When Kian84 made a cameo as a webtoon artist in the TV drama Today’s Webtoon, it was a nod to his former career as one of Korea’s most popular manhwa artists. Kian84—aka Kim Hee-min—created the wildly popular Naver webtoon Fashion King, published from 2011 to 2013.
The webtoon, which comically portrayed quirky aspects of teen culture, was eventually adapted into a movie, starring Joo Won, which is ironic since it was movies that inspired Kian84 in the first place.
“When I was young I really wanted to produce a movie,” said Kian84. “In order to do that you need lots of investment. Since I couldn’t pursue my dream when I was young I became a webtoon artist. Just drawing art is good, but if you do webtoons you can create a story and it was like producing a movie. I wanted to make my dream into an achievable reality.”
Creating a successful webtoon can be profitable, if it’s published, and especially if it’s adapted into a TV drama or film. However, meeting the punishing schedules required by webtoon publication can easily consume an artist’s life. After finishing a second series, Bokhakwang, Kian84 decided to refocus.
“I was a webtoon artist for 10 years and during those 10 years I never had one day free,” he said. “I was always chasing the deadline. I felt so pressured for 10 years, ensuring the webtoon was done on time, so I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to quit. This is why I began to focus on my art. I am no longer doing webtoons and am concentrating on being an artist only.”
In March of 2022 Kian84 held his first solo exhibit at Superior Gallery in Seoul and he’s preparing to exhibit new work at London’s Saatchi Gallery. The London exhibit runs from Oct. 12 to 16, as part of the StART Art Fair, and will also provide a backdrop for a documentary about Kian84.
The focus of his London exhibit is South Korea’s decreasing fertility rate. In 2021 the average number of children born to a South Korean woman sank to 0.81%.
“I found out that Korea ranks number one in not giving birth to children,” said Kian84. “There’s so much stress involved with raising kids that many young couples are not having kids and that’s a big issue. I realized that I somehow wanted to portray it in my art. So this exhibit is about the current situation in Korea, about having babies. There will be new paintings, drawings that have not previously been exhibited. I don’t know how many pieces I will be able to exhibit but it will be a minimum of four or five.”
StART Art Fair founder David Ciclitira has been fascinated by the Korean art scene for a couple of decades, so he was pleased to arrange this exhibit and help Kian84 achieve global recognition. StART, as its name suggests, is about helping artists starting out in their careers—giving them a global platform to increase exposure—and about helping new collectors start their collections. In 2021 they brought three Korean artists to London.
“The Korean art scene is not new to me—although it is making ‘waves’ internationally now,” said Ciclitira. “In 2009 I started working with emerging Korean artists to showcase their works, both in their country and around the world. I was inspired by their scintillating use of color and innovative take on materials, as well as the way they bring a contemporary perspective to traditional forms.”
Kian84 is not the first Korean webtoon artist to make a move into gallery exhibits. GuiGui, who wrote Man of Passion, recently held an exhibit, as did Joo Ho-min, who produced the hit series Along with the Gods. As more readers enjoy webtoons, it’s inevitable the medium will influence what’s considered desirable in the art world. For Kian84, exhibiting at a prestigious gallery in London seems unreal, especially when he considers the way his career began.
“When I first started drawing the webtoon I lived in a semi-basement, like you saw in Parasite, and I only ate ramen,” he said. “That’s how I started. I was literally a starving artist. To be able to exhibit in London seems like a dream to me. So very luxurious. It still feels like I am dreaming.”
He contends that he’s much happier now that he’s able to concentrate on drawing.
“When you draw a webtoon, you have to draw, you have to tell a story and you have to produce at the same time. So it involves all three and collaboration, but art is just pure art. Now I can concentrate on my art.”
As well as being an artist, Kian84 is also a TV personality. For the past six years he’s been a regular on the Korean reality variety show I Live Alone. On the award-winning show, he and fellow cast members talk to single celebrities about the way they live.
“I was invited as a guest on the program because my cartoon was very popular,” he said. “Lots of people were reading it. I was invited as a special guest and then the public liked me, maybe because I am a regular person, not an actor or a singer, a person that people could relate to. The audience response was so good I became a regular member of the show.”
While he visits the glamorous homes of actors and k-pop stars on I Live Alone, Kian84 remembers exactly how his career began and he’s grateful to those who helped him escape his days in a semi-basement apartment. To show his gratitude he decided to donate the proceeds of his first show—80 million won or about $58,000—to help young people studying art. He figured that without a loyal audience he could never have made it as an artist. So it was important to give back.
“For 10 years my webtoon has been read by young people,” said Kian84. “Because the main source of my income was drawing that comic for young people, I wanted to make sure I was able to help a young generation that wanted to become an artist, to help them realize their dreams.”