Gritty Old Seoul: An Interview With Cartoonist Aaron Cossrow

Seoul’s expat community can trace its lineage back to the Korean War. Highly diverse, the population is a blend of U.S. military, international diplomats, construction laborers, businesspeople, English teachers, and more. The community has a multilayered culture of its own – one that defies lazy generalizations.

Perhaps it is that intangible quality that makes Aaron Cossrows’ cartoons so powerful.

Cossrow is a Philadelphia-trained artist whose dark, gritty renditions of bars, chicken trucks, alleyways, and brothels have become extremely popular on the expat Facebook groups. Sensing his growing popularity, local business owners have even started commissioning him to create paintings of their establishments. His drawings capture the essence of neighborhoods like Itaewon, Kyungridan, and Haebangchon – all hotbeds of expat culture – in a way that words cannot.

I sat down with Cossrow to discover what makes his work resonate with so many people.

How did you end up in Korea?

Well, I graduated in 2008. University of the Arts in Philly. After graduating, my friends were like: “Hey, let’s go teach English in Korea.” I just kind of tagged along...it was either move back in with my parents or go to Korea. But it ended up being great. I had never traveled outside of the United Sates before graduating. And the salary! Two grand a month? Jesus!

We traveled to Japan, Thailand, China, Hong Kong…and we were going to Seoul every weekend to drink and have fun, studying hapkido in the mountains, working out in Hwacheon…I was trying to be real healthy. I only taught like three hours a day. I’m still kind of just living like that, nine years later. I’ve been living in Korea on-and-off since 2008.

Would you say your work is a window into Seoul’s expat community?

I would say my work is a product of where I live and hang out. I live in Itaewon. My Korean isn’t amazing – I speak it a little, but it’s not amazing…my art studio is in Itaewon with my friends. Plus the neighborhood is really dirty. I mean “dirty” as in it’s full of debauchery and alcohol. I like to capture the essence of the scoundrel.

It’s all the little details walking down the street that I like to capture. The lights, designs, the combination of wires, trash, bottles…and of course, the drunk people. I really like scoundrels. Everybody’s bare when they’re drunk. We all share the same flaws; nobody’s really covered up. When people are drunk, there’s no lies. When people are slumming, they just are who they are. When you stop fearing that, it’s liberating. When you’re [at a low point] what else is there to do? You can’t go down any further.

Does that “love of the scoundrel” enter all of your cartoons?

Even if I was drawing a coffee shop with the utmost sobriety, I would still try to find the qualities customers are masking. There’s something about coffee shops I find artificial. The Seoul coffee shop is cut and paste, you know? Everybody’s just trying to fit in to an idea of cleanliness and prosperity. If I were to draw that scene, I would try to unmask that.

It’s the older generation of Koreans and their neighborhoods that makes Seoul unique. Those places have a lived-in quality. Alley markets, old men fixing motorbikes, small restaurants…it makes it relatable and real. Anti-condo. Anti-copy paste coffee shop. Something real. The real grit quality of it – I think that’s what’s important. Capturing that so people can share that experience through the art.

Seoul is the backstreets where you can get a chicken for 4,000 won and spinach for a buck. It’s not the new burger place.

Goblins are a prominent theme in your work. Why?

It started in 2013, after I did a solo adventure in India. Afterwards, I came back to the US, and I started channeling all my feelings about meeting local people into this story.

Actually, I was watching Human Planet; it’s a show that shows different people living in different parts of the world. I was inspired by an episode about Indonesian sperm whale hunters. I drew myself in that world, as a sperm whale hunter.

But in the comic, we meet this whale. Turns out he’s the legendary whale of beach parties, and his name is Bora’groova Ahkinaha.

He leads us to a goblin sitting atop some stairs on a mysterious island. Turns out the goblin is the party liason, and his name is Bloodmaster. I still have that comic on my phone, actually!

There wasn’t any story, though. The goal of the adventure was to get to a beach party. It was just me channeling my feelings about backpacking through India, remembering the people I met.

But I came to Seoul wanting to build myself up as a professional. It’s been a long, difficult mission. I’ve gone through a bunch of art in the last three years – comic journals, trying to write fiction…trying to level up the art. Trying to hone in on the kind of work that targets peoples interest.

It’s only in the past couple months I’ve started to get the hang of it. It’s less of a story and more trying to capture the moment and feel of a particular place.

Your style could be described as gritty, cartoony, and dark. What drew you to portray Seoul in this way?

My style’s evolving. It’s as much of an exercise as a depiction. I try to create the scene and take the art to the next level. As I do that, I’m learning about value, line, form…my work contains a lot of black and heavy line because these are qualities I have to learn. Plus, I think heavy line fits well with Itaewon.

But if I were to draw another place, maybe other parts of art that I’m studying would be reflected in other things. Now I’m studying color. So maybe I’ll choose more colorful environments. When I use Photoshop, I like to use bright palettes, and I think that fits well the neon lights of Itaewon, Tokyo, those sort of places…I like the nightlife.

Would you paint other cities in a similar way?

No. I’ve been here for the last three years straight, and in that time, I’ve tried to develop myself as an artist.The detail, what it means to be there, in that place…there’s something about that feel that people find relatable. It’s all about the relatability. For some people, it’s soju. And that’s fine. Itaewon has a dark vibe, so I’ve tried to capture that. But when the time comes to capture a new place, I’ll have to find the unique feel of that area, too.

What makes Seoul so compelling as a subject?

Drunk ajusshis. I don’t want to focus on the intoxication too much, though, because Korea is the dinner table. Everything is focused around the food. And I love the older generations; I love old Korean men and women. I prefer older people who come from a time was everything wasn’t just given. They came out of the war, and they still value respect. My best experiences in Korea are eating with older men. I’ve heard stories about American planes dropping milk, people being really happy about that...but American planes also destroyed the entire country. So there’s a bit of give and take there.

What corner of Itaewon gives you the most inspiration?

Hooker Hill. Everybody loves it, and I’m no different. Before it was Seoul Pub – I would go there all the time. Seoul Pub is the crossroads of the universe.

I like Seoul Pub because I would never go there and not have a conversation. I hate going out and just feeling alone. When I drink, I want to talk to people, and I can always trust to find someone new.

I just generally like to make a connection with the people I meet, and drawing a portrait or putting them in an illustration is a nice way of doing that. I share a moment with them, and I put them in the comic. If I can make a print or tag them in a post, “You’re drawn in the comic!” It’s a great connection I share with people.

I would draw everybody at the bar, and they would just buy me drinks. You build relationships. That’s my tool to enjoy the world– to capture that beauty that people can also relate to.

”Soju KING” was a name I gave myself when I was drawing portraits every day in Hongdae in 2011. I was on the news a few times for that. I even went into a kimbap place next to my apartment and the lady recognized me from the news! I picked the name “Soju KING” because it was funny and easy to remember.

What do you think about the gentrification of Haebangchon? Is it taking away the gritty edge seen in your work?

Haebangchon is kind of like the English teacher’s San Francisco. A cool place is never gonna stay secret for long. The place is obviously well known now and trendy, so it’s gonna blow up…the people who value something new and unique will move to a new neighborhood. This happens everywhere. It happened in Itaewon. Rent now is astronomical from what it was.

I prefer something new, where people are trailblazing in a new neighborhood where it’s difficult to live. HBC doesn’t have that anymore. Itaewon doesn’t have that anymore. There’s still some essence left, especially on Hooker Hill. But people who were here in the 80s, they talk about fifty girls on each side of the street. I’m not an advocate of prostitution, but you had these madams, and they were the matriarchs of the neighborhood.

What’s your favorite thing about the streets of Seoul?

Wires. Sweet, sweet wires. What is it about wires? That’s humanity trying to make it work. I’ve taken so many pictures of wires – especially wires in the haze. I think we share that same love for the alleyways. There’s a covered marketplace in HBC, I was back there one time…they have some art galleries back there. I love it.

Do you plan to stay in Seoul?

Sure, but I have every intention of being an international artist. It would be great to save money and go place to place.

Seoul has been my headquarters since graduating – a home away from Philly. There is a really great community here and it’s a comfortable environment to develop my art, but there are a million places out there, and I want to try something new. I would like the art to impact a larger community, outside of specific neighborhoods like Itaewon. We’ll see where the road leads.

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