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(Yonhap Feature) Self-made man gives back to community by turning street into art

All News 11:41 June 01, 2016

By Park Sojung

SEOUL, June 1 (Yonhap) -- Park Dong-hoon had nothing when he moved to Seoul from a small Gyeongsang provincial county called Sancheong in 1979. The then 15-year-old and his single mother were so poor they stayed on the premises of a hair salon after hours. Then each morning, he would set out for school as his mother went out to sell "hotteok," a traditional Korean honey-filled pancake, at a small food stand.

Now, Park has an advertising firm, eight galleries and still no university degree to his name, a rare accomplishment he says he owes to a monosyllabic neighborhood in downtown Seoul.

"Pil-dong is where I learned the ropes of animation and advertising," the 51-year-old CEO of Hands BTL Media Group said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. "It was basically my teacher in life."

The high school drop-out has spent the last three years trying to revamp the neighborhood into an artsy district. He once asked an employee to calculate how much an art school in the country and a Master's program abroad would have cost him.

"It would have cost me hundreds of millions of won (hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars)," he said. "So I thought it's only fair that I give back to the community that taught me everything at no cost."

Park says his art career started when he collected used paper to trade in for bread at print shops. That is how he discovered cartoons, and he slowly worked his way up from shuttling papers to doing real work at an animation company.

As his job grew routine, Park decided to try his luck in the restaurant business, starting as a deliveryman at a Chinese diner. He did not last long there either and he was back in Pil-dong in no time, gluing ads to wooden boards.

That was in the late 1980s when South Korea hosted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics. Park entered the advertising business when the demand was exploding. Since then, he has learned how to advertise, promote and design to grab people's attention.

Today, Park's office looks out upon kaleidoscopic structures he designed himself -- a restaurant, a cafe, a bookstore and a performance hall. He also bought scraps of land in the area from the government to build "StreetMuseums," or tiny galleries scattered throughout the neighborhood to casually expose children to art.

Exhibitions are not fixed and change regularly. Currently, they are displaying "A Beanstalk in Oreo Field" by Kim Soo-jin, a collection of artwork inspired by Kim's late father who was obsessed with imported snacks around the 1950-53 Korean War period. Artist Kang Byung-in has put out his calligraphic work that gives kinetic twists to "hangeul," the Korean alphabet. In the exhibit "The Flesh of Passage," installation artist Choi Jung-yoon explores the roles swords played in human civilization -- not just their destructive functions but also productive ones.

In addition to these galleries, Park recently launched a neighborhood festival that brings together artists of all stripes -- painters, musicians, dancers and chefs -- to honor the spirit of "seonbi," or noble scholars who abandoned secular life to pursue academia. They used to form a community in Pil-dong whose name originates from the Chinese character for "pen" in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

More than 120 artists participated in the inaugural Street Arts Festival held last month, which featured Park's establishments including the eight StreetMuseums. One of them gave an exclusive preview of the opening exhibition at Yeongang Gallery, the only gallery in the demilitarized zone bisecting the Korean Peninsula.

There were also 18 "Micro Museums," or structures, walls and ground used to exhibit works of art, including Lee Jung-yoon's "A Flying Trunk," which has traveled around the world. Musicians staged performances spanning a wide range of genres, from classical Western to traditional Korean, at Cocoon Music, a Park venture. Artists and writers gave talks at his bookstore built on the former site of a school for seonbi.

Because food was another theme of the festival, visitors were encouraged to visit mom-and-pop establishments in the neighborhood, with those visiting all eight StreetMuseums getting a free beverage at Bakery 24 Street, which Park opened last year.

Park is now planning to launch a foundation called Meongseok, which in Korean means a straw mat on which people used to play games and music after a harvest. As the name suggests, the foundation would strive to create more artistic platforms and facilitate collaboration among artists. Pil-dong would serve as the "Silicon Valley of culture and art" in Seoul, with the foundation to expand its activities to other neighborhoods in the future.

"We want to make a 'playground' for artists," Park said. "We want to show people how art is done in Pil-dong. This is where we will experiment and we will later launch projects in other, artistically marginalized communities."


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