Over the course of history, the capital of arts never ceased to shift from one city to another. In the Renaissance, it was Florence. During the 19th century and early 20th, Paris. Why not Seoul in the near future? Just like in Paris at that time, young and talented artists have started gathering in specific places of Seoul, creating art hubs and forever changing the face of the neighborhoods they settle in. Old towns in Korea such as Ikseon, Euljiro and Mullae are now being rejuvenated by young entrepreneurs and artists. The Argus would like to introduce the new trendy places and artists that might push Korea at the forefront of the global art scene, and the limitations placed upon them.
In the 1920s, during the Japanese Colonization, the Japanese government planned to exploit the district to a place Japanese residents live in. The plan was disrupted by an independence activist Jeong Se-gwon, who bought the whole area and filled them with modernized “Hanok”, traditional Korean houses, in the purpose of maintaining the residential area for Koreans.
The renewal plan for Ikseon also swept since 2004, but was constantly failed by conflicting opinions between the residents and the building owners. The residents who thought that the town would soon get renewed were reluctant to do repair work even if the places needed one. This left the buildings as same as the old, and some were left out by then. This old-fashioned style that was left out led to the current position of the district; a place of unexampled scent for both old and new. Starting from 2009, people by one and two opened up their restaurant or cafes in those emptied out spaces, which gradually went viral to derive an incessant flow of visitors. Previously delayed for registering as Hanok village due to the renewal plan, the government later recognized Ikseon for its cultural and historical value, and registered it as cultural heritage.
The cramped street at weekends evening is jam-packed with young people enjoying the aesthetic sights and delicious foods that these places provide. The Argus reporters follow the stream of comers and goers and soon get drawn by the charm of the place. Some of the stores such as “Gyeongseong Gwaja” that sells Korean traditional confectionery or “Teterot Salon” that lends traditional clothes goes in line with the old traditional feeling that Hanok gives, while others such as “Jongro Steak,” a western food restaurant or pubs that seem disparate to the location add another visual attraction for the area.
The attractiveness of Euljiro lies in the juxtaposition of metropolitan skyscrapers and the long-standing buildings lined up behind. The place flourished with printing companies during the 1960s, but has been in decline since the 2000s. The cheap land price of the emptied space has become the founding stone of young passionate entrepreneurs and artists to set their workshops. The mix of art with trendy places makes a great experience, like how “MWM (Mass We Made Mess We Made)” has become a trendsetter. MWM is a place that is both a workshop and a cafe. Along with the coffee machines, visitors could peek at the pottery works that are createdly the shop owners, and also could participate in scheduled pottery classes. “Since people could freely come in, and many of other artists also came to this place, we thought it was an appropriate place for both working and showing our works to those who are interested,” said MWM cafe manager.
“Baekdugangsan” is another trend-setting place becoming famous for its unique mood. Opening the door unfolds a dark space with imposing sound of music and distinctive decorations. The chandelier and worn out walls have the scent of antiquity of it. The place was designed by the shop owners who majored in plastic art. “The two sculptures near the shelf were made by Kang Kyeong-mi, my co-manager for the cafe,” said Paik Jae-hee, the manager of Baekdugangsan.
These places are not easily spotted, as the shops do not have signs that could be seen outside. This gives a constant doubt for The Argus reporters, in whether they are heading for the right place. Going up the steep staircase meets a door with a small sign of the shop that guides into a completely different atmosphere. The implicit of contrast this place brings adds a feeling of achievement for finding a hidden place.
For the past few years, the decline of Mullae’s 1970s iron foundries has opened a new space for the younger generation to both work and enjoy. In behalf of the government’s project, the place became newly flourished as a cultural place, gathering artists and promoting them to create their works. The restaurants and unique cafes coming in aided the place to become a new cultural outlet.
To the tourists, Mullae is also a good occasion to question art. Over the past century, artists’ main concern has been to deconstruct art to enable a deeper philosophical questioning of its nature. While visiting Mullae, this question can come in full play. On the roads which border the neighborhood, oversized replicas of industrial tools welcome visitors. While in alleyways, one can stumble upon small steel factories from which sparks spring up while the manufacturers are at work. The mix of arts and artisans working on their steel machineries can really make art lovers wonder; where does art begin and where does it stop?
One can easily find various kinds of workshops, from wood carvings to books, pens, and soaps. These opened areas give the visitors an opportunity to lookup one’s dedication on creating their work pieces. Hence, those random encounters suggest another mechanism for the artist to communicate with the random visitors.
Some workshops are managed by hobbyists whose passion is no less short compared to that of the professionals. While walking down the street, a cheery tune of Ukulele coming from a little workshop called “Mu-ha-jae” stopped the two reporters. The two owners welcomed the reporters with a cup of hot coffee, along with splendid pieces of stamps and writings that owners were working on. “We always dreamed of our own space for creating our own works after the end of our careers and we luckily got one space that we could start,” said Bang Mi-jung, the owner of the place. A cup of warm-heartedness intrigues the reporters even more.
Along with the cheap land price the places first had, the government funding became the drive of the gradual change. Most artistic meccas in recent history have one point in common; governments finance their artists and try to economically help their creative workforce for it is acknowledged art can be as profitable as any other industry. It brings in tourists and money. During the Renaissance, Vatican City was one of the main patrons of artists. In Paris, the government started to get involved in artists’ funding way before the 20th century by building affordable housing specifically designed for artists, such as the Bateau-Lavoir which sheltered Picasso in his Demoiselles d’Avignon period. South Korea also funded the neighborhoods in line with the examples that are proven efficient.
With these goals in mind, the Euljiro Design and Art Project are paying for young artists’ rents up to 90 percent. “Seun Arcade,” a 1960s shopping mall which used to house electronic shops, has now become, under the influence of The Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, the new hotspot for the artists to launch their workshops. For Mullae, on Jan. 28, 2010, the government established Mullae Creating Community to fill the left out spaces that used to be iron foundries. The place also has some subsidized cultural facilities such as workrooms and multipurpose auditorium established for expertized art space. Mullae, in the vein of Paris’ famous artists’ lodgings, now provides housings for the foreign artists who come to collaborate with Korean artists. This short-stay hostel enables deeper international communication between artists and helps out Seoul art to reach art amateurs overseas.
One of the most noticeable points is that these places well preserved the atmosphere of the past. “I think that the reason why the visitors are coming to this place is the well-preserved vintage style,” said Paik Jae-hee, the owner of Baekdugangsan. For the city dwellers who got tired of the bustling urban life, and the continuous changes that they undergo every day, old fashion is what provides a place for rest. People consume the mood of the place, which evokes reminiscence for the older generation while giving a feeling of singularity for the younger ones not used to the place. “The desolation that these places have is perceived as authentic for the current generations. As for Ikseon, it is the representative of the historicity of Hanok, and for Euljiro and Mullae, it is regarded as a heritage of the past Industrial age,” said Kwon Yoon-kyung, the lecturer of Cities and Culture in HUFS.
However, there is also something new about it. Art is in constant evolution, and the public is eager to follow these innovations closely. Such places become trendy to artists’ aficionados because they concentrate in one place new generations of artists who produce art that has never been seen before. Neighborhoods such as these places are the best places to discover new artists. While preserving the atmosphere of the places they settle in, they bring change to the art they make.
The eccentric coexistence between the manufacturing business, workshop, restaurant and bar does not always create a positive synergy. Behind it, there lies some of the fundamental conflicts between the locals and the newcomers. Some of the residents are reluctant of their residential area becoming a tourist attraction as inconvenience arises from the noise that goes until midnight, and the smell coming from littering done by visitors. Also, while some of the amateur photographers take photos of the place and post it on the internet, it frequently includes the residents and infringes their privacy.
Jongno District, which possesses lots of residential area that are sightseeing places, has started “Silent Touring Campaign” since 2013. The gu-office put related banners and promotional materials in the purpose of protecting the living space for the original dwellers. Mullae also put banners that ask visitors not to infringe on the privacy of the original dwellers. Still, the conflict between the residents and the visitors remains. “There are some clashes between bar owners and other locals, especially at night since bars become quite noisy,” said Bang Mi-jung, the resident and the owner of a workshop in Mullae.
While shop owners should step in and make an effort not to disturb the inhabitants’ tranquility, and the visitors should act more mannerly, there should also be stricter rules for the sake of the residents. Compulsory regulations should be implemented to forbid loud noises late at night so as not to disturb the locals’ usual rest hours. Likewise, enforceable punishment rules should be held to prevent the littering that pollutes the neighborhood.
Several Countries have already implemented laws related to ensure a quiet environment for the residents. One of the examples is Andalusia, Spain, which introduced Tourism Law that evicts tourists when they break the town’s regulation, including the noise pollution. Seville, one of the cities in Andalusia, launched its campaign “Sevilla Sin Ruidos Ya (Seville without noise now),” which fines crowded bars and cafes, ranging from €300 (US$338) to €300,000 (US$338,130), when they break certain limit for noise.
Spaces provided by the government do not suit artists’ lifestyle and unfettered creativity. For example, Seun Arcade in Euljiro, to which the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture invited artists, closes at night, which can get in the way of artists’ working patterns, by imposing strict routines.
While in Mullae, for instance, all facilities funded by this same foundation, close at 10 p.m. sharply, making it hard for artists to go on their creative spree. Exceptions can be made to this curfew if artists submit applications prior to the date when they want to overstay in the studios. But such a procedure is overlooking the very nature of artists who often let their creativity lead them. No artist can say beforehand if they are going to need more time for the work they are working on, because inspiration does not necessarily follow the usual business hours.
Even though artists have to thank the multiple institutions that help them strive in these neighborhoods, by providing places where they can create their art, these institutions should take into considering the fact that art process does not follow the usual business hours. To enable artists to create whenever inspiration strikes, these places should be accessible to them with no time regulation. Unlike granting access to any random visitor, which would cause disturbance to the neighborhoods’ residents, institutions like the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture should simply allow artists to use their studios as they need. And hopefully, even greater art can take shape in the neighborhoods of Ikseon, Euljiro or Mullae.
The development of Ikseon definitely changed its atmosphere to a trendy neighborhood. Instead of focusing on producing something new, unique and artsy, some people came in by the lure of money. Over time, priorly successful businessmen open restaurants there, seeing Ikseon as an opportunity to make their business flourish. Together, the land price of Ikseon also rose explosively. While in 2016, the price for 3.3 square meter was 30 million won (US$26,373), currently it is about 50 million won (US$43,956). As the gentrification happens, the first-settlers and artists who came for the sole purpose of finding a space they could affordably produce their art are led out by those who are seeking profit. Euljiro and Mullae remain untouched by the city’s remodeling projects yet, but it might not last long if gentrification extends to the district.
Starting from this June, the Jongno Office in Seoul is encouraging leaseholders to maintain reasonable price for the lessee, yet coercion has no place for these acts. Besides, the land price is already a burden for the leaseholders, so maintaining the price is not much of a solution. “As city is a place for constant change, pointing out the exact solution for the gentrification is impossible. Gradual change might reduce the repercussions, yet it is hard to control the driving force of the change which is the preference of the consumers and the movement of the capital,” said Kwon Yoon-kyung, the lecturer of HUFS.
Still, there are some ways for the former settlers to respond against the speed of the change. One of them is forming the reunion and socializing their opinion. In Ikseon, shop owners have started doing reunions where they discuss the matters related to the change of the district. Thanks to these reunions, Ikseon has managed to make its own community rule, such as banning franchise from coming in. Mullae and Euljiro could get inspiration from this and form associations of shopkeepers to discuss the problems they are currently facing and the ones that could arise.
Using social media posting or crowd funding may be another way for the artist to tackle the problem. By this, artists can create contact with art lovers who have yet to visit their ateliers in person. In the case of crowd funding, the public’s implication is even more striking. Random people can become their favorite artists’ patrons by giving even a tiny amount of money. The participative aspect of this concept makes it possible to build sturdy communities around artists who might have not been otherwise discovered if they had just relied on their physical atelier’s reputation.
Perhaps city is very similar to life, which is a constant cycle of the old giving birth to the new, and the new giving a new drive to the old. In the three Seoul neighborhoods introduced today, artists and young entrepreneurs were respectful of the legacy that has been handed onto them in the form of buildings and intangible culture. Those respect of the old, the historical context and the vividness one’s livelihood provides, somehow corresponded to the cultural zeitgeist young generations have today. Why is old not being respected too in the matter of the process, heading for a new gradual change? Let’s not force our past heritages to fir into the modern standard.
By Kim Hannah and Laura Perrusson
Staff Reporter of Culture Section & Guest Reporter