Wooil Lee+Hyunkyung Sun

09.23 2015 INTERVIEW DATE

Cartoonists & Illustrators

Yeonhui-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul

Married couple Wooil Lee and Hyunkyung Sun are cartoonists. Pioneering the country’s underground cartoon scene, the couple portrayed an unseen sentiment and delightful nature among pop cartoons, performing their loose and careless drawings. In the days when well-made cartoons were usually about sophistication and handsome-ness, these two proposed a new palette to the market and similar to that, their actual lives lie closer to the sidestream, which illustrates various colors of life. We took a look inside their comic-strip-like-world where the exciting everyday lives are laid out three-dimensionally.

Charyoung Lee

We’ve never seen such a house so occupied with objects as much as yours.

(L) I’m sort of born with a collector’s mind so I love to buy and collect things. But I don’t mean that I collect big things like rare and expensive stuff, I just like the act of collecting whatever it is of my interest. I occasionally find myself thinking ‘How in the world am I to take all these with me when I die?’ But I can’t live a monk’s life you know, so I try to enjoy life the way I want to, when I still can.

 

But Hyunkyung, you revealed your will to lead a minimalist life through your book <Getting Rid of Things One by One Everyday>.

(S) I’m more of a person of the opposite—I don’t buy things very often and I hardly get rid of things. One likes to buy and the other just can’t throw away, so for our 20 years of marriage, we’ve apparently got the whole house invaded with all of our stuff. And at one point I decided that I should be the one to start eliminating some of our things and that kind of made me stop the act of purchasing, all at once. And then I lost all my interest in products and instead when I imagine the things that I would want, it would be untouchable and solid things like ‘islands.’(laugh)

 

What are your recent interests?

(L) Cassette tapes. I like to listen to music with a variety of mediums and apart from CDs and vinyl, cassette tapes came to mind.

 

Why cassette tapes in particular?

(L) Well, it’s a nostalgic call for the days when CDs and cassette tapes co-existed and it’s also like a desire to set myself apart from others. I’ve been collecting and listening to vinyls for a while but then recently, they became hot, more people started to listen to vinyls and this eventually brought the revival of out-of-stock albums. And sadly my rare vinyl collection just lost its meaning and it got me all angry. So I looked for a different medium and eyed cassette tapes as an alternative. Listening to super low quality music in a super hi-fi era is quite an exciting experience, don’t you think?

(S) Boy, he talks so highly about cassette tapes but to me it feels like the trash of this world is headed towards our front door.(laugh)

 

You’ve been living in this place for a decade, it’s adorned with a good layer of your family history and countless objects. How did you start your relationship with this house?

(S) Ten years ago I blindly started to look for houses with a small yard and came across this one. But we didn’t have enough money so we were about to turn away when the owner surprisingly offered to lend us money with no interest. At that time the country limited all citizens to no more than two houses in property so the owner had to quickly get rid of one and so luckily for us, he said it was okay to pay him the balance after our move. So we moved in and completed the payment of our balance half a year later. I couldn’t stop thinking that the house chose us, rather than us choosing the house.

(L) When I peeked through the front gate, I fell in love with the yard at first sight. I loved it so much that I told my wife we should just stay in our old house and not go anywhere else if it wasn’t available for us. The wooden body of the walls stretched out to the ceiling is also incredible. They sure did a fancy job to make it look nice by hand-carving wood to make arched frames above the doors and the whole place remains just the way it was built back in the 1970s. All the folks that previously owned this house maintained the aging only by repair and no re-touchings.

 

We can imagine your lifestyles may have changed a little after moving into this house.

(L+S) The biggest change is that we each got ourselves our own studios. Our first house after our marriage was a two-roomed flat, one was a bedroom and the other was furnished with desks to work as our studio so we literally lived face-to-face all day in that small flat. We did gradually get used to it but as soon as we moved into this house, we were quick to separate our studios.(laugh)

 

Could you tell us about your previous whereabouts in Seoul?

(S) I never left Yeonnam-dong ever since I was born there. My father owned a factory which was located in that neighborhood so I lived there all throughout my life. I even attended Hongik University (which is located close to Yeonnam-dong) so I hadn’t any chance or reason to leave the area. Moreover, we had spent the half portion of our savings for our one-year-long honeymoon and so we started our marriage life very small, in my husband’s bedroom at the house which we shared with my husband’s parents but it turned out to be a bad idea so we left to find ourselves the two-roomed flat which was also located in Yeonnam-dong. I guess for those reasons, Seoul remains as a small-sized place in my memory.

(L) I was born in Yongsan and spent my early childhood in Nokbeon-dong(Eunpyeong-gu) at my grandparent’s. Their house was pretty big and my grandfather, being an entrepreneur, would buy houses next door whenever he earned big money and make connections to all of them, so in the end its shape and structure became pretty weird. It was sort of like a symbol of Korea’s economic growth. After entering Hongik University I started to live near the school.

 

Do you think Seoul, a city where both of you grew up and lived all your lives, has any effect on defining your tastes?

(L+S) We never necessarily thought about the link with Seoul and our tastes but we agree that the diverse cultural contents circled around Hongdae (short for Hongik University, which in this case means the area surrounding Hongik Univ.) have given us impact to some extent. After all, it’s a place where we spent most of our youth, including university years. And it’s where we’ve witnessed every bit of its decade-long turbulence so it’s like our spiritual hometown.

 

From the 1990s you went public with your family’s daily lives through a number of books and your homepage(www.saybonvoyage.com). Nowadays it’s natural to show your personal stories through various online platforms or mass media but back then it was a very rare move. So this makes you the first generation to connect personal stories through mass-media.

(S) There was no intention to it but rather a natural thing to talk about our personal stories because the three of us really did spend most of our days inside the house. Frankly, there was not much else to talk about. All we see whenever we wake up in the mornings was just us ourselves. It was when I got pregnant with our daughter Eunseo when I switched my career to comics from a ceramics major.

(L) I got asked to do a series of comic strips for magazine <Paper> and as I did, I suggested my wife to do a story about our family and so that’s how it all started. It was my wife’s first-ever cartoon, a pure amateur at that time, so it was easy for people to aim at her and criticise for her poor drawings.

 

May we say it was something like carving out a new era of comic strips in effortless and poor drawings?(laugh)

(L) Before the skill and quality of its drawings, a comic strip should lead a good story. There has to be a point where people would want to read more. In that aspect, my wife is much better than me—she has a great talent in extracting episodes that I’d never be able to find myself.

 

Through your book <Wooil Lee & Hyunkyung Sun’s Honeymoon Travels>, which is about your one-year-long honeymoon, you proposed a fresh new kind of life to people.

(S) When we decided to leave on our long honeymoon journey, our mindset was like, ‘We can’t afford to buy a house, so why don’t we go on a long trip instead? Things would turn out one way or the other once we come back.’ We don’t purposely deny to live a normal life. There are a lot of ways to live your life in this world and working for a company after graduating from college and living a so-called ‘standard’ life just wasn’t our thing. Our daughter Eunseo one day declared that she would voluntarily drop out of high school and take the qualification exams later for college and that was when we realized that our way of life had somehow given a gradual impact on her. We weren’t enthusiastic to raise her differently but I think we did sort of assist her in growing into this young woman who’s brave and decisive enough to lead and take responsibility of her very own life. 

(L) We freed ourselves from all that stress that roots from endless competitions, by choosing to live on the other side of the mainstream. For instance, you work for a good company with a nice salary but then at the age of 50 you get fired all of a sudden—how would you start a new life then? But if you’re used to facing all sorts of circumstances and environments from a young age, you slowly learn how to react and cope with a lot of different situations.

 

But then usually there are problems you face financially when you live a life off the mainstream.

(L) Everytime I get asked with the same question, I always say that we’re lucky to be living like this. Majority of the people worry about their lives but I dare say that there’s probably only a handful of those who agonized about life as much as we did. Actually, it all sort of got numb because our worries have become old.

(S) We didn’t start on a rich foundation and this actually enabled us to set ourselves free from concrete worries of our uncertain future, because we were able to learn that life goes on in every possible ways. And life doesn’t work out exactly the way you plan anyway.

 

At some point you disappeared from the mass-media scene so we were curious to know how you were doing.

(L+S) Somewhere along the way, writing about our miscellaneous everyday stories to publish books all became skeptical. And we were sure of our doubts when we left on a trip to Japan to write a book about it, which was a project proposed by a publication company. Extending travel to work is smooth but to travel for work made the whole trip really boring. Touring around and taking pictures to fill the pages were purely just ‘work’ so we ended up putting aside with our book-makings. We’re sort of waiting for the right time when more stories are archived and when we really feel like writing about something.

 

Besides cartoons, Wooil doubles as an illustrator and Hyunkyung as a storybook writer, engaging in publishing authentic, tangible books. Do you ever consider adapting to the digitalized (publication) market?

(L+S) We do feel the constant change of the market firsthand. Even when the classic book market downfalls, usually the children's books still carry a strong group of readers but unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. But we’re not the kind that meets the fast-changing trends and we’ll probably keep on doing things the way we have so far, following our hearts.

 

Could you tell us about your usual day?

(L) It’s easy to think you’d be relaxed all day when you’re staying home but actually, for me it gets really busy. I’ve got to work and also engage with my pastimes. Working at home might seem like loafing around the house most of the time, but I’m able to gear myself up and get my work done quickly, which allowed everyone to understand that I always work to the deadline.(laugh)

 

Is it true that you, Wooil, don’t own a cell phone?     

(L) When I tell people that I don’t have a cell phone, they think it’s an excuse for not letting them know my number but I seriously don’t have one. I did own a Motorola 20 years ago just so that I could look cool, but I gave it to my mother as I left for our honeymoon and never bought one ever since. I don’t have a cell but I do own an ipad. My wife and I are always stuck to each other and we barely go out so I don’t find a reason to own one. So basically I’m a guy who owns a smartphone without the telephone function.

 

A home telephone comes as a big surprise too.

(L) I answer the home phone most of the time. My wife goes out more than I do so she carries a cell phone but constantly forgets where she puts it, so in the end it’s always my wife who calls up on her cell phone most frequently.(laugh)

 

 

The couple temporarily left Seoul to Portland, United States, with their daughter Eunseo. Their daughter’s decision to study abroad was a good excuse for the three of them to experience a new life over in Portland, while continuing their practice and of course, fulfilling their ever-lasting collecting instincts.

 

RECOMMENDED PLACE

Blues House

49 Eoulmadangno, Mapo-gu, Seoul
2 Hapjeong
02-332-2408
18:00~03:00 (Mon-Sun)

“It’s probably the only place we haven’t stopped visiting in Hongdae.”

 

Hongdae is now a place where the couple turned their backs to the unwelcome change of the area, except for the Blues House. It first opened its doors in 1990, which makes it 26 years-old today. Inside there’s an extraordinary wall, packed with countless quantities of blues, jazz and rock genre vinyls and CDs that can play almost every songs that are on request. Its excellent sound system may make everything perfect for those who’d like to enjoy great music while sipping some alcohol. On weekends the place hosts live jazz and blues concerts.