As far as world-building goes, South Korean illustrator Sungmo Kang has hit the nail on the head. His illustrations are entirely his own, featuring a universe of cotton candy characters embroiled in 90s hip-hop, football fandom, and street fashion. The delinquent doll-headed characters, wearing letterman jackets, Old Skool Vans, and eye gauzes look like they’re always ready to confront you, and have become signature characters throughout Sungmo’s work.
Initially illustrating with physical mediums, Sungmo felt that a lot of the intangible quality of the work was lost during the digitisation process, but today he strives to confront this challenge, creating work which is often digested via a phone or computer screen. “I couldn’t put off the challenge of new media any longer,” Sungmo tells It’s Nice That. “These days, most of my work is done digitally.”
His method of working and conceptualising images is quite unique, somewhat like trying to build models in a 3D rendering software but done entirely in his mind’s eye. “My way of working is to put images one by one in my head like Lego blocks and combine them. Then, I adjust the angle with a camera in my head to take a picture, then record them by hand,” Sungmo says, “it’s a situation that’s actually happening in the head, not abstractly or figuratively.”
In terms of narrative, Sungmo’s work often depicts relatively innocent scenes but they are devoid of anything explicit or coherent. The little details he includes, however, from the body language of the characters, their clothing and accessories suggest that something uglier might be lying underneath, an undercurrent of the anti-social behaviour of a typical teenage rebel.
A recurring subject that reappears across his illustrations is the fictional “Club Puppeko.” Sungmo started featuring these Puppekos – a portmanteau of puppe kopf, the German word for doll head – after a rough period in his own life. “I saw them in vintage shops a few years ago, and I bought them because I liked them so much that I wanted to melt this image into my work,” he says.
Sungmo opens up about this period in his life: “One time, when my self-esteem had fallen to its worst point, I felt that everyone saw me as a weirdo or as a poor man. As a result, I decided to wear these strange masks.” Contrasting the rebellious imagery with this cute doll head serves as a way to connect these dissonant feelings he had. “These characters were created in hope. It’s a comforting process for me and the people who see my art.”
With a visual language influenced by 90s hip-hop, anime, and contemporary street culture, Sungmo is finding out that he is not alone in resonating with the rebellious-but-cute aesthetic that he creates. Creating a tour poster for girl group Red Velvet (which has a cool 10.2 million followers across Instagram and Twitter) last year and making the album art for Jung Daehyung’s first solo project after leaving K-pop band B.A.P gave Sungmo an opportunity to create new worlds through these collaborations. Speaking about the latter’s album cover work, which features an astronaut in a pink spacesuit wearing checkered Vans, Sungmo explains: “The music sales are still unknown, but I personally think I have succeeded in creating my own space image.”