The Face Painter of Vagabonds

• Dispatch #3 •

Eumseong, a city in Chungcheongbuk-do, South Korea, hosts a yearly festival for vagabonds.

She cleans her brushes and lays them on the table. One by one, beside the acrylic paints. There is a group of them under white tents, preparing their materials as doctors would their instruments. Her hair is pulled back, and she is wearing overalls to prepare for the mess ahead. Beside her are two young women, each already dressed in what could only be described as artistically patched rags. They have decided that only they can paint their own faces, and so each has a brush expertly lining her eyelids.

I am in line for her together with several Koreans and foreigners. We are in Eumseong, a city in Chungcheongbuk-do in South Korea. In addition to being the hometown of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, this city holds a distinction for holding a Pumba Festival, and has done so for the past 15 years. “Pumba” is not in any way related to The Lion King, a joke you will hear ad nauseum from tour guides. It means “beggar” or “vagabond”. Historically, back when Korea was poor, pumbas would roam the country, doing odd jobs and entertaining to survive.

Like most of us participating in this curious festival, I am already dressed for the occasion. There is a tent with other artistically patched rags made especially for the event, organized on hangers and ready for use. I gear up in a pink tunic with colorful patches for the hobo effect. Trust a Korean festival to make sure people are dressed appropriately, I thought. Over time, I had developed a sort of affection for these “proper” habits of the locals.

Pumba love.
Pumba love. I actually don’t know her.

When it was my turn, the face painter smiles and proceeds to add color to my face, which was pale and cold from the past winter. It is May, and after a prolonged winter, spring had finally arrived. Around me, people are snickering at the hobo masterpiece my face was becoming. One more swipe of the brush, and finally, I am done.

I look in a mirror. I yelp. Immediately, I am reminded of blackface, though I am assured that the intention was to make me look as though I cleaned a chimney. Oh this won’t do at all, I think. I hurriedly wipe off the black parts of the makeup and left the colorful parts behind. There. I think I look like a clown on her first day on the job.

A transformation.
A transformation.

It is fascinating, this celebration of historical poverty. Hey we were poor, and look at us now! There is a parade with people dressed in very colorful costumes, their faces painted much more meticulously than mine. They look more like mimes than beggars. Later I see gakseori, people who perform traditional dances and play musical instruments. There is also a “beggar opera” in an open-air auditorium that was packed with audiences. The stage has a lone singer dressed in rags.

Mime love.
Pumba skit.

Throughout the festival grounds, there are recreations of pumba life, such as straw houses and scarecrows. Cute inflatable cartoon pumba with bugged out eyes and missing teeth advertise the event—or perhaps dental care—to the townspeople. There are some official pumba who are young college-aged kids tasked to act the part. Some act in short mime skits for tourists taking photos, others walk unsteadily on stilts and make balloon animals, and one spirited young woman bangs on traditional Korean drums like there is no one watching. There are people who are dressed for the occasion and as expected, many elderly women come in style.

Stylish ajumma.
Stylish ajumma.
Mimes on a bike.
Mimes on a bike.

In the beginning, I confess I had misgivings, because having lived in and visited developing countries and impoverished areas, I had no inclination to “celebrate” poverty. But I think it’s a reminder of an important part of Korean history, which wasn’t too long ago. After the Korean War, South Korea was one of the poorest countries. But thanks to the industrial sector, the economy was one of the fastest growing in the world from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is now one of the wealthiest nations, with K-pop beats such as Gangnam Style spreading across the globe and breaking Youtube counters, and being played in celebrations such as this. I realized that a pumba festival was more of a joyful occasion that got everyone in the sleepy province together, young and old alike. And like most festivals in Korea, it has to hearken back to something historic. It is a tradition that to me resembles a cross between a mime festival and Mardi Gras. And in a country that celebrates perfect porcelain skin, it was refreshing to see brightly colored faces that were painted to exaggerate imperfections.

Aju-paparazzi.
Aju-paparazzi.

If anything, the most unsettling part of the experience is an army of ajusshi and ajumma who are decked in hiking gear and a few million won’s worth of DSLR cameras, taking photos of the costumed people who were mostly foreigners like me. Apparently, there is a 1-million won prize for the best photograph. I am followed by paparrajusshi all afternoon. They could get quite aggressive and would dive in the strangest positions that I believe yielded the most unflattering shots. I don’t mind so much, since most were friendly. However, I only pose for one. A really old ajumma. I high five her afterwards and she walks away, smiling with glee. I don’t get the impression that women in this country, rich as it may be, have a lot of rights. I hope she wins the prize money.

Down, boy.
Down, boy.

There is something else that drew me to this place, and I suppose it is the term “vagabond”—perhaps used in the English translation because it’s a phonetically nicer sounding term than “beggar” or “hobo”. As a modern vagabond myself, I do kind of relate to this idea of moving around and having to entertain people and struggling to survive. I suppose deep down, there is little difference between that and going around the world as an artist and designer, making work during an art residency for people to see in the hopes of doing another one in another country. I couldn’t help but wonder about my own fate, of whether I could be like the modern South Korean, finally prosperous and settled down, or that I keep going and seeing the world, knowing full well that the world probably won’t change much anyway, but that I would.

Later, when the hot sun and hours of walking reduced the artistry on my face to a dull blur, I decide to wash up and go back to have my face repainted. It is early afternoon, and most of the painters are now on a break. The brushes are scattered on the table and the paint tubes are now closed. I see a young girl on her shift and go over to her. I ask to her to paint me. Something that isn’t racist and won’t cause an international incident, please.

She snaps her fingers and goes happily to work.

I hold up the mirror. She painted me as a cat.

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