by Marion and Mich KDL
When we first started putting together this blogpost on K-Dramaland’s mural villages, it seemed like a light and joyful (if not only colorful) thing to do. But it also turned out to be a project that made us reflect on K-Dramas and their impact on everyday life in South Korea; how its development is intimately interlinked with K-Dramas, and how K-Drama tourism can effect daily life — both positively and negatively.
Drawing A Short Historical Backdrop
South Korea’s mural villages have quite a recent yet rather eventful historical background, most of their stories being how they rose from impoverishment and decay. Its starting point being a government-led project that aimed at re-developing, revitalizing and de-criminalizing certain townships throughout the nation through participatory public art projects. These art projects were implemented with the goal of turning run down townships into picturesque tourist attractions.
Ihwa Mural Village is typically considered being at the forefront of this implementation and is thus seen as the first mural village in South Korea (see also here). It was part of the Ministry of Culture funded-project called ‘Maeul (Village) Art Project‘ or ‘City Art Campaign’ in 2006 that supported creating mural villages in 21 locations.
This government-funded project happened in the broader contexts of two major shifts in the South Korean urban development and crime prevention policies during the 2000s. For one, a shift from “wholesale redevelopment to cultural regeneration” as Kim Ji-youn points out. Crime prevention also started to focus on environmental design and ‘natural surveillance’, i.e. through ‘environmental improvements’ and the creation of ‘community awareness’. Mural villages were one angle that set this type of crime prevention in motion.
Once relooked, the new mural villages were then in many cases directly promoted through K-Dramas, which in turn, largely fostered new economies. The influx of domestic and international tourists, however, wasn’t the only new addition to the planned improvements to residents’ lives. These “mural tourists” also brought with them new challenges, especially the “noise, garbage and privacy infringements” and “conflict over economic interests between residents” as Chung Yoon-jung and Kim Jin-A explain. Ironically, the mother of all mural villages –Ihwa Mural Village– seems to be most affected by these challenges, leading residents to destroying some of its most iconic art pieces.
But until now, the advantages seemingly still outbalance the negative side effects. Central and local governments still actively promote mural village projects and citizens form civic groups to undertake mural village projects to help raise awareness of otherwise silenced political issues, or simply to protect their neighborhood from demolition.
— Marion KDL
Visiting These Mural Villages
To help you better organize your travels, we’ve decided to split these villages into those that can be easily visited in a day-trip from and inside Seoul, and those that you would need to plan in a two-day trip for visiting.
Seoul, Gyeonggi Province
Ihwa Mural Village, nestled on a hill slope demarcated by Naksan Fortress Wall and Naksan Park, is without doubt the major K-Dramaland mural village. It has been featured in multiple dramas with characters that come here on dates, to enjoy some me-time, to pass through on their way to Naksan Park, or even those who call this place home. So it is no wonder that it made it to KDL’s 2018 end of the year review as one of the most seen neighborhoods that year.
Originally, the area now known as the mural village was a part of town where “refugees squatted after the end of the Korea War in the 1950s,” as Trent Holden mentions, and where low-earning “workers in the nearby garment and textile industries” lived in the decades to come, as Jennifer Flinn adds.
But a government-funded project — that is known under multiple names like ‘Ihwa-dong Naksan Project’, ‘Naksan Art Project’ or ‘Art in the City – Naksan Cultural Project’ (see here or here) — which ran from May to December 2006 turned this area upside down in re-looking it through murals. The murals were painted on stone walls, staircases and walking paths by an eclectic group of 68 residents, artists, college students and volunteers, with a budget of 350 million won (approx. $35,000). Sculptures were also set up as part of the project.
In 2013, artists were again invited to add some more artwork to the neighborhood. Simultaneously, this mural village was showcased in K-Dramas, which increased the influx of tourists in this area.
Whereas this was the wished-for effect at first, residents started to feel negative impacts as their privacy and life routines in general were intruded upon by the daily visitors. The local government thus implemented the ‘Silent Campaign’ to encourage tourists to behave in a manner that is respectful to residents when they visit. This is why signboards now remind visitors about the real people that live here, and that they should visit respectfully. But this measure seemingly did not suffice. In 2016, iconic K-Drama locations like the goldfish staircase and the flower staircase were painted over as a tourist countermeasure by the residents themselves. A recent effect study on this mural village by Kim Minkyun and Park Jina thus also shows that Ihwa Mural Village still struggles to maintain a very fragile equilibrium as “the residents are satisfied with physical maintenance of the residential environment but not with various problems caused by tourists”.
— Marion KDL
Goyang, Gyeonggi Province
Spanning a length of 4km, Hwajeon-dong Mural Village [화전동벽화마을] has 8 mural streets of various themes spread out around the area. Originally an undeveloped area in Goyang city due to limitations in regional development, Hwajeon (previously named as such because of its many flowers — 花田洞) was given new life after residents took on this special mural project to spruce up the alleys.
— Mich KDL
Incheon, Gyeonggi Province
Located in Incheon, Ugak-ro Mural Village [우각로문화마을] or ‘Ugakro Cultural Village’ has its origins in the same 2006-07 ‘Art in the City’ project as Ihwa Mural Village, to revitalize this part of town. What sets this mural village a little bit apart from most others is that the murals are scattered throughout the streets. Visiting this mural village is thus akin to with discovering the murals and village itself. The streets of this village are also lined with quite a number of trumpet creepers and hibiscus flower trees/bushes, which makes a visit in summer (June to October) a particular pleasure. In fact, at this time of the year, the floral murals seem to outnumber the painted murals here.
Historically, Ugak-ro [우각로] –the middle road that gives this village its name– was the only road leading to Seoul from Incheon’s Jemulpo Port (opened in 1883) and was the first road from which a nationwide road network under Gojong [고종때] was established.
— Marion and Mich KDL
Incheon, Gyodong Island
Strictly speaking, Gyodong Daeryong Market [대룡시장 or 교동대룡리시장] is not a mural village per se, but this traditional market also has a mural alley, known as the ‘Mural of Memories [추억의 대룡시장 벽화골목]. This little town area thus comes with an eclectic mix of rather modern murals (and at least one fun sculpture) that depict scenes of village life, along with a film-set like traditional market that hasn’t changed much since its origins from the end of the Korean War.
Gyodong Daeryong Market is located on Incheon’s Gyodong Island [교동면] and is still one of its central market places. Once tucked away on this island, it has received a greater visibility and influx of tourists with the building of Gyodong Bridge [교동대교] in 2014, which connected the island to the main land. This also was the case with the market being showcased in two end-of-year dramas, The Legendary Witch and Rosy Lovers, at the same time. Visitors of this market highlight how it seems to be stuck in the 1960-70s and that it feels to be walking through an animated film set. Also, the geographical proximity and historical connection to North Korea of this market makes it a distinct location.
— Marion KDL
Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk Province
(2.5hrs south of Seoul by public transport)
Suamgol Mural Village [수암골 벽화마을] is located in the city of Cheongju [청주시]. Park Moon Kyou and Kim Jin-young, authors of a 2014 case study on this mural village, found that the reason Suamgol Village attracts numerous tourists is “thanks to imaging cultural contents including murals and filming locations of famous dramas”. And it is true: Since the end of each series that has filmed here, their main locations — the ‘Glory Noodle Shop’, ‘Fullmoon’ and ‘Palbong Bakery’ — have been converted into fully-functioning food and beverage outlets, and continue to be open for business till today. And it is even convenient for visiting — they are all within 1-3 mins walking distance of each other.
— Mich and Marion KDL
Donghae, Gangwon Province
(4hrs east of Seoul by public transport)
Nongoldam-gil Street [동해 논골담길 or 논골담길 for short], also called Nongol Village [논골마을], is an umbrella term for a couple of streets decorated with murals in the seaside city Donghae [동해시], in South Korea’s east coast. In K-Dramaland, it is probably best known for the village to which Cha Eun-sang moved together with her mother in the final stretch of The Heirs.
In real life, Nongol Village was where people that made a living through the close-by fishing industry had settled; an industry that has since diminished. When residents started to move out of this part of town as their work prospects declined, the Donghae Cultural Center set in motion the project ‘Mukho Deungdae Damhwa’ in 2010 which focused on revitalizing this part of town through colorful murals. The project was set up in a participative approach in which the residents of the village were interviewed and their (life) stories were then painted on the walls, with the help of professional painters.
— Marion KDL
Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam Province
(3hrs east of Busan by public transport)
Dongpirang Mural Village [동피랑벽화마을] is located on one of Tongyeong’s hilltops, offering a splendid view over the city with its islands and harbor. It is no wonder that some of K-Dramaland residents have chosen this village as their hometown — like Kang Gon in Item (2019), Kang Ma-roo and Seo Eun-gi in Nice Guy (2012), and Yang Kang-cheol in Padam Padam (2011-12).
This part of town –consisting of “around 50 small slate and cement-block houses“– was slated to be demolished and redeveloped in 2007 (other sources say 2006) to make way for a park. When the news spread, civic group ‘Blue Tongyeong 21 (푸른통영21)’ (also known as the ‘Green Tongyeong 21 Commission’) formed in the village’s defense and held a mural contest with a grand prize of 30 million won (approx. $3,000). 36 mural artists from all over the country joined Tongyeong Major Jin Euy-ang (himself a painter) and transformed this place into the mural village it is known as today. Later, Dongpirang gained “fame as Korea’s Montmartre, drawing an average of 20-30 tourists on weekdays and 200-300 on weekends,” as Son Min-ho and Lim Jae-un explain in the Korea Joongang Daily.
— Marion KDL
We hope this blogpost has given you greater insight into Korea’s mural villages and how they’re much more than just beautiful paintings on walls — they signify a sort of artistic redemption, if you’d like, to breathe much-needed color and life back into them.
Leave us a comment and tell us about your favorite mural or mural village!
And remember: be kind when visiting, because real people live behind the walls of the houses that these murals so proudly adorn.