ENTERTAINMENT

Art project traces tobacco from seed to cigarette

By Lee Woo-young
  • Published : Sept 14, 2015 - 19:10
  • Updated : Sept 14, 2015 - 19:10
When the Korean government announced the biggest-ever hike in cigarette prices last year, smoker and artist Kim So-cheol and his friends decided to take action: They decided to make cigarettes on their own.

They planted seeds of the two most popular tobacco plants ― Virginia and Burley ― on the rooftop of Kim’s small house in Mapo-gu, western Seoul. In four months, the plants grew as tall as Kim.

“It started as a response to the government’s decision to raise tobacco prices,” Kim told The Korea Herald in an interview last week at his studio.

The artist, who “smokes three to five cigarettes a day,” wanted to demonstrate his opposition against the government, he said. 

Virginia tobacco plants grow on the rooftop of Kim So-cheol’s studio in Mapo-gu, Seoul. Courtesy of the artist

“There is nothing wrong about raising tobacco prices to increase tax revenue. But the problem is that the decision was made to gather more taxes from working-class smokers before they make any move to impose higher taxes on the rich and big corporations,” he said. Kim studied art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S. and majored in printing at Seoul National University.

Following the 2,000 won ($1.70) increase per pack, which took effect on Jan. 1, tobacco prices in Korea rose to 4,500 won on average. The stated purpose of the price hike ― the biggest yet ― was to reduce the country’s smoking rate, but many speculated the primary reason was for the government to increase its tax income.

Many smokers complained and some quit smoking.

But Kim thought of making his protest a fun, participation-based activity. “I imagined it to be like kimjang ― the group kimchi making,” said Kim. 

Participants make cigarettes in the tobacco workshop run by Kim. Courtesy of the artist

Following the recipes he found from books and the Internet, he picked fresh tobacco leaves and cured and aged them in a humid environment at a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. Then, the leaves were left in the shade for two weeks to dry. They were rehydrated and soaked in rum, pressed, ground and roasted until they were ready to be put into cigarette filters.

After several rounds of trial and error, he found the right temperatures and time to draw the best taste. The procedure can take up to two or three weeks. The cost of making a cigarette this way is about 20 won each, Kim said.

Kim finally turned cigarette making into an official public art project. Thanks to financial support from the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, it became an art exhibition titled “The Start is Cigarette.” He is holding cigarette-making workshops on Mondays and Saturdays until Oct. 11.

“Many of the participants are smokers, but there are also nonsmokers who are interested in cigarette making itself,” said Kim.

A participant in her 40s said she has stopped buying cigarettes from the supermarket since the government raised cigarette prices. She buys ready-made tobacco leaves and papers and rolls her own cigarettes.

“There were many people who quit smoking for a political reason, or some people chose to do ‘resistant smoking’ against the government’s decision,” she said during the workshop last week.

Meanwhile, the cigarette price hike has proved to be an effective way to increase tax revenues. According to the Korea Taxpayers Association, cigarette taxes collected during the first half of this year stood at 4.3 trillion won, compared to 3.1 trillion won from the same period last year.

Kim took a survey of participants after the workshop about whether they were willing to continue to participate in the cigarette making.

“I plan to turn this into a cooperative organization. I think the collective action can make a voice against the government and companies,” Kim said.

“It’s an experiment to find out whether the collective voice can have an influence on social issues.”

For more information, contact socheol.k@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/begins.tobacco.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)