A stroke for meaning. A stroke for emotion. A stroke for art. A stroke of a brush breathes soul into words and bestows personality in them. From love, delight, hope to anger, despair, and anguish, emotions beyond the dimension of printed fonts, are captured in calligraphy. Calligraphy is more than words handwritten with a brush in a fancy fashion. It is much more than a hobby or pretty characters. Today, calligraphy has become a form of art, performance, and a marketing strategy. But what exactly is a calligraphist and how can one become one?
▲ Poster of the movie Blood Rain. Calligraphy written by Lee Sang-Hyun. Provided by Daum.
Lee Sang-Hyun pioneered the field of calligraphy in Korea. He constructed a new industry from scratch and contributed greatly in turning calligraphy into an occupation. From a very young age he has always been passionate about traditional Korean calligraphy, Seoyeo. He pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in traditional Korean calligraphy. He has always been mesmerized by the beauty of traditional Korean calligraphy and wanted to share it with the general public.
Lee explained, “I didn’t think of commercializing calligraphy in the first place. Seoyeo is a rather closed genre, so I thought of pushing Seoyeo into the arena of design in order to relate and appeal to the general public better.” He aimed to collaborate with different corporations, such as incorporating calligraphy as a form of design in instant noodle wrappings, on bottles of alcohol, and much more. He said he had visited over 5000 different corporations over a time span of five long years with only his portfolio in hand to present his innovative idea to the world of business.
After five years of arduous struggle, Lee managed to collaborate with different corporations and became an unprecedented success. Once one of his works on a book cover became a bestseller, other corporations and printing companies that had been conservative and skeptical of Lee’s idea opened their doors. From this, he learned that calligraphy could actually become a profitable business.
“My partner and I started the first calligraphy start-up in Korea in 1999. I left the company 11 years ago because I wanted to become an artist, rather than remaining a leader of a corporation,” said Lee. After Lee popularized calligraphy, the term calligraphist, was registered as an occupation in the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s job listings shortly afterwards.
It is not easy to define what a calligraphist really is or what one does. Calligraphists can write logos, titles, and slogans, for private enterprises. Simple writing on packages of drinks or sweets can be transformed by a touch from a professional calligraphist. They are also employed to write titles on movie posters, book covers, and album jackets. Apart from commercial work, calligraphists are artists that not only create fine art, but performers that demonstrate calligraphy on stage.
Nowadays, calligraphists either work as freelancers or work in companies specialized in calligraphy. According to Lee, there are usually calligraphists employed in a graphic or art team of major broadcasting companies. Calligraphy has become a valued skill in the job market, especially in the field of design. “If one has an expertise in calligraphy, it is easier to land a job in designing companies, as companies do not need to outsource or hire subcontractors to do the job,” elaborated, Lee.
Despite the growing importance and rosy prospects in the field of calligraphy, becoming a professional calligraphist is a totally different story. Currently, there are no courses or programs for educating and training calligraphists in Korea. There is not a clear career map that one can follow. Lee emphasized the importance of finding a true mentor, if one is serious about becoming a professional in the field.
“I do not want to suggest that those who want to become calligraphists go to academies just because there is not an official institution that trains calligraphists. Of course, going to academies, as a reference, is not a bad idea, but finding a mentor is the most important step.” He also stressed that thoroughly studying the work of a calligraphist, and trying to understand the calligraphist’s mindset and expression are important factors in determining an appropriate mentor.
Finding a mentor that way would certainly be difficult. “We are even cautious about buying clothing. We go for hours and hours shopping. So why not spend more time to pave a career path. Of course, it would be difficult and time consuming. But having the courage to contact calligraphists and ask them to become a mentor is an inevitable step.” He furthered added that most people are open to students. Thus, there is no reason for hopeful calligraphist to hesitate.
Even after one acquires the necessary skills, a bumpy road lies ahead for fledging calligraphists. “Corporations do not usually like paying royalty fees. In my case, I usually keep the copyright for my own work, but that may be difficult for new calligraphists,” added Lee. “But selling the ownership of one’s work should be considered as an investment for better career opportunities.”
“Having a passion for one’s work is most important in becoming a true calligraphist” said Lee. As Lee, himself bounces between fine art, performance, and commercial work, he also insisted that finding a correct balance between “Having a passion for one’s work is most important in becoming a true calligraphist” said Lee. As Lee, himself bounces between fine art, performance, and commercial work, he also insisted that finding a correct balance between fine art and commercial work is important. Trying to tune in and relate to people from different generations is also an invaluable quality as a calligraphist. One should keep an open mind as calligraphist needs to satisfy the public.
▲ Poster of the Drama Moon Embracing the Sun. Calligraphy written by Lee Sang-Hyun. Provided by MBC.
▲ 2013 Korean Language Textbook. Calligraphy written by Lee Sang-Hyun. Provided by www..interpark.com
Despite the hard and rather vague process of becoming a calligraphist, the market is ever growing. Calligraphy is expanding to not only art and commercial work, but also as a method of healing, and education. For those with strong compassion and courage, and a warm heart to relate to and sympathize with people, becoming a calligraphist would be a challenging, but rewarding path.
▲ Calligraphist Lee Sang-Hyun. Photographed by Jae Hyun Lim.