SUWON, South Korea, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- The first time artist Lee Ha was taken into police custody, the officers weren't sure how to process him, or if he had committed a crime. "They were asking each other, 'What should we do with him? According to what law do we charge him?'" says Lee.
The police had apprehended Lee after they found him putting up posters depicting President Lee Myung-bak as Adolph Hitler in Seoul's downtown Jongno area. The posters were quickly pulled down by a passerby and Lee was taken to the local police station, but let go shortly after.
"The whole time I was confident that I had done nothing wrong. It's not my intention to make trouble. I'm an artist and my goal is to capture and document a moment in history," Lee says, looking up from under the winter hat that is nearly pulled over his eyes.
Lee Ha puts up a poster of his work at a Busan bus stop. (Courtesy of Lee Ha)
Lee, 44, has built a reputation for putting up politically provocative art images in public places throughout the country. To some, he is a renegade artist pushing Koreans to confront important questions about public life; to others he is a troublemaker kicking dirt on the reputations of public figures.
He once worked as a political cartoonist and his images retain the satire of that medium. After even a quick glance, it's not hard to see why they might invite trouble. In one case, he depicted Park Geun-hye, currently a presidential candidate from the ruling party, as a kind of geriatric Snow White with a bulbous, oversized head holding an apple with her father and also late President Park Chung-hee's face surrounded by a small heart.
In spring of 2011, Lee did an exhibition in New York called "Pretty Dictators vs. Pretty Leaders" where he used bright colors and cartoonish styles to depict world leaders. The exhibition included an image of U.S. President Barack Obama as a smiling Rambo with an assault rifle and one with Osama Bin Laden tenderly cradling a fluorescent green lamb.
What has gotten him into trouble is his insistence on displaying his work outdoors. Instead of keeping his images inside galleries in well-to-do neighborhoods, Lee prefers to put them up in public. By making his work visible to more people, he hopes to spur a conversation on aspects of Korean society he thinks should be reconsidered.
From left: an image combining the faces of opposition presidential candidate Moon Jae-in and former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo who tried but failed to unify their candidacy; image of general-turned-President Chun Doo-hwan who refuses to pay court-ordered restitution claiming he has no money; former South Korean President Park Chung-hee and ex-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, both now deceased, placed side by side with national flags of opposite Korea behind them. (Courtesy of Lee Ha)
"Korean society is at a kind of crossroads -- we need a new way of doing things. Society is thirsty for honesty and clean government. The fact that my work has drawn so much attention confirms to me that it is what the people want," Lee says.
Not all of the attention drawn by his work has been positive. While posting images that poke fun at politicians isn't technically illegal, there are regulations authorities have pointed to in reining in Lee and his work. In May he was charged with illegal advertising after putting up posters in public, even though there was no product or service mentioned in his images. He has been investigated eight times under Article 93, section 1 of the Public Official Elections Act, which prohibits the dissemination of materials in support or detraction of a candidate 180 days before the vote.
In early November, he was accused by the National Election Commission of seeking to influence the outcome of the presidential election (to be held on Dec. 19). The commission's grievance with Lee was technically accurate: he was trying to influence the election by attracting voters to the liberal opposition, which constitutes a violation of the regulation.
There is a long history in Korea of artists exploring political issues in their work and Lee's art is thematically consistent with the artists who came before him. He was influenced by the "Minjung (people's)" political and populist art movement, which played an important role in Korea's democratization in the 1980s. While similar in theme, Lee's work differs in that it lacks a clear political agenda; Minjung artists directly worked for a multiparty democratic system and Korean reunification.
In light of the rapid development in Korean art and society since that time, those themes have remained in the art world.
"Political art has lost its power. It is still around, but now it's a kind of marketing strategy, a way of attracting attention from curators or the marketplace," says Inha University professor Sung Wan-kyung. "For a young Korean artist to become successful, they have to be political."
Prof. Sung argues that this marketization is a factor in the diluting political art's power. "There is less genuine political resistance: it has become a kind of style," he says. "What is really needed is a sense of real engagement, of a real world view, examining more closely people's views and having compassion with their sentiments and the difficulties of their lives. Political art needs to be reinvented in a diverse way."
Lee's methods are different from the Korean artists that came before him. He uses the new technical tools that artists have at their disposal. His studio in Suwon, a suburb south of Seoul, is not splattered with paint or littered with dirty brushes, but neatly arranged around the desktop computer where he designs his prints.
Lee Ha at his studio in Suwon (Courtesy of Steven Borowiec)
Like most artists, Lee doesn't earn a living from his art. But unlike most artists, that is by choice. "I don't want to sell my talent as if it were a commodity. I don't want to be a part of the system of buying and selling," he says. "In a society, the artists are some of the only people that can speak purely without worrying about an association with a company or some other institution.
"I want to end this situation where art is for rich people, where galleries are places for the rich to go to show off their status. I want to bring art out into the street where it can be enjoyed by everyone."
In 2001, Lee started his own animation firm, but it quickly went out of business. In 2007, he applied to New York University's graduate school of film but was rejected. To support himself financially, he does welding and portraiture. He lives with his younger brother and spends most days at his studio space. He has permanent residency in the U.S. acquired through marriage and travels there regularly to show his work.
Though he has been investigated several times, he has never been convicted of a crime, though he expects he will face jail time eventually. The prospect of being locked up doesn't seem to bother him much.
"If this is a democracy, then I should be able to say whatever I want. I don't really mind going to jail. I'd rather do that than pay a fine," Lee says. "If I have to go in, I'll just draw a picture on the wall of my cell."