Whitehot Magazine

Pictures from a Pandemic: Arthur Kwon Lee


By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, September 2020

Arthur Kwon Lee’s mother, a classical musician, and his father, a scholar, came to the US from Korea. Lee was born in Washington DC, grew up in the academic world and in his late teens launched himself into a double career as an artist and a fighter in Tae Kwondo, a Korean martial art, which specializes in kicks to the head. This double tracking is less unusual than it sounds. The Book of Five Rings, a  text young Lee studied, which was written by the famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, in 1643, described the wandering samurai, the ronin, “That was the ideal martial artist,” Lee says. “And he wrote that to be a complete human being one must practice both the hard and soft arts. They were not just a samurai with no master. They also studied calligraphy, poetry and paintings and utilized the same principles in their combat training as in their art. I do the same.”

Clearly it worked for Lee who says he is “more ballsy than brawny” but won two national medals. At 29 he still fights but not competitively and mostly focusses on his painting. How does his Tae Kwondo training translate into the picture making? 

“I have to use my entire body when painting,” Lee says. “It is like I am fencing with the brush, the gestural mark making conveys a dynamic sensibility that is only doubled by the intense color harmonies. The tension that is experienced on the mat in the dojo is analogous. And the symbolic language I use is exploring the archetype of the warrior on the hero's journey.” Well, like the rest of us, the warrior is now confronting Covid 19. One of his weapons has been the pictorial diary which he keeps up on weekends. Here are two pages. WM


The word FREEDOM, which is written on the head of the central figure, has been turned into a target. He weeps. This is the artist, me. By my side is written LIVE BY THE SWORD, DIE BY THE SWORD, and because of my upbringing in Tae Kwondo this is written on the walls of my dojo. The figure above me to the right, who is eating a pizza and holding a torch he has failed to pass, betrayed me both personally and professionally and has been badmouthing me due to my rejection of his control. The Japanese woman I am romantically involved with is above me to the left. The flag of Japan is next to her. In the center of the page is a herd of sheep wearing masks, which is not to say that wearing masks is bad, it’s just a comment on the power of slanted media coverage. Around the sheep we see multiple drawings of the corona virus. The two winged heads flying around on the bottom left are oblivious to a world on fire.

Arthur Kwon Lee, I LOVE EVERYONE


- I LOVE EVERYONE is written in South Korean on the forehead of the central figure, which is again the artist, me. All round you can see the numberless ways in which an individual can be harmed. The weapons pictured include knives, guns and money. To the right, a woman’s hand tempts with an apple and to the left a serpent and a speech balloon indicate slander. But I am holding a heart in my left hand and another woman’s hand is laid on my chest above my own 

Heart, and the creature that stands protectively in front of my naked body is a Foo Dog, a symbol that stands for family cohesion and the traditions that have been passed from ones elders, a symbol which is powerful in East Asian cultures, such aa South Korea, China, and Japan. And the Foo Dog is most necessary. Below to the left stands a silhouette of Manhattan, a dark and desolate shadow in the time of COVID-19.


Anthony Haden-Guest


Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.




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