[INTERVIEW] How tattooist-painter's brush with death shaped his creation - Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] How tattooist-painter's brush with death shaped his creation

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Tattooist-painter Oh Si-young, who goes by the alias Yissho, poses at his recent solo exhibition
Tattooist-painter Oh Si-young, who goes by the alias Yissho, poses at his recent solo exhibition "The Soil Sinks into the Water" at BHAK in Yongsan District, Seoul. The exhibition was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Disability Arts and Culture Center. Courtesy of BHAK

By Park Han-sol

For the artist Oh Si-young, the earliest memory of death came at the age of six. One day, during a visit to the workplace of his father, a professor of anatomy, he was briefly left alone in a medical lab filled with human skeletons. Minutes felt like hours. He still remembers the feeling of horror rushing through his tiny body.

"Rather than the sight of the skeletons themselves, I think I was more frightened of the deep, deathly silence that exuded from them," Oh, who goes by the alias Yissho, said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

His second memory of death, which came a decade later, was much more direct ― he fell from the top of an apartment building in Seoul that his family resides in to this day, in an attempt to end his life. After being subject to a months-long hospitalization and a series of surgeries, he was granted a new life, but with the experience forever ingrained in his visibly scarred leg.

"To be honest, it wasn't at all part of the original plan for me to survive the fall. But from the moment I got stuck in the hospital bed to when I burst into tears after finally stepping outside to smell the forest and hear the chirping birds ― that was when I could actually feel the value and meaning of life, even more so than my previous 17 years," he explained. "I think that feeling derived from my human instinct to survive."

"In the end, I don't regret that this happened to me. Those series of moments made me who I am now as a person."

The 29-year-old tattooist-painter's brush with death as well as his philosophical musings on the inevitable end of all human beings have been reflected in his series of paintings at the exhibition "The Soil Sinks into the Water," hosted recently at BHAK in Yongsan District, Seoul.

The show's title comes from "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," which also serves as a core foundation for most of his works on display. The Tibetan Buddhist scripture intends to serve as a guidebook for the dead as it describes the physical procedures of death and helps those souls navigate the journey to either the next rebirth or the state of nirvana.

What Oh decided to focus on in this book was its description about what constitutes a "proper death." Whereas most people are concerned solely with how to lead a "proper life," it fascinated him to think about the opposite in the same way as, he said, "life always coexists with death."

"I found the discussion of the idea of death in Tibetan Buddhism fascinating, but I didn't want to apply this philosophy directly into my life ― like I did in the past at the age of 17 ― and instead portray it in my artworks," he noted.

"(The artist) does not stop at talking about death and its despair, but ultimately goes on to throw up questions about 'surviving' and 'living properly'," art critic Lee Min-hoon writes.



"Three Young Women with Pets" (2021) by Yissho / Courtesy of BHAK

In Oh's paintings, which are his attempts to visualize the unobservable sceneries and landscapes beyond this life, the human figures are painted in a thin layer to indicate their semi-transparent, soul-like state transcending the physical body.

These humans are an intriguing amalgamation of his painting style stemming from his tattoo works and his family photos. He references a variety of postures and expressions he sees in himself, his parents and older sister in the old family albums and transfers them onto canvas in the style of "Irezumi" ― distinct Japanese tattooing style typically associated with the yakuza that was heavily influenced by the "Ukiyo-e" genre popular during the Edo period (1603-1867).

"At my solo exhibition last year, I conveyed the theme of 'memory' through my family photos. It was interesting to see how my memories of them are jumbled and distorted as a series of images without clear borders and influence my thoughts years after their inception," he said.

"I wanted to make this aspect a part of my work. Since then, the pictures of my family have continued to appear in my paintings."

"The Dog-Coordinate" (2021) by Yissho / Courtesy of BHAK

His works on display can then be seen as a visual mix of his life and philosophy ― the idea of death portrayed through images of his past self and family members, using his background as a tattooist.

As a result, in "20?.?.E03," his mother's face appears like the Virgin Mary on the wood frames evoking the image of a coffin, surrounded by sharp tattoo needles, while in "The Dog-Coordinate" the frame of the canvas depicting the afterlife is decorated with an iron plate cut out in the shape of the mountain and rock that appear in "Ukiyo-e" woodblock prints.

In Korea, due to the law that permits only licensed medical professionals to give tattoos, which makes the works of the non-medical tattooists illegal, it is still difficult to see the body art enjoying the same spotlight and social status as fine arts.

"Just like how works of fine art have entered the world of tattoo, I hope to bring tattoo works into the gallery through performances, sculptures or even displaying of the tattooed human body itself," he noted.

"Eventually, what I want to become is a visual artist combining all of my artistic endeavors instead of drawing a line between a tattooist and a painter."

"A Man Chasing a Dragon" (2021) by Yissho / Courtesy of BHAK
박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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