up different graffiti artists in each country and contact them. There are less female than male graffiti artists so sometimes I get scared, but when I met them in person they were all kind to me. They are all artists who have an overflowing love and passion for graffiti. Rather than looking up tourist attractions, I have become a person who looks up graffiti shops. My goals for traveling have changed.
The site that many graffiti artists choose to tag are on trains. Even today, many artists tag trains in foreign countries without anyone knowing. During America’s Dark Age, the youth in the Bronx would graffiti on trains, watch that train pass, and then would say, “That’s my art passing by.” I really want to know what that feeling of watching my art pass by is like. Since I’m not good at running away, I want to try this out when I have a lot of money.
You’ve recently done some T-shirt designs for Kirsh (@kirsh_official). How did that collaboration happen?
Fivebreath: I drew the nickname of someone I know in graffiti style, and that person uploaded it on their Instagram account. The designer saw the image and then contacted me!
What is something new that you learned about yourself recently?
Fivebreath: This is a hard question. I am not a picky person, but recently I was told that I was someone who knows exactly what they like and dislike.
What can we expect from you next?
Fivebreath: I don’t have any large-scaled plans, but I want to continue spending my time the way I am right now, which is to do the things that I like while producing art. Oh, recently I formed a crew known as Metameme with my friend who’s a musician, to get together and collaborate. It’s my goal to set up a party or an exhibit once we’ve settled down to some extent!
You can keep up with Fivebreath by following her on Instagram!