South Korea, rich with its culture and brimming with modernity of its youths definitely offers a hearty blend of the old and the new. In term of art however, this fine fusion comes in the form of reinvention. Artists are now creating a movement using street arts to shift Korea’s prejudice towards downtrodden, gritty neighborhoods.
Indeed, the term street art often correlate with edgy pieces stenciled on the wall down seedy city laneways in the dark of the night. But in South Korea a different scene is taking place. Rather than the so-called graffiti, vibrant murals and art installations are on display not only on the streets, but also on fences, walls, and houses of the formerly undeserved neighborhoods.
The areas interestingly consist of many moon villages (daldongnae) – a name derived from their hilltop locations, traditionally thought to present a better view of the moon than the cities below – where refugees settled down after the end of Korean War in the 50s. That is another reason of why artists are targeting these daldongnae – to preserve history.
Dotted all over South Korea, these colorful moon villages are up for visit anytime you step into the country. One of the capital’s most famous mural villages is Ihwa Maeul, which lies up the slopes of Naskan in the northern suburbs of Seoul. The metamorphosis of the area is marked with bright motifs and colorful photogenic artworks ranging from paintings of flowers and fish cascading down steep stairways to giant portraits splashed across concrete underpasses.
If you would prefer those less known, less than one hour outside of Seoul is Suwon, where the decaying backstreets are awash with street art that easily rivals the best in the world. In the more developed urban art neighborhood Haenggung-dong Mural Village, international and local muralists are commissioned to makeover the streets. Shamanist houses, love motels, decrepit brick homes – no surface has gone untouched. Works incorporate everyday items, such as drains pipes, electricity boxes and wiring, into the themed pieces. Highlights include a 10m-long octopus with tentacles stretching the length of the alley, exquisite Asian-style pieces and a family of giraffes with long necks protruding from the ground along the industrial wall. Another destination in Suwon would be Ji-dong – with Joseon-dynasty palace walls as the backdrop to the extensive alleyways. Its themed murals cover anything from paper airplanes, balloons and lush forests to a cavalcade of colorful bicycles spanning its crumbling brick walls.
In the city of Jeonju, the alleys of Jeonju Jaman Village are a joy to stroll with themed street art decorated the walls of tiny arched-tiled-roof houses. While you are here, pay a visit to Kkojittappong, it is a child’s dream house drawing come to life, complete with swings, pinwheels, and of course brightly colored murals on its expansive, sunny terrace.
Representing Busan in the southeast of the country, Gamcheon Culture Village is a mountaintop shantytown that was redeveloped as an art project by students in 2009. Since then, it has become famous for its street art, which crawls down staircases and splashes over old houses. There’s a map for sale to help navigate between art installments and the happening cafes and galleries in the area.
Incheon, mostly known to international travellers as the airport location, also houses a dreamy-named mural village Songwol-dong Fairytale Village. Here the offers are different from other mural villages; the street art is for kids. The laneways sparkled with princesses and castles, characters from famous children’s books and quirky animal sculptures integrated seamlessly into the streetscape. Its cobbled maze-like alleys are a surreal sight that although targeted for kids will surely be an enjoyment toward adults as well.