Life has been tough for many in South Korea’s working class. Long commutes, nonstop pressure to produce and endless job offers make it even harder to find stability in a job. With median wages stagnating and household debt increasing, most people carry what’s called the “parasite” economy — squeezed between stifling debt and poverty in an economy whose wealth and power is controlled by corporations and the rich.
It was such a crisis that led to the demonstrations that exploded in 2012 and brought down the previous president. These demonstrators held back a massive wave of corporate reorganization, breaking open their mouths and screaming “teach us to walk, not money, to eat.”
The most powerful response to the protesters, however, was the most exciting. The country’s government encouraged small groups of artists to engage in “bombardment art,” creating large graffiti-like works of art that spread throughout the city. The groups would stay overnight in public places, buying, for example, a first-floor window for the equivalent of $24 a night to stay in, and systematically hung their art on all floors of the building. This graffiti spread across the entire city with surprising speed and practically no interference.
The artists, called “artists-in-extremis,” put a mark on all the corners of Seoul. They created stencils that covered much of the city in a blanket of black ink that blanketed backyards, buildings, buses, taxis and everything else in the city. The hashtag started to spread online.
The viral spread of their canvas was unprecedented — and unprecedented in its aspect. Almost everybody in Seoul had witnessed the art, through the ephemeral images on their Instagram and on their phones, or from their own direct interactions with the graffiti. Artists were all able to tweet about their time there, and little by little the creativity was passed from one generation to the next, until everyone was seeing the same thing, brought together by shared identities of the city that would usually not talk to each other.
The artists returned to the same spots every night and everyone was able to see the same thing: a canvas of hand stencils of shackles, gates, baskets of fruit, and ropes on the walls. There were no names on them, but it would only take a second to guess who was behind the work.
But when the artists began vandalizing public buildings like courthouses and banks, the law began to catch up. In a case that has developed into a case of, if not “institutionalized” mediaeval harassment, South Korea soon began to respond to “artists-in-extremis” by intimidating and arresting them. It came to a head in 2017. By the end of 2017, the groups that had been “brutally attacked by public security forces,” as the members complain, had all been arrested, and the authorities began to destroy the artworks that were left of the original 25.
So the only forms of criticism left are through street protest and public discussion. But one girl in particular became an important symbol of the city: 13-year-old Chang Ha-neul, who participated in the “bombenstagram” movement, had returned to her hometown and started a school that is run by the government, free of charge, for poor children.
She is one of the few survivors of “bombenstagram.” Shortly after the incident, news spread of the perils of government dominance. At first, social media was used to mock the authorities, until the government saw the power of the individual and retaliated with less force.
Soon, four big municipalities around the city — Incheon, Seongnam, Seoul and Daejeon — began to establish their own sessions for poor children with the aim of creating more stable routes out of their environment.
For Chang Ha-neul and the other children, the district office meetings are a new way of survival. They know they could be picked up at any time and told to leave the city. For Chang, the meetings are her protection, and as a role model she can fight even harder for the next generation.