Photo: Courtesy Brendan Donley CC'15

Graffiti and Memory Games in South Korea

“I’ve taken thousands of pictures, but I can never come back and see Seoul’s walls as they are now.” — Brendan Donley CC’15

This summer, Brendan Donley CC’15 received the Class of 1939 Summer Research Fellowship and the Richmond B. Williams Traveling Fellowship from Columbia, allowing him to travel to South Korea to study the multilingual characteristics of graffiti in the Korean urban context. Below, Donley reflects on his experience abroad and its relationship to memory. 

There’s this thing I always do when some important thing is happening to me — when a semester is ending, when I’m staying in a foreign country, when I go to a funeral, when I’m watching my hometown Chicago Cubs make a playoff run: I try to predict which specific moments will still be kicking around in my memory when I look back months and years later. I’ve been trying to do the same in South Korea this summer, but with about as much success as those Cubbies are having this year (as usual, they’re in last place).

The problem is trying to figure out which moments will stay, and which moments will be lost. It’s hard, because the memories that tend to stick around aren’t always the memories that felt most memorable at the time. I’m sure most people have experienced some of this confusion.

As I see it, there are two ways to approach this guessing game: Method 1 —Sit back and passively try to divine how some vague part of my brain will determine which sounds and images to save and which to scrap; or Method 2 — take vigilant watch over my senses and when something feels like a memory, take the necessary steps to make it a memory. Being a complete junkie for Method 2, I should probably have figured out those necessary steps by now. But I’ve run into some problems. Namely, Method 2 doesn’t work.

Photo: Brendan Donley CC’15Photo: Brendan Donley CC’15

I know because I tried it out when I was here in Korea last summer, living in a shared apartment with two other foreign students while studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul. When I stepped off the plane the first day I told myself, “Remember this. Don’t forget it!”  And when I first walked into the apartment and met the landlord I thought, “This is it! This is one of your memories!”  One year later, it turns out I was a bit too optimistic about that Method 2 business, as the only two things I remember from that first week are the bad first impression I left on my roommate when I asked if she’d seen my missing shoes, and the unapologetic email I read the next day from my landlord telling me she had thrown them out with the trash.

Maybe I was too flustered in those moments to tell myself, “Remember this!” Or maybe they seemed too insignificant at the time to even think of telling myself that. But somehow, they’re the memories I’m left with. Through all of this I seem to be completely powerless in what gets picked to be saved as a memory and what doesn’t.

This year is my second attempt. I’m back in Korea again, studying graffiti after receiving the Class of 1939 Summer Research Fellowship and the Richmond B. Williams Traveling Fellowship from Columbia. As a side project, I am investigating whether I can improve my memory game. So I've decided to switch it up and go with the more passive route of Method 1. Instead of vainly trying to force the great moments of this year’s trip into becoming long-term memories, I have instead been taking it easy, feeling out all the potential candidates. So when I see a grown man and woman fist-fighting outside my window at 1 a.m. on a weeknight in July (true story), I think, “Could this be a memory?” Or when a nice (but wrinkly) old man sidles up next to me in a public bath and spins yarns about his trip to Niagara Falls in the ’80s, I wonder, “How about this?” I’m tempted to etch these moments into a journal, to pick which ones I’ll carry on with me, but this time I’m just going to let them be. The hope is that the important memories will find their way to the top.

Photo: Brendan Donley CC’15Photo: Brendan Donley CC’15

I’ve also tried categorizing these memories, thinking that the power of a group of memories might help them stick around longer than any single one would on its own. For example, one group of memories is my research days. On at least 20 afternoons I have walked with my camera through every square foot of various Seoul neighborhoods looking for graffiti to photograph, sneaking up onto rooftops, meeting graffiti artists, taking pictures of murals on the garage walls of steelworks factories. All of this will eventually contribute to my thesis, which documents and analyzes the linguistic content of graffiti in Korea. On my breaks from researching, I’ve gone running along the Han River, taking in different views of the skyline and riverside flower gardens, struggling to push through the humid Korean air, and realizing that not a single other person in the park was wearing shorts as short as mine. That’s another group of memories.

I have a lot more of these memory groups, but is there one frontrunner, one category of memories that I can be almost certain I will remember? I’m not sure, but if there is, it’s got to be the one I keep thinking about everyday — the conversations I’ve had with strangers. One of the first was in early June, when a man outfitted in full hiking gear came up to me near the entrance to a memorial for Korean independence. He walked over to me, leaned forward with his hands tucked behind his back and said, loudly in English, “Hello!”  I returned the hello, not sure which language to use, and from there he rambled off a string of stories and details about the mountains surrounding Seoul, explaining how to ask about the weather in Korean, and raving for several minutes about the beauty of Columbia’s campus, having seen it on a visit to see his son in New York. This guy’s a little weird, I thought, but will he become a memory?

Later in the trip, two girls came up to me while I took photos of graffiti at a playground, and without my asking, gave me spot-on directions to a nearby alleyway covered in 10-foot high murals and tags that I never would’ve found on my own. And last week I chatted with a storeowner who rung up all my groceries for free in return for holding a 20 minute conversation with him. I was roaming around by myself, speaking Korean, meeting new people in a foreign country — of course I will remember all of that, right?

Photo: Brendan Donley CC’15Photo: Brendan Donley CC’15

A few days before writing this, I came to a turning point. I’d met a man while hiking at a small mountain in Seoul who had a portable radio tied to his belt playing songs by James Brown and Neil Young. I thought to myself, now that’s a guy that knows his music, and better yet, that’s a guy that can become a memory! I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, but I could hear Method 2 knocking at the door again. I needed that memory. “That’s a great song,” I told him, not quite sure if I’d used the correct style of formal Korean. He cracked a smile and began to walk with me, leaping into a conversation about music during which I could understand no more than enough to nod my head and offer concise, barely germane responses back. In a pause between two sentences that I could hardly understand, I remembered what I would’ve done the year before. Make this a memory, I would’ve thought to myself, Don’t let yourself forget this!  Dust off your uniform, Method 2, you’re getting another shot. Quick, take mental notes of everything: his outfit, his radio, songs, accent, his tanned face, cap, hiking boots. Hurry, get home and write it all down! As I think of it now, maybe in writing this whole story down now, I have guaranteed this man and his radio a nice big plot of land in my memory.   

But I’ve been using Method 2 for more than a year now, and I know very well the flaws of trying to consciously will things to become memories. Will it ever work? Probably not. But I hope it can. I’ve taken thousands of pictures, but I can never come back and see Seoul’s walls as they are now. I can never meet the same students I surveyed at Hongik University, and I can never meet a graffiti artist at the exact place and in the middle of painting the exact same mural as I did this summer. But I’m going to keep selling myself the Method 2 sales pitch. I just hope some part of my brain buys it. I can’t afford to forget this stuff.

Brendan Donley CC'15  is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. He hails from Oak Park, Illinois, where he is inevitably bound to return if and when his love for New York ever wears off.

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Published Wednesday September 17, 2014

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