During the new year, I took a quick and spontaneous trip to Seoul to spend some time with family. I noticed during this trip that Seoul has become a giant canvas with colorful and inspiring street art in random corners of the streets. Every bus commute around the city, I turned it into a game of finding different artwork as I peered out the window. One of the pieces that really stood out was a simple tongue that seemed to be all over Seoul. Lucky for me (and you), I was able to meet and interview this street artist, also known as Mr. Tongue.
How did you first get into street art?
I first started in Manhattan, New York with just a marker I bought for 5 bucks. When I first got into street art, I didn’t really have a vision. It was something I enjoyed since I had a graffiti background since middle school. After getting arrested when I was a minor, I kind of started to change my perception of it. I wanted to continue practicing, and I still wanted to do street art, but I was financially short at the time and painting one piece cost me around $30-40 of supplies. In graffiti, there’s no business unless you’re doing murals, but I still wanted to do something street related and, at that time, street art was getting really big (like Shepherd Ferry and London Police).
I started taking it really seriously when I saw my work on Terry Richardson’s blog three times. He found my artwork in random areas of New York and took photos of it. It motivated me, and people started appreciating my artwork. Although I’m in Seoul now, my roots are from New York. There’s a reason New York is the international hub for street artists.
What is it about the streets that appeal to you so much?
The rawness. Every texture is different. Everything is not super clean. Every neighborhood, every country, everywhere is so different. You can go to an art store and buy canvases, but you’re limited ’cause the texture is all the same. Yes, you can make good artwork on canvases, but you’re still working on a familiar surface, whereas on the streets, the shape, the height, the width, the texture is all different. Everything is different. You get to see how much something has been weathered down. I love it–the rawness.
There are nights when I would just carry a backpack full of cans, put my headphones in, and paint over a hundred tongues. I walk for maybe 6-7 hours straight in the middle of the night, and I just keep going until I run out of cans and markers. For me, it gives me so much peace and serenity spiritually, internally, and emotionally.
Graffiti seems controversial since it’s illegal—
how has the reaction been from the community in Korea?
In the beginning, when I first started, no one knew what I was doing. Street art didn’t really exist in Korea, and I was one of the first few. There’s a lot in the States, but not much here. And I’m speaking specifically about street art, not graffiti. Throughout time, it started catching eyes, and people started to take interest in my work. Overall, I would say that the reaction has been good. People have been very supportive.
Why did you choose the tongue as your signature?
I was looking for a logo/image to put up in the streets with the marker that I had which was all I could afford. I was thinking of all these facial expressions because they seemed to express so much with so little. I tried eyes but seemed too common and nose and ears were so limited. Then I looked at lips, but it felt so feminine as well as resembling rolling stones too much. So then I thought about a tongue and I started looking further into it.
The tongue after doing research was one of the strongest muscles in our body and I wanted it to be a strength that I used to express myself. If the tongue gets cut off then you die from bleeding to death because it doesn’t clot and the tongue rolls back. It also represented how without my tongue, there would be no me–I would be killing a part of me.
Without the tongue, you cannot speak and I was using my tongue to speak to the world. Without the tongue, you cannot taste and there’s not a single person in the world who doesn’t like eating, and I wanted people to enjoy life as they enjoy tasting through their tongue. Without the tongue, you cannot make love and in a sense, I’m making love to the world through my tongue. And in the bible, it says that when you receive a certain gift from God, you speak in tongues, and nobody understands except for you and God alone. In a way, the tongue that I use is speaking in tongue for my spiritual aspect and I’m speaking to God through it, and no one will understand. That’s why through a lot of my pieces, there’s a prayer attached to it, especially the canvas works that I do.
In the Bible, it says that the tongue must be held in certain situations and it can be a sword to certain people and situations, and I wanted my tongues to be a source of my wisdom as well as my sword in this cruel and hostile world (of course not a sword to kill and attack and hurt those around me because I know that that’s also what it references to in the Bible when it mentions the tongue).
After figuring those things out, I knew that the tongue was for me and I gained confirmation from the Lord that this was the image I was to pursue during my lifetime.
So, why Mr. Tongue?
One of my favorite artists is named Mr. 44, and he is a good friend of mine. To give him credit and to pay my respects from one artist to another, I put mister in front of my name. I told him, and that’s how Mr. Tongue came about.
Do you know how many tongues you have drawn around Seoul?
I’ve done over a thousand. Not just in Seoul. Some are still here, and some are not. It’s hard to keep track, but I’m including club bathrooms to this number.
In what other countries can we find your artwork?
The US, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and a small piece in Turkey. I want to go to Cambodia next. There is an artist I am hoping to collaborate with. My goal is to have my pictures all over the world.
What does the future look like for Mr.Tongue?
I want to be limitless as an artist and become international. In the future, I want to do gallery shows and exhibitions. Right now, I am working on two for next year in Korea and also trying sculpting and different mediums of artwork. Eventually, I would also like to do collaborations with products.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Mr. 44 and Aaron Kai, both residing in LA, are probably some of my favorites. These two artists are the ones I really follow. However, my main inspiration these days is really prayer. My pieces are all prayers.
I recently made a piece called indigestion that looks like intestines. This one particularly took me a long time because I kept putting it off. Like indigestion, my spiritual life felt stuck. It wasn’t pushing forward, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I decided to paint this piece to challenge myself.
I have another piece called espresso. It may seem very simple, but it’s called espresso because I want God to be my form of energy, not espresso or coffee. I don’t want to have to depend on something else to wake me up. I want God to be the reason I’m woken up.
Do you write about each of your artwork somewhere?
No, I don’t really share the meaning of each piece, but I do write personal letters to all my buyers. I like to share these with my buyers because not only are they buying an artwork from me, but they’re buying a part of my prayer.
I’m not doing it for money. Money usually follows if I’m doing it right. As a Christian artist, I like to share my beliefs even though my buyers may not have the same beliefs. I write that this is my form of expression, and, although they may not have the same beliefs, I thank them for their support. I always share why I started each piece ’cause they have the right to know.
I don’t want people to just see it as an art piece but for people to emotionally and spiritually attach themselves to the piece as a reminder. Possibly even to spark people to question why this artist is devoting his life to this guy dying on the cross.
It’s not easy. I fall so much. I keep telling myself don’t feel guilty because that’s the enemy and God would never hold up any sin against you. But as a human being, that’s so hard. I’ve shared my struggles with many people, but every single time I share, I am reminded of why I’m doing this in the first place.
I think it’s hard to find something you like to do, but it’s always harder to find a way to give up these talents to God.
Although I can not share Mr.Tongue’s identity nor do I know where his next locations are, you can follow him on his Instagram account @mysturtongue
As a travel blogger inspired by art and culture, I am always looking to meet talented people. If you know anyone with a creative and unique story, please feel free to send me a message about them. I would love to share their story.