Guerilla artist Lee Hyo-yeol speaks to The Korea Herald at his studio in Songpa-gu, Seoul, Dec. 3. (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)
Walking through the bustling streets of Seoul and encountering a rose sprouting from a piece of charcoal, one might wonder, “Is this installation art or a personal message to someone?’ The artist who made the piece says it is both.
Lee Hyo-yeol, 36, better known as Yeol, considers himself a freelance advertiser by day and a guerilla artist by night.
Since 2014, when he made “Flowers Bloom Through Heat,” Lee has worked on over 20 guerilla installation projects in the city.
From the wall that surrounds Deoksugung in central Seoul to Seongsu Bridge in the eastern part of the city, from bus stations to old bar districts, Lee has spread messages of consolation, cheer and appreciation in handwritten notes attached to his installations.
Lee’s “Flowers Bloom Through Heat” is seen near the wall that surrounds Deoksugung, a Joseon-era palace in central Seoul. (Lee Hyo-yeol)
A social media search (in Korean) for “Flowers Bloom Through Heat” brings up thousands of posts with photos of Lee’s projects. Most of the commenters say they have no clue who the artist is but that a random encounter with his work made their day.
“People all want to feel that they are being looked after by someone,” Lee said during an interview with The Korea Herald at his art studio in Songpa-gu, southeastern Seoul. “Such warmth has become harder to deliver especially in the last two years, and my hope is to give people a moment to look around and realize that they are not alone when they happen upon my piece.”
Quiet-spoken, Lee sounded shy when speaking about his thoughts but his eyes fluttered with hope when he talked about his street art.
Lee majored in physical education in college and specialized in soccer. As much as he loved sports, Lee also enjoyed expressing himself through art.
Upon graduation, he landed a job at an advertising agency, but quit in 2013. Although the field was challenging, Lee wanted to spread his creativity outside the boundaries of office buildings and computers. One of his goals was to spread messages of appreciation to blue-collar workers who get little recognition. Lee’s interest gradually expanded to the street art scene, including public installations.
In 2020, Lee initiated a guerilla campaign called “The Way to the Rose,” for which he would drive to a random tollbooth, roll down his window and hand the toll collector a rose with a note that said, “Thank you, always.” He said it broke his heart when he heard about toll collectors being sexually harassed and having coins thrown at them.
“I drove to the tollbooths to show my gratitude and apologize for the drivers who had shown disrespect. Surprised at first, each one I met gave me a big smile within seconds,” he said. Although the term is not yet familiar to most South Koreans, Lee said he wants to be remembered as a “guerilla artist.”
“Guerilla used to be a military term, involving irregular warfare conducting surprise attacks. I like the dissonance of the two words, ‘guerilla’ and ‘art.’ I want my sudden attacks to be done through art, giving joyous surprises to the public.”
Lee’s current project is called “Warm Coat Hangers.” After sunset, Lee installs coat hangers with shopping bags full of puffer jackets or other winter necessities in locations close to where homeless people seek shelter. His handwritten note reads, “Please take what you need.”
Lee’s “Warm Coat Hangers” is seen behind Seoul City Hall. (Lee Hyo-yeol)
“I have been covering all expenses for the projects myself. For this one, I received donations for various winter supplies, which helped me carry out this project swiftly before it gets too cold,” he said.
After the interview, Lee headed to Seoul Station to volunteer as usual for a community soup kitchen project.