Think latte art’s a tired trend?
You haven’t seen the coffees created by South Korean barista Lee Gang-bin, co-owner of Café C.THROUGH in Seoul.
Using colored icing – a technique he calls “cream art” – Lee transforms regular cups of coffee into incredible works of art.
“Coffee is a fairytale to me,” he tells CNN. “It helps me express exactly what I want and brings my dreams to life. People who specialize in latte art usually only use two colors: black and white. But I wanted to break that color limit.”
His wild creations have earned him nearly 200,000 Instagram followers.
Though his renditions of major artworks are the most popular – including Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Leonardo DiVinci’s “Mona Lisa” – he does custom work for customers as well.
Requests include everything from storybook characters, such as the Little Prince, to a Vogue Korea magazine cover. But no matter the design, Lee says it’s important that his works of art can actually be consumed.
“It is my rule to not make coffee that people cannot drink,” he says. “I only make cream art on cold coffee. If I make it on hot coffee, the taste changes as it cools off, and I don’t want the taste of the coffee to change.”
The cost of each cream art coffee is 7,500 won ($6.63). Because each cup can take as long as an hour to whip up, he only makes three a day, by reservation only.
The teddy bear cream art coffee is the exception, as it can be made in just 40 seconds. C.THROUGH’s menu has other, more traditional items for walk-in customers as well.
“We are baristas making coffee, not just artists drawing pictures on coffee,” he says.
Not just a ‘coffee guy’
Lee has been making coffee for 10 years, branching into latte art seven years ago.
“I started to learn about coffee when I was 18 years old,” he says. “At that time, baristas were not well-known in Korea so I worried a little bit. Soon this worry went away as I became so interested in the job.”
He says it’s helped that he’s always had the support of his parents.
“People around me were critical of me becoming just a ‘coffee guy,’” says Lee. “But I stuck to my decision, just like many Koreans. I wanted to show that I could become successful with coffee.”
Today, his cafe is so busy he says he sleeps only a couple of hours a night. The key to his success, he says, is passion and perseverance.
“I didn’t study drawing but enjoyed it as a hobby,” says Lee. “Then after studying coffee, I realized that not only techniques but also artistry can be put into coffee. This led me to connect coffee and art.”
With the success of the cafe, he says they’re able to export a new side of South Korean culture to the world.
“South Korea has become very famous in recent years due to K-pop,” says Lee. “Yet few people know about Korea’s coffee culture. Some may think coffee is just coffee. But for me it is a bridge that can always connect one person to another.”
Cafe C. THROUGH, 403-3 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea