‘As far as I can see, the human species, at least as far I know it, is a violent species. And we’re violent in all different kinds of ways.’1 So proclaimed the art historian and art theorist Esther Pasztory during a 2019 panel discussion at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, in relation to human sacrifice in the culture of the Aztecs. Warfare, whether Eastern, Western, modern or historic, is a history that enthralls precisely due to this inherent—and, at least mostly in the present day, tamed—quality of humanity. The history of violence sheds light on this often unseen, or intentionally forgotten, uncouth nature of civilizations. What it is that differentiates the Old World from the New, in terms of its violence,2 is the ways in which ancient societies that all sprung forth, utilized metallurgy. The ancient Mesoamericans had little use using metal in their weaponry, for instance, as their primary goal was not to kill an enemy, but rather to capture them for sacrifice.3
It was an ancient Eastern civilization that invented gunpowder, specifically the Tang Dynasty—soon leading to gunpowder-fueled war. The history of gunpowder in Europe dates back to about the thirteenth century, just at the end of the High Middle Ages, when the continent was about to undergo the plague.4 Shortly after, the Dukes of Burgundy,5 drastically advanced technology around gunpowder, and thus war.6 Until the invention of gunpowder, war was carried out in other ways; swords; chariots; and many such objects that were vehicles for violence. This timeframe of ancient to mediaeval to early modern, across geographies—dictates subjects in ‘Pixel Historical Warriors’; a series of artworks featuring various cultures. Ancient civilizations and early modern Europe dominate, for now.
Louis Jung (1993) is an Ansan-based artist whose creations span many mediums; though his newest works are minted on the Ethereum blockchain as pixelated images, of warriors. An academic through being immersed in educational environments as a child, as both of his parents were academy administrators; this appreciation of the past recently lead him to devote his time to creating new imagery of humans at battle, from history. The reason this series is pixelated has nothing to do with the CryptoPunks collection of NFTs, or other ‘early-NFT days’ trends—which remain in the minds of many, in 2022, connoted to pixel imagery.7 This series of over 400 works, depicting warriors from 1300 BCE to 1700 CE, are both a pleasure to study, and view. They are each a window and doorway, to worlds far removed in time from our own, which he hopes inspires others to study the past. We spoke about his life, pixelations, and many interests.
Could you talk a bit about your background?
I’m Korean and grew up in the Philippines. I went to university in Canada, at the University of British Columbia. I was an art major though I didn’t finish my studies. I saw people who were graduating and how much they were struggling in their studies, and most artists I know who are ‘artists’—well, they weren’t successful because of their studies. So, I decided to quit and become an artist on my own. I remember thinking to myself: ‘I want to be in the art world; I don’t need to be an art major; so what should I do?’ So, I wanted to switch to studying architecture. But I became engaged on campus, inviting people to speak on various political ideas; I’ve always been rebellious, let’s say. And I brought this spirit to my studies. Everyone around me kept saying I had a strong portfolio. My grades were high, of course. Though I didn’t get into architecture school.
Perhaps that rebelliousness plays into the warrior spirit of your pixel series. When did you return to Korea?
2018. It wasn’t surprising to me; me not getting in. So, I thought ok—fine; there’s no future for me here. I’ll just got do my own thing. So, I moved back to Korea and began teaching. My parents were owners of a large academy in the Philippines, and so I was always at home in academic environments. I hung around there, all the time as a teen. And let’s just say that I often pretended to be older then I was; it’s a third-world thing… but there’s no real form of ID or social security in the Philippines. So I taught there, even though I was too young and wasn’t an actual teacher. It was rather easy to get away with at that time. Anyways, I started professional teaching in Korea after I returned to Canada.
I realized I had all these different interests, around this time, and again asked myself what I wanted to do. I’d always loved history since I was a child—and spent so much time studying. I’d always wanted to make use of it; how could I combine history, and art, in my own way?
Well, you have certainly found an interesting way to combine these two interests of yours—art, and history—without it manifesting in literal ‘art history’, in the, let’s say, traditional sense. Considering your interest in history, when it comes to your pixel series: are you interested in warriors, combat, warfare—or a combination of them all? And can you explain your focus?
I’ve always been fascinated by history, but also business. I love warfare history; military history; the history of ideologies; the history of mechanical engineering. Broad interests, always. And whenever I get really into a topic, historically, I always immersive myself into its history.
Military history is the most popular form of history; at least on the internet. It has the most money streaming through it. Most of what’s on YouTube, history-wise, is military-related. And I knew a lot about military history and realized that I would find an audience for my work with this series. I’m really interested in the history of Southeast Asian architecture, so that’s also why I’m interested in the many cultures from the past that you see in my work. I tend to travel to the meccas in this area of the world, for fun.
The weather conditions in this part of the world are so bizarre; humid and hot and raining and then not. Wood and stone—all locally sourced; they had to use wood and stone in the past to be able to create buildings that would be comfortable, usable, and beautiful, and resist the harsh environment; where everything rots, gets wet; is hot then cold. I’m interested in environmental architecture and how manmade architecture interacts with its environment.
Do you consider yourself an artist; considering your studies and your interest in history?
I’m not sure if I do. Am I creative in the sense of self-expression through the method of visual arts? Maybe; I’m not sure. Do I use art to express my own knowledge and help and encourage other people to follow their own curiosity? Yes. Absolutely. I use a lot of art when I teach. Many people learn visually and I use my skills to produce materials for my teaching. I started this series on January 18th, of this year.
And out of all the ideas that I have, this one came to the surface, using the method to decide what to do with my interests, that I just explained; tracing my time from university, to Korea.
Why did you choose to decide to work in pixels rather than another style, for the warriors? Most people know of NFTs, or think about them, in relation to the pixelated imagery that was prevalent in the heady-NFT-days of late-2020-mid-2021; but why did you focus on this style?
It’s actually not inspired by other NFTs or other pixelated artworks. There are already many artists out there creating new work in relation to warriors and warfare. They make very nice art, and sometimes fantasy versions of the past; a lot work in digital paintings, and some even do—the most famous, makes watercolor. And I thought: ‘Which genre of art is not taken yet?’ And then decided upon pixel art; no one had done it before, to draw historical warriors.
It’s certainly unique…
I decided to take a week and only practice pixel art. And so I told myself that for a week, I would wake up every day and draw pixel art all day, so I could get good at it. I already knew how to draw, so it’s not like I had to teach myself how to do that part of the creating process.
How long does it take you to make each version of these various warriors?
I’m not very used to pixel art… Research per image takes me about three hours. I don’t want to create uninformed work, as in, historically inaccurate. My research being wrong would be the worst feeling ever. If I get a detail wrong, everything about my work will be questioned.
I appreciate your historical accuracy.
…I put a lot of effort into the research. The drawing itself takes about another three hours.
So then—why the focus on European history, and Asian history? Why not periods of different cultures?
Every time a series is finished, I put it up for a vote, and my followers decide what I draw next. I always hope Southeast Asian history will be next, but so far, that has not happened. And this time, sixteenth and seventeenth-century European history was voted as the next series. The previous series was, I had hoped, going to be all warriors represented during the era of the Tang Dynasty. However, I did the Three Kingdoms, warring states, and bronze age China
I really appreciate that you focus on many people in each series beyond just the central leaders or figureheads from history, including the different ranks of soldiers and militia.
One of my mottos for this project is to honor every warrior in history. I plan to continue working on this project for about the next five years. Even when I play video games; I need to complete them fully, and get all the achievements before I finish it.
I can sense this about you. How do you decide what imagery to use? You mention that you do lots of research for each period and for each warrior; but beyond that, how do you decide? Are you looking back at paintings or drawings?
Even if I cover all the warriors, like Roman legionaries, I’m going to start to do the lower-ranking soldiers that no one ever mentions. I want to systematically go through world history and draw out warriors that we have evidence for. I use contemporary prints if available, or art, if available. My favorite is JSTOR. If it wasn’t for JSTOR, I wouldn’t have a lot of information to inform my work.
Vase paintings, are another source I tend to use a lot. Museum pieces, those types of things. It’s really amazing how nice some website museums are these days, information-wise. I aim to look at a 3D image of each piece or armor, clothes, garments; how they fall in accordance with gravity and how light would hit. All of this I calculate in my head.
What do you want people to take away from this project? It’s utilizing the medium of NFTs for its distribution; it’s pixel art; it’s historical; so, one has to already be pretty far down the NFT rabbit-hole to come across them. But in terms of being out in the world; what do you want people to take away from it?
One thing I enjoy about having an international audience, is that I ask people for translations. I ask people to help me, and then I credit them, and publish the works on Insta with an English explanation and, when possible, the local language—as French—and credit the translator too. Right now, I’m looking for someone who speak Gaelic for some Irish warriors.
I hope at the very lowest level; the casual viewers; an Insta or Twitter follower seeing a new post from me each day; I hope that they get to learn a bit more about history. And that I’ve sparked their curiosity. I purposely don’t write an essay for each work. Just a few sentences. Hopefully, people learn more about history and warriors—and become curious about both.
- Esther Pasztroy, ‘Ancient America Art History Forum’ (de Young Museum, San Francisco, May 23, 2019). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKC2ZqvGEuc
- Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). ‘[This book’s] aim is to bring Asian and European military history into conversation, asking not just how China diverged from the west, but also how the West diverged from East Asia… each case illuminates the other.’ 2; 29-43.
- Esther Pasztory, Aztec Art (New York City: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), 12-14, 58-79.
- Barbara Werthei Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York City: Knopf, 1978).
- Joseph Calmette, The Golden Age of Burgundy (London: Phoenix Press, 2001). Richard Vaughn, Charles the Bold (Woodridge: Boydell Press, 2002). Geoffrey Parker, Emperor: A New Life of Charles V (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).
- Robert Douglas Smith and Kelly DeVries, The Artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy, 1363-1477 (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005). See especially, the introduction for an overview of gunpowder in early modern Europe, and how the Burgundians perfected the form of the ‘canon’, which utilized it.
- Alfred Weidinger, Proof of Art—A Short History of NFTs, from the Beginning of Digital Art to the Metaverse (Berlin: Distanz: 2021).