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(Yonhap Feature) In Mullaedong, declining factory complex revitalized with art

All News 10:17 June 09, 2016

(Editor's note: This article is the first of our feature series on South Korea's lesser known tourist spots.)
By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, June 9 (Yonhap) -- While touring around narrow alleys in Mullaedong, a neighborhood in southwestern Seoul, you'll easily find signs asking visitors to respect the portrait rights of people working in ironworks there.

The signs indicate the identity of the neighborhood: a factory complex frequented by visitors with cameras.

Mullaedong as a neighborhood had been on the decline as its small iron works and steel arcades started closing in the face of weak demand at the start of the 21st century. However, now it has made a comeback as a corner of Seoul teaming with unique art, galleries and cafes.

The landscape of the district called "Mullaedong Arts Village" is not like some of Seoul's trendy streets in Gangnam or Itaewon with many fancy restaurants, clothing boutiques and other shops. Nonetheless, it is popular among the younger population who likes its strange and unique mood that doesn't exist anywhere else in the capital city.

It is not difficult to find the village. A roughly five-minute walk from Mullae Station on subway line No. 2 will lead you to the local information booth.

Sitting just next to the booth is a horse made of various iron materials. On their way to the district, visitors soon come across a giant hammer and welding mask sculptures, both symbolizing Mullaedong's identity.

The district has two faces. In the daytime, the alleys filled with small and low iron factory buildings are heated up with the noisy sound of hammers hitting steel and welding flames. At night, when the factories close their doors, artists jazz up the district with their creative activities.

More and more cafes are springing up in derelict industrial buildings, offering the district dwellers and visitors something more than just the run-of-the-mill cup of coffee.

They are known for their unique interior designs, which make full use of the legacy of ironworks such as concrete walls with many scratches and plumbing fixtures running the length of the ceiling.

The region played its part in fueling the country's fast economic growth from ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War into the 60s and 70s, along with nearby Guro factory complex.

Before steelworks, Mullaedong was a large complex of textile mills when Korea was under Japan's colonial rule as part of a wider factory zone in today's Yeongdeungpo Ward. Yeongdeungpo served as a transportation hub due to its accessibility to the Gyeongbu railway linking Seoul and the southern port city of Busan and to the country's first airport in nearby Yeouido district.

It was from the 2000s that ironwork factories in Mullaedong began to go out of business one by one. The vacancy then began to be filled by artists evicted from the bustling college campus neighborhood of Hongdae, dotted with clubs and bars, in western Seoul. Their studios in Mullaedong are usually located on the second or third floor of factory buildings that still housed ironworks on the first floor.

Artists say they were drawn by the bleak but energetic mood of the factory zone in addition to its cheaper rent.

"Mullaedong was the picture of soullessness at that time," Ye Byeong-heon, a photographer who opened a photo studio in the neighborhood in 2007. "Seoul has shantytowns and backward neighborhoods, but I had never imagined there would be a place like this in the city. I came to have a strong artistic desire to create something in this place."

With roomy space and high ceilings, factory buildings became ideal places for art studios. Now the neighborhood is home to some 300 visual and installation artists.

Finding colorful graffiti and beautiful murals hiding along the long alleyways in between ironworks and old houses provides some fun for tourists.

On Sundays when most of the factories close their doors, tourists can see paintings drawn by the artists on the iron gates of the factories.

In the Mullaedong Arts Village, signboards are not just signboards but are part of the art.

The name plate of the "Hanyeong Jeonggong" factory has a design depicting a motor drill. While walking down the alleys, you can easily find steel signs with animals or camera-shaped decorations saying "We're working. Please respect our portrait rights." They are the result of a collaboration between the ironworks and the artists.

An abandoned factory with a nice mural inside is often used by professional photographers to take pictures of models for fashion magazines and online shopping malls.

One of the tourist attractions of the art village is a very attractive mural known as "IU of the rooftop" for depicting the K-pop diva IU. It was drawn on the rooftop of an unnamed building where the cafe "flat fic" is located on the second floor. The rooftop has two other murals and graffiti.

From there, tourists can also see different murals on the rooftops of the neighboring buildings, probably created by talented artists who have studios on the second or third floors of the iron factories.

Alongside the broad road connecting the Mullaedong intersection and the Mullae Park intersection, are some of the district's best known cafes and galleries.

One of the most famous places is "artspace Say" which is located on the second floor of a building next to a gas station at the Mullaedong intersection. It is where exhibitions, workshops on cultural-art themes and film screenings take place.

The gallery receives much attention from visitors for its colorful and distinctive mural. According to the gallery's owner Kim Yeon-tae, who also is a painter and curator, the painting was left by her Indonesian artist-friend who visited. It depicts the spread of art to the world aboard a ship, according to Kim.

There is also book cafe "Chipori" that also serves as a gallery; the "alternative artspace Ipo," a gallery for displaying creative photos and videos by media artists; and the "Bittarae" photo gallery.

Although there are not as many famous restaurants as galleries and cafes, a decent Korean restaurant, a Japanese-style curry rice restaurant, a steak house and a hamburger store are open to customers in the neighborhood and several more restaurants are set to open.


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