Hi, Jamila here! I wanted to write about my experience preparing for and participating in the Seoul Illustration Fair. It took place during July 6th through 10th of 2023. Everything is in my own words, my thoughts and my personal opinions. With that said, I hope this will give those of you wanting to participate in this exhibition some insight. This is a long read.
The Seoul Illustration Fair (SIF) is a huge exhibition of both Korean and Oversea Artists that takes place during the summer and winter at the Coex (Gangnam, Seoul). There, many artists and companies (print services, art suppliers, merch manufacturers, etc.) display their artwork and merchandise for sale. All art mediums seem to be welcome to participate. I'm not sure about AI generated images.
I follow SIF's Instagram. The Korean language one seems to be the most active, although there is also an English language Instagram. Last year, I had notifications on to follow when they posted about application openings. An art portfolio is needed when applying. A website or Instagram profile displaying your artwork is fine for submitting. Other information is also needed when applying like your art style and art exhibition history. After all that fun application stuff, you can play the waiting game to see if you're accepted or not! Yay!
When applying, the two options were, "Korean Artists" or "Overseas Artists" ("OAs"). I applied as an "OA." Everything was in English, even the back and forth correspondence via email. With the OA title, I had to pay USD fees converted back into Korean Won, which caused a bit of confusion and mistakes later because of the conversion and the need to pay VAT (A&K is a registered Korean business so yay taxes!!). I think there should be another option added for foreign artists already residing in Korea that want to participate. I did suggest that after a fun back and forth email left me frustrated. There's an Exhibitor Kit that SIF sends out to domestic (Korean artists) that can be used for content creation and advertising. In June, one month before the fair, I asked if it were possible for mine to be shipped or picked up but I was told that I would have to wait until SIF (July) to receive it. (Boooo!!!)
I attended last year's SIF v.14 in December 2022. I purchased some cute prints and postcards there. I noticed then that many of the domestic artists, art styles were similar, almost the same. Most artists, if not all, were selling stationery: sticker sets, memo pads, washi tape, etc. One of the requirements to have a booth at SIF is to display your artwork on the booth's walls. As long as there is displayed artwork, what the artist sells is okay but it has to be what the artist mentioned in their application and be within SIF's requirements. So, it's more of a "goods" fair since it's not limited to artwork.
Anxiety and Kimbap sells merchandise like enamel pins and stickers. Before SIF, I was already selling postcard sized prints. I wanted to offer more art. I had posters, 6x6 prints, 4x4 prints and additional postcards printed. Along with the stickers, enamel pins and keychains I already had in stock, is what I had for sale. I also sold small memo pads.
For advertising, since I live in Korea, I promoted my participation on Facebook, Instagram and by word of mouth. SIF also offered ways for artists to promote by submitting a form to be displayed on the official website and editing pictures for their main Instagram with "Oh My Goods" and "Oh My Drawings". I also had free mobile vouchers that I used for friends and as giveaway prizes on Instagram. I mentioned before how there is an English language Instagram account. I wholeheartedly believe it is being underutilized. That account could be used to promote the OAs better.
In preparation for SIF, I found three part-time booth helpers. I had a friend also help out. This was my first big exhibition. I am used to small markets but last December, I experienced my first swarm, where customers come all at once. When this happened, I was alone trying to service each one. It overwhelmed me to the point that I almost had a panic attack. To prevent that, I planned ahead. I would also recommend having someone around to help with the booth if you plan on participating, just in case you need an extra set of hands or you need to take a break.
For my booth, I used the company Foursome to print and place my wall sticker. Communication with them was very easy and if I were to participate in another exhibition, I would use them again. On the day that artists and exhibitors were allowed to setup, Foursome came and applied my wall sticker without me there. They also moved my tables for me since there was a mistake and they were placed at another booth. I received pictures of my booth's wall before I arrived showing that they were completed. A+ service, really!
I arrived the day before the fair, on July 5th to setup. With the help from a friend, we taped prints, posters and stickers to the booth's wall to be within SIF's art display guidelines. I had a M sized corner booth which is supposed to have more space. On the application, you can apply for a corner booth but it isn't guaranteed that you will get it. Corner booths also cost more. In retrospect, I needed a bigger booth for the stuff I had. Everything felt very cramped in the space I was in and on the tables to the point it looked messy.
While reading this, please remember that these are my personal thoughts and opinions. Before I start, here is a different perspective from Kama Arts, an OA that also participated at SIFv15. Opening day was July 6th, I was in the OAs section, which was a long aisle full of artists from different countries. The start of the day was slow and full of Korean supporters using that section as a shortcut. Why? Because every other section was full of people and that section wasn't. People would breeze through or stop to look at their map to see which booth was their next destination. This went on everyday. There were people that walked by saying "oh, just foreign artists" in Korean without even looking at the booths. This annoyed me. To get people to stop, some artists started to offer live portrait drawings at discounted prices. There were also comments about art being "too expensive" in Korean at an exhibition for art goods. This is because they are used to undersold stationery goods or big companies underselling. I will state that I did break even on the second day of the fair and that I did make profit. Other artists in the OAs section weren't as lucky. Honestly, it was not fair. Especially for the amount of money they all spent to be in Korea to participate. I think SIF should be more aware of this and curate instead of being so segregated. I believe other OAs would have had a fair chance if they were situated near Korean artists that received foot traffic.
Outside the exhibition hall, there were banners about flash photography and recording. It was something like ask before you photograph an artists work and that the artist could deny you. No one cared about those banners. So many people took pictures of me and my booth without talking to me. One person took a lot of pictures of my prints without even taking a business card. It got to the point that I stopped people from picking up my stuff to take pictures. After SIF, I searched the hashtags, my booth number and brand's name. I only found two blogs and one video that showed my booth. Where the other photos are, I have no clue. If you're wary about other people copying your artwork while participating, I would highly recommend posting a notice somewhere on your table about photographs and recordings.
On a more positive note, I gained new supporters and new opportunities afterwards. I got to meet and talk with both KAs and OAs. I had friends and supporters of A&K stop by to support. I did have moments when people would swarm my booth. The booth helpers were a lifesaver! My wall sticker was a huge hit and a lot of people were curious about my brand's name. I received a lot of compliments on my artwork and designs. My top three long-term memory moments I gained were being asked to sign a print, the laughs from a Catholic Nun and the laughs turned tears from a lovely Korean lady. I was also interviewed by a news crew. That was interesting. Like other booths, I did offer freebies for Instagram followers. If I could go back, I would have only gave the freebies to people that bought stuff. Not even a month after SIF, they unfollowed my Instagram. Aha, lesson learned.
While I am thankful for the experience I had participating in SIF, I would probably not participate again. Though, that isn't set in stone. With everything said, it was useful for market research and networking with other artists and companies. If you made it to the end of this very long blog post, thanks! If you're thinking about participating in SIF, I hope you find something helpful here and go in without many expectations. Good luck!