Graffiti on the wall of a shop in Itaewon area.
/Photograph by Kim Ji-min
A few days ago, a cat called M.CHAT (also known as Monsieur Chat and Mr. Chat) landed in Korea. Thoma Vuille, a graffiti artist drew the cat on Seoul subway line 6. The M.CHAT doodles intrigued some people’s curiosity at somewhat seemingly boring trains. Also, walking along the alleys of Itaewon, an internationally popular district with foreigners, people can easily notice walls and signboards covered with graffiti. Likewise, graffiti has become common in our society, but problems such as infringing others’ property and damaging cultural assets have been spotted. Since then, a controversy over whether to accept graffiti as artworks or not has arisen.
What is graffiti?
The term graffiti originates from “graffio,” which means a scratch in Italian. Graffiti usually involves using cans of spray paint to make drawings, or “graffiti art,” on public spaces or personal properties. Another name for graffiti is spray-can art. Keith Haring is a prominent graffiti artist who is well known for his techniques of bold lines, vibrant primary colors, and humorous expression. He used his artistic talent to deliver socio-political messages such as changing the perspective for AIDS, and opposing the discrimination of human race.
Thoma Vuille is also famous for his creation of the M.CHAT graphic series, a grinning cat soaring over the roofs of Paris. Especially, Thoma Vuille expressed his philosophy of justice, peace, and equality to the world. Contrary to usual display method, which was generally on the streets or walls, there is an exhibition of M.CHAT drawings.
A poster for the exhibition of M.CHAT at Seoul Arts Center is hung on the wall.
/Photograph by Kim Ji-min
Attitudes toward graffiti change over time
The history of graffiti dates back to 1960, when the minorities started signing their names on the wall in Philadelphia, the United States. As time went by, it became a sub-culture led by the minorities such as Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and rebellious youths in general. They colored texts with spray paint all over the streets and the walls. Graffiti became a huge social issue in the United States. There are still people painting at tourist attractions and personal properties.
However, as time passes by, people’s perspective partially changed towards graffiti. Remarkably, there was a case in which people expressed their enjoyment of graffiti in public spaces. Back in May 2007, Thoma Vuille was caught drawing M.CHAT on the wall of the Paris Chatelet metro station. The Transport Authority of Paris pressed charges against him for his act. However, more than ten thousand people opposed the charge and asserted that a city of art like Paris should not restrict someone in the expression of their art. The Paris court dismissed the charges. Correspondingly, there are some opinions that society should accept graffiti as a form of art.
There are graffiti drawn on the shutter of a shop in Itaewon.
/Photograph by Kim Ji-min
Graffiti causes inconvenience for shopping district and citizens
A somewhat exotic district, Itaewon is famous for its international community. Some visit Itaewon to shop for clothing, while some tourists visit Itaewon to enjoy its unique culture. Graffiti is a small part of it, since it is not widely seen in Korea yet. Some tourists take photos while roaming around the area. Regarding this, Kim A-ram (22), a visitor of Itaewon commented, “The vibe of Itaewon is quite different with the place I am from. The city I lived in does not have exotic atmosphere as Itaewon does. Also, today, I took some pictures to post on Instagram.”
There is a signboard warning people not to paint on the wall at a restaurant of Itaewon.
/Photograph by Kim Ji-min
Contrary to tourists’ reactions, however, the citizens and merchants tell different stories. From trash cans to personal properties, all are covered with graffiti. Some people have had trouble looking at the signboards, since graffiti was painted there, too. In this regard, the neighborhood merchants are asking for a counter-measure against the graffiti artists, as it seems they are the only ones who erase the graffiti. In the case of public matters such as map signboards and parks, the officials of the district are sent to erase them.
Graffiti can harm historical heritage
Last year, artist Terry Jung who damaged the Berlin Wall on display next to Cheonggye Stream became embroiled in a quarrel. The Berlin Wall was a gift from Germany wishing for the two Koreas’ reunification. It had historical meaning in that the wall was an actual segment of the Berlin Wall in 1961. In that meaningful wall, Terry Jung had painted with blue, orange, and pink colors. Also, there was a Korean national flag with the phrase, “SAVE OUR PLANET.” In a post on Instagram, now deleted, he said, “I wanted to deliver the message for the sake of the present and the future of the only divided country on this planet.” Jung-gu Office of Seoul tried to restore the writings on the wall by Germans hoping for the reunification of Germany to their original state. However, since the damage was too severe, they were not able to do so. From the civil trial, Jung-gu Office of Seoul charged him 30 million won. This trial is still ongoing at the Seoul Central District Court. Regarding this, Choi Yoon-hee (Junior, Department of International Trade) commented, “Such happenings should not occur ever again. I hope the city could take special care of preserving writings on the wall so that no one would try to cause damage as the artist Jung did.”
The current regulation is ineffective
According to Chapter 42, Article 366 of Criminal Law, a person who reduces their utility by destroying or damaging another’s property shall be charged by imprisonment for up to three years or by a fine not exceeding seven million won. In this case, people who painted graffiti on the walls of the shops or restaurants of Itaewon without consent could be fined, imprisoned or both. Also, for public properties such as the parks of Itaewon or the Berlin Wall nearby Cheonggye Stream, Chapter 8, Article 141 of Criminal Law would be applied. According to the regulation, which is about the Invalidity of Public Documents and Destruction of Public Goods, a person who destroys structures, vessels, trains, or airplanes, used by public offices, shall be punished by imprisonment for at least one to ten years.
Despite such existence of the law, why are there still a lot of people violating the law? It is due to the low rate of penalty. If a person has done graffiti with permission, then there would be no reason to go to the court. However, most of the graffiti is done surreptitiously or only at the places where there are no surveillance cameras. Sometimes, graffiti is done by foreigners who are hard to be tracked down. With such cases, disciplining the offenders is very rare.
Also, incoherent law is causing the low rate of penalities. Byun Jong-pil, a professor of the College of Law commented, “To be regarded as the crime of property damage, the Supreme Court considers several factors such as the function and the purpose of the property, reported cases of complaints for the property by citizens or users and continuity of the damage. However, following such standard, the crime of property damage might not be applied to the case of graffiti. The violation of the utility is not admitted even though it should be. Of course, there are several doubts whether this standard of judgement is appropriate or not. In fact, there are some people who criticize about this.”
The argument over whether to accept graffiti as a form of art or regard it as vandalism has long been disputed. While there is a movement of viewing graffiti as a new form of art, there still is a perspective that graffiti should be heavily banned and be only limited to one’s own properties.
With ongoing situation, the local governments state that other than erasing graffiti in person, there are no other ways to resolve the issue. While local governments state that the current measures to tackle the problem are lacking now, there could be a way to resolve conflict between citizens and graffiti artists. Currently, in Seoul, the only places that are allowed for graffiti are Han River Parks and Apgujeong Nadeulmok alley. Some people contend that if there are more space to paint graffiti, then there would be less trouble between citizens and artists. With ongoing situation, there is only conflict left between artists and citizens.
Kim Ji-min firstname.lastname@example.org
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