[Herald Interview] Webtoonist mocks hierarchy of Korean workplace

By Rumy Doo

Artist Yang Kyung-soo hopes his pictures will contribute to fairer, more reasonable office culture

  • Published : Oct 20, 2016 - 17:20
  • Updated : Oct 20, 2016 - 20:39

A scene from artist Yang Kyung-soo’s webtoon series depicts a senior executive and several junior employees engaged in seemingly amicable conversation. The executive cheerily tells his department members, “They say there’s a crazy person in every team, but there isn’t in ours!” The employees, smiling politely, think to themselves, “It’s you.”

Such single-frame webtoons, uploaded regularly on Yang’s Instagram handle “yangchikii,” have gained a popular following among Korean office workers.

Each post captures the unique hierarchy of the typical Korean workplace: Executives demand unquestioning obedience and endless hours of work from employees, and male officials subtly infantilize their female counterparts, while all workers dream of one day quitting. Some of Yang’s characters wallow in their misery; others talk back to their bosses, dealing a refreshing blow.

The pictures are receiving thousands of “likes” and comments on social media, with people remarking how relatable and vicariously satisfying the scenes are.

“This is exactly what happens in my office, too,” one comment reads. Others say, “This is so true, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” and “The sad truth is, I could never talk back like this in reality.”
A senior executive (left), while browsing through a fishing magazine, tells his junior, “What a great multitasker you are, working and chatting on messenger at the same time. So talented.” The junior employee replies with feigned politeness, “Speak for yourself.” (Yang Kyung-soo)
A senior executive (center) brags about his son during an office lunch. The junior employees are thinking, “No one asked.” The caption on the upper right corner reads, “My precious lunchtime is filled with stories of your precious son.” (Yang Kyung-soo)

In something of a twist, the 33-year-old artist himself has never actually been subjected to the stress of the workplace. After graduating from Chugye University for the Arts where he majored in Western art, Yang pursued many creative ventures -- beauty accessories, interior design and mural painting, among others. His works of modern Buddhist art are currently on display at Amsterdam’s Museum Volkenkunde until next January.

“I know I wouldn’t be able to speak up as boldly as my characters if I were an office worker,” Yang said during an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday at a cafe near his studio in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul.

“I can’t even tell my upstairs neighbors to keep the noise down -- I don’t like confrontation,” he said. “The whole point of my pictures is to say what you can’t in real life. I think that’s why people like them.”

Artist Yang Kyung-soo, whose webtoons on workplace hierarchy in Korea have soared in popularity, poses for a photo in Yeonhui-dong, northwestern Seoul on Wednesday. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Despite his lack of firsthand experience, Yang says he finds plenty of inspiration in his friends, who offer unlimited troves of outrageous office stories. Their most common complaints, he says, are about senior executives’ infuriating attitude of “your achievements are my achievements, but my mistakes are your mistakes” toward junior employees.

Though Yang started sketching the webtoons for fun, he now feels a sense of purpose, he says.

“As more and more people respond, I’ve begun to think how great it would be if my work could contribute to a healthier workplace in Korea,” he said. “This top-down culture where seniority overrides everything, where people have to endure verbal abuse for the smallest of reasons ... it’s an awful culture.”

Yang says though he sometimes fears the young generation, too, may inherit the hierarchical practices, he remains optimistic that “things will get better.”

“Millennials are really going through a tough time these days,” he said. “Really. I think that has strengthened their motivation for real change.”

A senior executive (far left) says, “They say there’s a crazy person in every team, but there isn’t in ours!” The junior employees smile respectfully while thinking, “It’s you.” (Yang Kyung-soo)
A male senior executive (left) touches a female employee’s arm, saying, “You’re like my daughter. Tell me if anything bothers you.” The female employee replies, “But you only have two sons,” while thinking, “You’re what’s bothering me.” (Yang Kyung-soo)

With his pictures’ explosive popularity, Yang has been getting countless requests for ad deals. He has never been so busy before, he says. “I guess it’s ironic that I pursued the creative life to not be stressed out by work, but that I’m drowning in work these days.”

Even so, Yang is happier than ever for the simple reason that his work is earning him money.

“I don’t like the idea that art has to be this unapproachable thing with deep meanings that ordinary people can’t understand,” he said, “If people relate to it, that should increase the value of your art!”

In the future, Yang plans to launch a multi-channel network where artists from different fields can collaborate on various projects. Having previously worked with rappers like Baechigi on their album cover art, Yang witnessed that both profit and audience enjoyment can be maximized through team efforts.

And within his clan of creators, Yang adds, he will make sure that everyone is treated equally. “People tend to confuse good leadership with authoritarianism. I want to be a good leader, not an authoritarian one.”

By Rumy Doo (