[TEXT] From Street to Studio: When the Senses Extend to Thought

Sookhyun Cho (Exhibition organizer / Art critic)

GR1 is an artist who started from graffiti and street art and is now expanding into pure painting. ‘GR1’ is a compound word formed from GR, a shortened form of ‘Graffiti’, and the number 1. 1 means ‘number one / only one’, which is a sign commonly used by graffiti artists to signify that they are the best. The first time he tried graffiti was his first year of high school in Busan, his hometown. From then until now, his art has expanded through various turning points. Yet his journey as an artist has many interesting turns that cannot be found in those of other artists. 

GR1 graduated from university in Busan and afterwards he worked in the editorial department of a local newspaper in Chicago, USA, while continuing his graffiti. In 2010, he was arrested whilst doing a piece, detained in custody, and tried. During this period, he was helpless, forced to stay up all night in a detention center, but surprisingly, the conclusion he came to as a result of this experience was “I’m doing this at my own risk, so I am going to build my own style from now on.” 

“How can you think about carrying on with graffiti in such a situation? Why is it not an option to quit graffiti?” In response to the critic’s question, he replied with an indecipherable look and said, “It’s just too obvious.” 

GR1’s graffiti has a high-quality style that is differentiated from the common ‘free style’ graffiti. It can also be differentiated from a ‘signature style’ that retains the identity of the graffiti artist. He overlaps several layers of thin pulp paper and uses it as a canvas, and on top of it, he draws a stencil drawing in black and gray tones in advance. He completes the graffiti through a paste-up method of pasting a large-sized poster he has prepared beforehand on the wall. The black and gray tones evoke a Korean context that is differentiated from the graffiti of the West. He chose the paste-up method due to the nature of graffiti art, wherein the artist has to complete a large-sized painting in a short period of time. 

In cultural studies, graffiti/street art is considered a typical subculture. When values, norms, and behaviors within a particular group exhibit certain patterns, they are referred to as a subculture. This subculture usually has a spirit of resistance and is distinct from mainstream culture. Street art is a representative subculture of visual art and culture, as it contrasts the network of salon culture and the spatiality of a white cube. White Cube and salon culture reveal the elitism of mainstream art, while street artists hide their identity in paintings and remain anonymous creators. Existing as an anonymous X instead of having an artist’s seal is a characteristic of graffiti/street artists and illustrates the chaos of this subculture. However, the most interesting thing about GR1’s work is that he tries to create his own voice by break- ing away from the anonymity and collectiveness of street art. Graffiti and street art are largely categorized as a subculture, but some of artists, such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Space Invader, are considered contemporary artists. 

We should note here that they have moved away from the convention of anonymity within the graffiti genre. 

GR1’s work leaves a seal. He insists on the artist’s irreplaceability in terms of both subject and form. Further, he shows a strong desire to express his personal identity and individuality. This cannot but be the characteristic of contemporary artists. It is only in the modern era that art has given the artist the possibility of telling his own story. BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU, which assumed a critical tone against the Park Geun-hye administration at the 2014 Moving Triennale made in Busan, actually has a typical feature of street art – a propagandic message. However, you are bound to come across the ‘GR1 was here’ stickers when walking casually in the back alleys of Yeongdo, an old downtown area in Busan, as well as Hongdae and Itaewon in Seoul (in particular, a back alley at Hongdae is almost plastered with them). This reveals a strong desire to make his presence as an artist known to the world. 

What is interesting is his attempt to expand into the institutional sphere, including his solo exhibition at SOMA (Seoul Olympic Museum of Art), and his entering of a master’s course in painting at Hongik University, and moving into residency at the OCI Museum of Art. GR1’s unique journey is that he started as a street artist and has moved into the realm of the fine arts (from an outsider to an insider), and this arouses strong curiosity for observers. 

GR1 also shows the process of gradually expanding from the senses into thought. This can be traced in form and style. ”41 People who GR1 met” is a 2015 project that depicted in graffiti art 41 people involved in culture (organizers, artists, etc.) in the Busan area. The project has also been published as a resource book. This project is very similar to the process of mainstream art, going beyond the common propagandic narrative of resistance within graffiti art through a series of processes of observing, representing, and recording the people around the artist. It also seems to contain a process of reflecting on and sharing the concerns of young artists and organizers in Korea about the continuity of art. 

GR1’s pure painting is literally a work framed in canvas on the street. What is interesting is the way he understands and applies painting. While he emphasized the object and the subject itself in street murals, his canvas also contains the context of the graffiti art scene, in which he has been passionately active until now. Street graffiti (including the ‘GR1 was here’ stickers), trash cans, ATM machines, the graffiti left at the demolition site at Eulji-ro (2018-2019) and the sites surrounding the redevelopment of the old downtown areas, create an interesting irony where the original of the artist (GR1’s canvas painting) duplicates reality (the outdoor space where GR1’ painted graffiti). The key to his work is to show how the culture and genre of graffiti, which he started in high school, are being spread and absorbed in Korean society. This is a battle between the real and the real, a frame of street art, and the shout of a contemporary artist who tries to prove and record the history and scenes of graffiti art in Korea.