Artists of Theory – Pep Kim
Interview by Isaac McKay-Randozzi
Portrait by Koki Sato
For some subject of this interview might be as unfamiliar to you as an elephant wrench. While he’s not an illusive individual akin to Daniel Harold Stuart, there is an air of mystery about him. Why wouldn’t he give his full name when asked? Why is his nickname related to sweet caffeinated beverage? Does it belie an undercurrent of torrential rage that boils over into a Tasmanian Devil like tempest? Is he running from his past? Perhaps the Korean mafia? Not really, he’s a very nice person with a passion for what he does and a distinct style and a mastery of light and lens. His client list is both impressive and diverse including photography and film direction, from editorial to advertising. He is a man of vision and his one of the few that can adapt to different stylistic needs of the client and project while retaining touches that make it a Pep Kim piece. But how did he get to Brooklyn? A letter and some family direction helped to push him onto the streets of New York where his skills put him in the position to assist in creating the most recent chapters in the Static series and some of Hopps early imagery. For a while he was running around the streets of NYC documenting the smooth stylings of Aaron Herrington and others on a daily and nightly basis. His attention then turned to the world of fabrics and socks when he and Mr. Herrington decided to form up like a two-man Voltron and create the clothing company, Chrystie. A brand of complicated simplicity grounded in stoke and style. What follows are some photographs selected by Mr. Kim that highlight the subtle fleeting moments in our shared activity. Moments of laughter, exertion and pause that make a session with friends or alone – special.
When did you start skating and how were you introduced to it in South Korea?
It was winter 1996. When I was 15. We already had stores that was selling skateboards in Korea but I had never seen modernized shapes until I first saw this cheesy TV commercial. I spent days and nights to figure out what it is and where to buy it. I purchased Prime astronaut graphic deck, Gullwing trucks and 53mm Prime wheels for the first complete I believe.
What came first, soccer or skating?
Soccer. But it wasn’t anything serious. I wasn’t good at it either that time. I just loved kicking the ball around and even I dribbled around in the street everywhere. But like I said, as the soccer culture wasn’t as big as what it has been in Europe or Latin America so I never took it too seriously. Then I got into BMX. There was no place to learn how to do bunny-hop and all that but I just loved riding BMX fast in the street. Like jumping down curb and hopping back up.
Is Pep short for something?
My nickname, Pepsi. Everyone has a dumb story about their nicknames, no?
When did the camera become a part of your life?
I shot and collaged “The Great Wall” in Beijing with a Kodak point and shoot camera in 1993 or 1994. Then I started shooting photos more seriously from 2000. My dad had this Yashica camera and he never used it anymore so I took it and started shooting my friends skating at a local spot. I was lucky enough to test this zoom teleport lens that my dad gave me with the camera and it made photography way more interesting to me. You know, in the beginning you always wanna try something new and seeing objects thru this long lens was pretty epic. Because you already knew right timings of skateboarding from magazines like TWS and Thrasher. Then you just put your subject at the right position in the frame and shoot with the widest aperture. It was still the time period before the big secret of photography portal got opened up by youtube, google. So just using long/fisheye lens made you kinda feel so professional and special.
Mark Suciu, Cooper Union, NYC, 2018
What’s your go to skate camera rig right now?
A basic digital set, Nikon F3, Leica CL, Nizo 801.
Which do you prefer; going out and capturing the moment or doing the editing and creating the vibe in the edit?
Going out. You can feel much more freedom.
I’m def a field guy.
Would it be fare to say photography became your life?
Dunno. I’m not really a full time photo dude anymore so whatever people call me, I don’t mind. So not sure if it’s my life. But I’m still working on a few projects pretty seriously.
You came to study photography but you could have done that anywhere, what was it about NYC that drew you?
That’s true. In fact, I was actually gonna move to Berlin. Then I got this letter from ICP(International Center of Photography) in NYC. I was pretty attracted by the lifestyle and city of Berlin so I hesitated for a bit but my family encouraged me to move to “The best city in the world”. The concept of “The best city in the world” is very relative but it definitely was the right decision to move to NY for me.
How soon after moving there did you start photographing skating?
I already had been photographing skateboarding. Actually I was losing my interest shooting skateboarding around the time I moved to NY then Jerry (Mraz) showed me a lot of DIY spots he built and introduced me to Josh (Stewart) while he was working on Static 4 & 5 intensely. Then Josh one day invited me to a session with Quim. I think, Quim was one of very few mysterious and charismatic people who made New York very New York. The way he got dressed, he cruised in the street doing nollie flips so casually. You know what I mean?
It was the day I shot his ollie photo at the Astor Place. Rolling with him in the street of New York was like time traveling back to mid 90s to me.
Then Josh started inviting me more often then I started shooting photos with a lot of Static guys specially Jahmal (Williams). That’s how I started working for Hopps for a few years.
Josh Stewart, NYC, 2017
How was it working with what some might call the underground skater’s skater. Jahmal’s style on board, in art and with Hopps is something truly unique.
It was great time because Jahmal respects and fully trusts my style and work. As you can’t never tell skaters what or how to skate, skaters also should trust media people who they choose to work with.
Then Jahmal told me to go meet Joel one day to shoot photos around in the city. Joel is a person with completely different style than Jahmal’s. They both are very spontaneous but Joel’s like a skate demon from the toughest hell. The day was absolutely epic.
Steve, Brian, Dustin, Keith they are all fucking genuinely amazing dudes.
Jahmal Williams, NYC, 2017
Joel Meinholz, NYC, 2019
You have been in NYC for a decade now, do you consider yourself a New Yorker?
I don’t think so. I really don’t care about being a “New Yorker”. I think it’s kinda funny concept of defining individuals. Don’t get me wrong. I have so much respect to all the real New York guys. Like Bici for example. He’s an amazing skater, really great and fun dude to hang out with. He’s the real “New Yorker” for sure. And in my soccer team, Kang who is 69 years old Chinese guy who actively plays more often than anyone. He’s the fucking New York guy to me. You know?
So I’m not sure what makes you feel certain dudes New York guys.
I just can’t stand people calling themselves “New Yorker” after living here just for a couple of years. But whatever. At the end you can call yourself however you want to.
Here’s funny story though. I had never had a chance to skate at The Banks because when I moved to here, it had been just shut down. After that, I always thought I would never be able to consider myself a New York skater since I never tasted The Banks. You know? Then at one point people broke in and started skating again. (I think it was around 2016.) I saw it first on Instagram when I was in Seoul for a skate trip. I was bugged. I wanted to go back to NY so bad just to be there. Luckily it was still open and skatable when I got back. The first thing I did right next day I came back was sneaking in to the spot.
Mark Suciu, Brooklyn Banks, 2017
At the moment, what do you enjoy more - photography or video work?
I like both.
We all have people that have inspired our work, is there a single person or an artistic movement that you have drawn from over the years?
Donny Barley’s push, Philip Perkis’ photography, Jean Prouve’s furniture, Bruno Munari’s work, Playing football…..
When you think of skate photos that made an impression on you - why?
I guess it’s because we all understand it so well? One time I showed a skate magazine to my friend to make him understand how amazing skateboarding is. He flipped thru the mag dozens of pages then “They look all the same.” I thought he was so lame first time. But if you don’t understand skateboarding and seeing these photos shot with fish-eye & 2 or 3 flashes at the same position must feel fucking boring.
We can be inspired by people but how well can it be seen in our work?
It’s hard I guess cause we can’t really control our subconsciousness.
A Kid, Tom & Ryan, NYC, 2018
How much of your time is devoted to Chrystie during a given week?
It’s pretty much full time for now. I can’t describe too much how the brand is being operated, but I am involved in most steps.
Your partner went through some issues with alcohol, did that effect your relationship with him? How did it effect the company?
Not at all. Not really.
I was just sad cause I had to let one of my bar buddies go. Haha. Nah I was definitely happy cause he made the right choice for himself. Still to this day, I don’t know if he really was an alcoholic, but if he thought he was and he made the right choice for himself, that’s really all that matters.
Everyone has their own struggle. He had his and he exactly knew how to handle it. I’m proud of him.
It never affected the brand at all.
Aaron Herrington, Andy Komos, George Hemp, The BX, 2019
You worked with Josh Stewart on Static IV/V and now, over eight years later Theories distributes your brand. How has your relationship grown over the years?
Josh is one of the most amazing people in the entire skate world. He probably would deny it but I learned so much of street/skate disciplines from him. Also his commitment to skateboarding is incredible. Without Static 4 & 5, I would have not been able to be where I am right now.
As for the relationship between TOA and Chrystie, if I didn’t prove myself at least as a photographer, he probably wouldn’t have started helping me out.
A hotel room, Seoul, 2017
Chapter 1 was a full length and Chapter 2 was a trip to Spain, you’ve twisted what some might have expected from the linear format. Can you give us a glimpse into what we might not expect in Chapter 3?
I still would not call Chapter 1 full length video. It was long enough to put our creativity and energy to show who we are and what our direction is but we had to put it out after working in such a short amount of time. Of course, Aaron had been filming a lot already. He always does. But Kaue joined the team in the middle of the project and John (Baragwanath) has been working on a VX part with Josh so he didn’t have many HD clips.
But everything worked out very very organically with all contributors. Shane always is filming with Grayson, Lee from CONS helped us a lot by contributing Kaue’s footages.
I really would like to appreciate again all the contributors.
As for Chapter 2, we were going to title it differently but the trip meant a lot to us because it was our first oversea trip with almost the whole squad all together. So it ended up gaining its own meaning in it.
For the next project, we are still working on the concept and etc but it’s going to be a full length video with more creativity involved.
The HD in Chapter 2 seemed extra bright, clear and in some ways stark. The mixture of lo-fi high 8 film seemed to offset the HD, was that contrast intentional?
I didn’t spent much time on the post production process so I’m not sure how it felt that way. But you might have felt that because of the big yellow bold typography.
Chris Jones & Casper Brooker, NYC, 2017
You’ve done work for big corporations and DIY skate companies. Is there a moral balance between the two? Does one fund the other? Does it matter in this blip of what we call life when our kids are hungry?
I’m not full time commercial photographer so I’m not sure if there was any moment I needed to balance my morality but I don’t think working for big corporations is always morally bad. Who decides if it’s good or bad?
It maybe is slightly different subject but when citibike was introduced first time, I remember there was people disgusted by it’s branding on the bike. But when you see the bright side of it, I think it’s been working really well in the city as a city transportation for mass people.
Working for corporations gives you opportunities to have a bigger group of staffs for jobs and it really makes you focus on your work and creativity which I think is really great. Working on independent projects is very precious cause at the end it’s your work but sometimes it’s too challenging.
For a fuller view of Pep's commercial and non-commercial work go HERE
Ben Raemers, Brooklyn Bridge, 2018