Being @arthoejoe_ : How a First-Year Art Student at UWindsor Gained InstaFame from her K-pop-Inspired Art
Joe is just your regular 18-year-old. She’s a first-year student at the University of Windsor in the Concurrent Visual Arts and Education program. She’s a big fan of Korean music, especially K-pop. She loves to create colorful pieces of art featuring her favorite artists, or ‘idols’ as they are typically known within the Korean music community. She has an Instagram account by the username of @arthoejoe_ where she shares her colorful creations with the world.
Oh, and by the way, she has an Instagram following of about 40,000 people.
A year ago, Joe also created an Etsy shop by the name of beangardener where she sells art prints and other items. She has already reached over 900 sales.
How did a young student from the little city of Windsor, ON manage to rise to such online prominence? How did the Bean Garden, as Joe likes to call her community, grow so quickly? I reached out to Joe directly and she told me all about her experiences as an emerging online artist.
Spontaneous Decisions and Fateful Dreams
Joe never expected her Instagram to explode in popularity the way it did, or to be able to turn it into a business. It all started out about two years ago—or so she thinks, she can’t quite remember.
She was going through a rough patch in her life and decided to create an Instagram account on a whim. Although the idea of making an art account had been brewing in her mind for a long time before then, something at that moment two years ago pushed her to take the leap.
“It was just on a whim. Something inside me was like, you should go for it. You never know where this is gonna take you. I did not expect it to grow as much as it has at all.”
She trusted her instincts and made the account, but she was unsure how her family would react.
A year later, she had a fateful dream that convinced her to come out to her family about her art account. “There was my house, but behind the house there was this really big field,” she said about her dream.
“My mom always tells me that big fields mean new opportunities and walking towards new things, and she was in my dream. She looked at me, and I was looking really down and sad. She was like, if there’s anything bothering you, you can tell me. And when I woke up, that was the day that I knew I had to tell my family about my account.”
Luckily, her parents were very supportive.
Joe also revealed that her mom always wanted to be a professional artist. Unfortunately, she was never able to pursue her dreams. Her home country was ravaged by war, and so, she never got a chance to finish school. Joe feels really connected to her mom, or in her words, like they are “one and the same”. By pursuing art, Joe feels that she is not just achieving her own dreams, but her mom’s as well.
Subjects, Styles, and Symbolism
Most of Joe’s artwork comes in the form of drawings and paintings, but she also likes making jewelry, collages, and more.
She isn’t totally sure how she would describe her art style to someone who has never seen it before. “I don’t think there’s a perfect set of words to describe my style. It’s something that’s always evolving and it’s a reflection of who I am and what I’m feeling,” she said.
Her followers, she said, would probably place her art within the kidcore genre, though. This style involves bright colors and harkens back to 90s aesthetics.
And bright colors and retro vibes are certainly Joe’s thing. Scrolling through her Instagram is like being sent through a neon kaleidoscope of the 80s and 90s.
Joe’s style also fits within the hobicore tradition, which is similar to kidcore. Hobicore is inspired by Jung Ho-seok, otherwise known as J-Hope, member of the popular K-pop band BTS. J-Hope, along with other big names in the Korean music industry, often feature as the subjects of Joe’s pieces.
Although J-Hope is her favorite member of BTS, she can’t quite put her finger on why. “I think it’s his vibe. I love his upbeat, happy, colorful, and not-afraid-to-be-himself kind of vibe,” she explained. “He makes me want to not be afraid to like childish things, to like colorful things, or to look different, act different.”
In addition to bright colors, Joe also likes adding lots of small details or Easter eggs in her drawings, and they all have their own unique symbolism and meaning. Many of her subjects, for example, sport little band-aids on their noses, knees, or cheeks. She thinks of this as a way of covering up one’s scars.
“I have a lot of scars from my past, so I think the band-aids represent that. But they can also represent holding yourself together and showing a kid vibe to it. Kids always seem to hurt themselves the most, but you gotta just slap a band-aid on and call it a day,” she elaborated.
Bean sprouts always seem to make their way into her work as well. In fact, Joe calls her community the Bean Garden and her followers bean gardeners. This symbol represents personal and artistic growth.
“We’re a bean garden and we’ll grow together, and it doesn’t matter how slow your journey is or how fast your journey is, we’re all gonna become beautiful flowers someday.”
Joe also favors colorful teardrops as a symbol in her work. Teardrops represent her sadness, but since they appear in a variety of bright colors in her oeuvre, they also represent the way emotions can fluctuate and the possibility of a better day.
“The teardrops are not blue, which we usually associate with sadness. It’s about how emotions can start to fluctuate, ’cause if I’m happy in the morning and then sad in the afternoon, I can be happy again in the evening. There’s no box to stay in when you’re sad, ’cause you never know what’s gonna pull you out of that.”
Bright Colors and Dark Themes
Although Joe’s artwork is bright and multicolored, it often hides much darker themes. “Even though there’s all those happy things in my art, there’s still hidden deeper meanings inside of the drawings,” she said.
“I’ll have people that look like they’re smiling or having a good time, but the meaning of the drawing is talking about anxiety and growing up, depression, and not knowing what’s gonna happen in the future.”
These themes of depression and anxiety are drawn from Joe’s personal experiences.
For example, around the end of the second grade, Joe started to be bullied by her classmates. Things got really bad around the third grade. “That’s when it started to go downhill for me,” she began. “Like, people would say I’m stealing their friends, or here’s the new student trying to take all the spotlight.”
“And then the verbal bullying turned to physical bullying. People would kick soccer balls at me or run after me and try to hurt me. Even if I told a teacher, they wouldn’t listen. They just thought that was playful fighting, that’s what all kids do. But looking back at it, that was not playful fighting at all.”
In high school, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. The physical bullying she experienced as a kid may even have contributed to her developing the condition.
“People would trip me and I’d fall on my back, and at the time it would hurt. But I didn’t think anything of it until I was in ninth grade. I went to go do an X-ray and I saw that I got scoliosis. They asked me if I had ever been in any kind of accident. And I’m like, I haven’t been in an accident, but I’ve had all these experiences. Is that what caused my scoliosis?”
On an emotional level, Joe’s experiences of bullying severely impacted her sense of self-worth and confidence, too. “It made me feel worthless or like I couldn’t do anything with my life,” she said, “and like I wouldn’t be able to be someone because all these people made me feel like I was nothing. But now that I’m older and more mature, I realized that what they did to me was not worth my time, and it’s also taught me not to take any crap from anyone, to be my own person, and to be strong.”
Joe’s family has been struggling financially, but because of her scoliosis, she has been unable to get a part-time job. “Before opening my shop, I tried to apply to thirty different jobs, ’cause I really wanted to help my family out financially, but nobody wanted to hire me,” she said.
“I don’t know the exact reason why. Like, is it because I didn’t have any experience? Or was it because of all these different health issues that I have? Most jobs require you to be healthy and strong, and to carry lots of things and stand up for long periods of time. That’s something that I can’t do, it restricts me and makes me feel really down about myself.”
Journeying Through Etsy and Instagram
To adapt to this situation, Joe opened up her Etsy shop. She started out by listing five art prints. To her surprise, she received 21 orders on the first day. “It made me feel really shocked,” she said. “I didn’t think that would happen, I didn’t think people would support me.”
She has since added many more products to her shop besides art prints. At beangardener, you can also shop for original artwork, stickers, keychains and rings, phone charms and cases, and so much more.
Joe has loved owning a small business, and it has given her hope for the future.
“Now that I have my Etsy shop and that it has over 900 sales, it’s like this can really evolve into something. I love being able to make my own products and to not have anybody tell me what to do. I have creative freedom to do everything—to make my own products, to think of new designs, to innovate, mix things together, take things out. The possibilities are endless for this job and you never know where it’s gonna take you. Someday, maybe my Etsy shop could be a real shop, who knows.”
Her experiences selling on Etsy have been largely positive, but a couple of things irk her about the platform. For one, the fees that Etsy charges sellers can seriously undercut their profits. “I understand that I’m using their platform to sell stuff, but the amount of fees add up,” she said.
The platform has also been pushing sellers to offer customers free shipping in order to compete with larger companies like Amazon, but as Joe explained, this too would cut into creators’ profits.
Joe has been able to reach a wide audience through Instagram, but it too has come with certain pitfalls. Instagram’s algorithm has recently been modified to show a user’s content to only 10% of their followers, and this has affected many small businesses and creators’ engagement rates.
The additional push to create Reels in order to piggyback on the success of TikTok has left many Instagram creators like Joe feeling frustrated. The lower engagement levels she’s been seeing on her account have made her feel like her work isn’t good enough.
“You can feel like you’re not good enough or you’re not doing what people want, and I know deep down that my work is phenomenal, but when I see low numbers it kind of makes me think otherwise, it’s this idea that numbers define who you are online.”
Despite these nuisances, the positive impact that Joe’s Instagram page has left on many people keeps her going.
“Before, I didn’t even think that my existence would matter to somebody else because I’ve always been an outcast and a victim of bullying. But as time has gone on, I realized that my voice and my actions have such a big impact on others. Like, people will tell me through a voice message, DM, or email that I’ve changed their life in some way, and it really feels shocking. And because of that, I don’t wanna give up and I wanna keep going with my page, and I wanna inspire others to not be afraid to do what they love.”
Joe thinks that part of what has made her Instagram page so successful is her authenticity. She often shares how her day is going in her stories, whether it’s been good or bad. She openly discusses her struggles with her followers, and she thinks that it’s helped her build a closer connection with this community. “I try to be very honest and open with my followers, so having that kind of trust with your followers and people around the world can really strengthen your relationship,” she added.
The Cultural Appeal of Popular South Korean Music
When a friend introduced her to K-pop in grade eight, Joe wasn’t too keen about it at first. She had no idea at the time that it would become such a major inspiration in her artwork. But over time, many of the bands grew on her, and she eventually became hooked.
The appeal of K-pop isn’t immediately evident for many. It certainly isn’t for me. So, I tried to understand from Joe why it appeals to so many people around the globe, and why it appeals to her in particular.
First off, calling all Korean music K-pop is misleading, as Joe kindly corrected me. There are dozens of genres of popular Korean music, and that’s what forms a part of its wide appeal.
“Like, what’s the name K-pop? It’s not just pop, the genre of K-pop has so many subgenres inside of it. You can have a K-pop idol or group that likes to focus on R&B, while somebody else might want to focus on alternative music, hip-hop, rock, or a futuristic kind of music.”
Another appealing aspect of Korean music, as Joe explained, is its elaborate visual aesthetics and high-level performances. “If you see, let’s say, American music videos, it’s just, like, some guy with a few girls in the back just dancing with him. There’s nothing that really draws you into the video and the music at the same time. It’s just the music most of the time,” Joe said.
“But when you’re listening to K-pop, you have this visually appealing music video that brings in dance and performance.”
On top of that, some Korean bands have even been experimenting with technology in novel ways. For example, by projecting lifelike holograms of the artists at concerts.
Korean music has afforded many people connections and relationships, too. Fans of Korean music can join huge online communities and make friends who share their interests. Photo card trading plays a part in forming these bonds, explained Joe. These cards feature photos of idols and are often decorated, and fans throughout the world enjoy trading them with each other as a hobby.
Joe specifically feels a very deep emotional connection to her favorite Korean bands, and they bring her a lot of happiness. She feels that BTS in particular has changed her life. “Without their music and their happy energy, I don’t think I’d be who I am today and I don’t think I would have met all these different kinds of people if it weren’t for them,” she concluded.
Academic Life and Hopes for the Future
It’s only Joe’s first year of University, so she has a ways to go before graduating, but her favorite class so far has been VSAR-1010: Studio Practice and Ideas/Space. For one assignment, she had to create a piece with two contrasting ideas.
“So what I did was draw the childhood me, all happy and like I didn’t have to worry about all of these adult responsibilities. And then there’s a second drawing where I’m worrying about every little thing, like bills and getting good grades.”
This intermixing of the good and the bad seems to run through all of Joe’s work, a sort of visual representation of yin and yang.
Professor Lisa Baggio, the instructor of VSAR, was impressed with Joe’s art and asked her if she would be open to doing an exhibit in the SOCA building. Nothing is finalized yet, but Joe is very excited about the opportunity. “First-year students don’t get the opportunity to do their own exhibit, it’s very rare,” she said.
One day, Joe hopes to become an art professor. It seems that she is well on her way to achieving that goal.