The Korea Herald


Master craftsmen struggle to make ends meet

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 9, 2011 - 19:01

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Substantial support needed to bolster traditional craft industry

Although he has been hammering Korean traditional patterns on metal for nearly half a century, artisan Park Moon-yeol’s life only began looking rosy in 1993, when he figured out the secret of the seven-step lock.

Hearing about the existence of a peculiar Joseon Dynasty lock, he visited a folk museum in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, to take a look. It was tucked away in the back of the museum and the owner prohibited him from taking photos or sketching it. He could only stare at it for several minutes. After shutting himself up in his studio for four days, he figured out the secret. He was that desperate: Working as an impoverished metal craft artisan in Insadong, he needed a change in his life.

“There are only about 10 with the skill of engraving patterns on metal. But it is not difficult ― it takes about five years for one to learn. The problem is that it is hard to make a living doing it because it cannot be sold as an individual product but only as a part of furniture. That is why I searched all over the nation for something new, and the lock changed my life,” Park told The Korea Herald. 
Metalwork artisan Park Moon-yeol hammers traditional patterns onto metal at his studio in Byeokje, Gyeonggi Province. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald) Metalwork artisan Park Moon-yeol hammers traditional patterns onto metal at his studio in Byeokje, Gyeonggi Province. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

Being the only person in the country who can make the complex and exquisitely patterned lock, Park was awarded a prize at the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition in 1993 and was designated Intangible Cultural Property No. 64 seven years later. His acclaim has brought him a better life with opportunities such as repairing metal parts on treasured monuments such as Gwanghwamun.

Park’s career turnaround is a successful case. Life is not easy for master craftsmen in South Korea no matter how extraordinary their skills. Among the some 180 Intangible Cultural Properties, about 30 percent can hardly make ends meet.

“Demand significantly decreased ever since cheap Chinese products began to be imported. I heard that some of them are imported illegally, and some with very low tariffs. Naturally, artisans here suffer as a result,” said Yu Bae-geun, a hanji screen artisan and Intangible Cultural Property No. 31.

Consumers are not willing to buy the works not only because they have no interest in them but in some cases also because the crafts are too expensive due to pricy materials. Many artisans therefore are seeking to make changes to their professions, like Park, or even switching careers.

Kim Si-chul, one of the few who are able to perform “hwagakjang,” a technique used to grind cow’s horns as thin as paper and paint patterns on them, became a taxi driver seven years ago.

The former-engraver sold goods to a Korean antique furniture shop in Itaewon for nearly 25 years but could not make a living out of it.

“It takes long to finish one, the cow horns are expensive and rare, and moreover, the furniture was not popular. There are only about five experts left in the domain including three Intangible Cultural Properties. I’m sure that all of them are having a hard time supporting themselves,” said Kim.

“I earn better, and I am much more satisfied with my life now. I should have quit earlier. If I had devoted half my life to something else rather than hwagakjang, I could have earned much more money.”

Intangible Cultural Properties receive 1.3 million won per month at most in government support to pass on their skills to trainees. But the amount is not sufficient to support oneself, let alone pass on the skills.

Cho Dae-yong, a bamboo screen artisan and Intangible Cultural Property No. 114, for example, is teaching his son his skills but has no intention of forcing his son to succeed him. Cho is currently also running a dry cleaning shop to make a living.

The Cultural Heritage Administration pointed out that the purpose of the support fund is not to cover the artisans’ living expenses, as how most artisans regard it, but to help them pass down their skills.

“We currently have no regulation for supporting their living expenses. The support fund to transmit their skills, though, was frozen at the current level in 2004, so their argument that it is insufficient in that sense is true. We demanded an increase of the budget this year,” said Hwang Gwon-sun, an official at the Cultural Heritage Administration.

Insiders say that it is important for the government to give more realistic support to the artisans, and the public to show interest in waning traditional culture.

“Truthfully, exhibitions don’t help that much unless they are held by prestigious museums. The most effective solution right now is more substantial support from the government,” said Yu.

By Park Min-young (