Bridging the gap between downtown cool and uptown style may prove to be a difficult task for many artists, but not Yoon Hyup. With an intricate eye and a brain buzzing with inspiration, he manages to tie together his traditional Korean roots and contemporary cultural influences into each of his harmonious site-specific paintings. We caught Hyup while he was taking a break from painting his latest mural (right here at S’well HQ) and chatted about his artistic process, finding influence from sounds and skate culture, and what “newness” is up next for the artist.
How did you first get started painting? Do you remember your first experience in art? I never thought I would be an artist or some guy who would be talked about or asked to come paint [somewhere], but creation is something natural for me because I’m always motivated to express myself. I started studying art when I was in high school. I studied graphic art because I really wanted to design skateboards. Skateboarding and music were really big parts of my life growing up. In 2001, when I went to college, I met a lot of DJ and musician friends. A DJ crew wanted me to paint live while he performed his set, a mix hip hop, funk, disco, we’d perform all night. That was when I was 23 or 24 years old, and then I met more and more people, they would learn about me and ask me to do more paintings.
Preliminary sketch of the S’well HQ mural.
When did you first move to New York? I first visited New York in 2007, but I’ve lived here since 2010. [Moving here] was really natural because I was really into hip hop and the whole cool culture, like skateboarding, music, and street art and graffiti.
When did people start taking notice of your work? It kind of snowballed, I started in a small town in Seoul, Korea, and then I met more people who liked my work and wanted to collaborate. I’ve collaborated with commercial brands like Nike and Facebook, but it doesn’t mean I’m open to collaborate with everyone. It has to be ‘me’ and it has to feel right to me, so I refuse a lot of brands too. I like doing personal collaborations with my friends and like-minded people and exploring something I’ve never done.
How does music influence your art? My mom wanted me to play the violin, so I played for over 8 years, but I gave it up because I was more into painting. I want my painting to be like music. It’s a little homage to my mom and my childhood. I imagine my paintings as music sometimes. The curve I draw, I imagine like I’m dancing with some kind of music, and the dots represent a rhythm of sound. I listen to a lot of music when I paint, it’s really important.
What is your process for picking the color palette when you start a painting? I think about the layout beforehand, and there are always only 4 colors. The different colors represent different notes, which creates a chord in music. So I always imagine myself as composer of music and pay attention to make 4 colors create harmony.
Usually, the selection of color comes from the Korean primary color, white, black, yellow, blue, red. It’s a traditional color philosophy based on the five cardinal directions: north, east, south, west and the center. This color palette can be found in many things that relate to Korean culture, such as art, dress, and the painting for architecture. I use those colors to pay honor to my roots. I also find other colorways from nature and things around me.
What are the signature elements of your painting? I really think the progression of my painting is really important. Most of my paintings are made freehand. They’re like jazz music where a lot of it is improvisation.
Work in progress: Hyup painting the S’well HQ mural.
What’s the most inspiring city you’ve traveled to? I really have a lot of places, but recently I visited Northern Spain and created a cityscape there. It was so beautiful. One of my favorite places is especially New York. To me, it’s the best city because New York has a lot of diversity and I can see a lot of art and various cultures.
Do you explore any other mediums other than paint? I always want to take a balance from my brush painting and also try new things. One thing I’ve been trying is woodcarving, so it’s kind of like 3-D sculpture. I really like it. I went on vacation to Miami and I looked up and saw a palm tree in the sky. I went back to the hotel right away and had to draw it, then I made it into a painting and then a woodcarving.
Your art has had such an evolution over the years, so what’s next? I think it could be not even painting, but maybe performance or film. I’m open to experimenting. I really want to try recording my music. Sometimes when I don’t paint, I play drums. I want to paint and play music, I’m not sure, I’m still thinking about the ‘newness’.
Putting the final touch, his signature, on the mural at S’well HQ.