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Master Choi carves his soul into seals

2012/04/07 | 275 views |  | Permalink | Source

Master craftsman Choi Byung-hun is tracing an outline prior to carving a seal in his Seoul studio./ Korea Times photo by Yun Suh-young

By Yun Suh-young

The act of leaving your trace, a personal mark, requires prudence. Not only because that mark will last forever, but because the mark seals a legal promise.

A seal is more than just a stamp. Out of the many ways of leaving your trace, this one's special, especially when a master craftsman made you the one and only mark in the universe.

There's one who did just that for the past 36 years ― one who carves unique customized seals for each of his clients.

Choi Byung-hun, 62, has been carving seals since 1976 and he is the only craftsman in Korea bestowed with the "master craftsman" status.

He was chosen as the "new intellectual" on seal carving in 1999 and was dubbed the first "master craftsman" in 2001. It took him decades to earn the status and it wasn't easy. He began as a scribe.

"I used to hand-write parliamentary records. Then as typewriters came in, we were out. So I started carving stamps. Thirty years ago, people looked down on craftsmen like me who carved ordinary stamps. When we said we carved doorplates or plates used on buildings, they would treat us well", said Choi.

"But I realized those plates only had one fifth of the functions that stamps had. Now that I'm dubbed the number one master craftsman, the situation is different, but it's that much hard to live as a seal craftsman. The world of stamps is infinite though".

For Choi, carving seals is not simply "work", it's "art".

"From the beginning of my career, I thought this was art and it became certain after a while. Making a stamp requires the process of transferring letters into a single picture. The seals are a picture which is why we cannot say which font is used. There are no 'fonts'. The 'font' used on every seal differs by craftsman and different every time we carve".

Not for everyone

Choi doesn't carve for anyone. Choi only carves seals based on individual face-to-face request. He doesn't take orders by phone so anyone who wants a very personal stamp better visit him in person.

"It's because I want to make a stamp that best matches the person who requested it. If I don't see or meet that person, how can I know how he or she is like? Their character is engraved into the small object. When they choose the material of the stamp, I then suggest a writing style that would best suit that material", said Choi.

Carving a seal isn't a one-way process. It requires interaction.

"The client and I tune the designs through communication. I don't want to make something arbitrarily and have the client dislike it. Then it's meaningless. That's why I take orders from only those who really crave for their own unique seals. I want to bring out the best of them in that little tiny space".

Choi says "the heart" is what matters most to become a master craftsman.

"If heart and soul aren't poured into the work, it can't be called a master craftsman's piece. I must pour in all that I can to compensate for the payment I receive", said Choi.

Because of this artisan spirit and excellent craftsmanship, Choi is famous among peers and among customers who look for unique stamps.

Chairman Lee Kun-hee of Samsung Electronics and his wife Hong Ra-hee, director of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, both had their stamps made by Choi.

Numerous lawmakers including Hong Joon-pyo of the ruling Saenuri Party also had Choi craft their stamps. But the master isn't much fond of the stamps of lawmakers as not many came to him in person to request it.

"The stamps I did for lawmakers were mostly requested by a third person as a gift. So I couldn't make a unique one for each unless they came to me in person. There are some who did, but many more didn't", said Choi.

Unique culture

Choi thinks seals are much like an identity card. Therefore, the new electronic personal identification system the government plans to adopt starting from this December is an unwelcome guest.

"Officials say they're changing the current stamp-based personal identification system to an electronic one because it's more convenient. But stamps are just like credit cards. If you lose it, you just need to report it and register a new one", Choi said. "It's not that cumbersome. But using fingerprints, that's a violation of human rights. It's not different from treating us like criminals".

He said he couldn't understand why we would voluntarily kill our own culture when others try to promote it.

"We started using seals drawn like pictures from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). Japan had the seals adopted later than we did and China didn't use stamps until recently because they didn't have privately-owned property. But I was surprised when China made the logo for Beijing Olympics with a red stamp", Choi said. "If we continue to use the seal system as our unique culture, we could gain competitiveness but I don't see why we try to drop it to follow the global trend".

Choi seemed frustrated at the decision. But after a shrug, he began pouring his heart and soul into another set of masterpiece. Regardless of the worldly trend, Choi's work continues at his other-worldly workshop located in Insu-dong, northern Seoul.

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