“The day belongs to the factory workers, and the night belongs to the artists” is the unspoken rule of Mullae-dong.
In Mullae Art Village, one can experience a confluence of unlike characters. The original fabric of the village was first made by factory workers, whose steel plants pushed forward South Korea’s dreams of self-sufficiency in the 1960s. Interwoven within that cloth of over a thousand steel factories are the 200-300 local artists that presently live and work in studio spaces in the neighbourhood.
Since the 1960s, Mullae-dong has been viewed as a derelict area, the air constantly filled with black dust and with the raucous whirring of machinery. Seoulites, always pursuing the symbols of wealth and modernity, did not spare a glance at the area until as recently as 2-3 years ago. To many young people and more recently to the city of Seoul, Mullae has become a hotbed of street art, but compared to other art districts in Seoul, Mullae Art Village is only at its infancy. Samcheong-dong, Hyoja-dong, Hyehwa-dong, Itaewon, and Hongdae were the premiere art districts that came before Mullae, and the government support in these areas’ art scenes instigated a rise in rents and the subsequent exodus of the original artists to other parts of Seoul.
Between six and seven years ago, artists started moving in to Mullae-dong, particularly the second floors that had been left unoccupied by the factories for decades. The first places to see change were the small workshops around Mullaedong 3(sam)-ga, which still house some of the area’s oldest émigrés. Since early 2015, Mullaedong 1(il)-ga and Mullaedong 4(sa)-ga as well as the larger factory spaces in Mullaedong 3(sam)-ga have seen a similar pattern of evolution, resulting in the convergence of the practical and the creative that defines Mullae in the present.
At the beginning of the relationship, the artists were welcomed for bringing in new energy to the fading neighbourhood. The artists worked with the factory workers to create art pieces that livened up the streets that Seoulites turned their noses to just a few years ago. There was an implied balance, an understanding that while collaboration was the norm, they would not trespass on each other’s space. Reality, however, has not been so well-defined. The lego bricks and the quaint murals of the artists of Mullae Art Village instigated a change in a district in decline. No longer were Seoulites avoiding Mullae, they were flocking in by the dozens to take part in the newest trendy art scene. Viewing Mullae as a tourist spot rather than a place a business, visitors disrespectfully encroached on the workers’ professional spaces, leading many to hang up signs that requested people not to take pictures. The request was quickly ignored.
The attitude of the factory workers switched from welcoming to hostile within the past 2-3 years as the number of visitors increased and more spaces were bought up to be turned into cafes and restaurants. The growing interest in the neighbourhood led to increased investment by outside parties and in turn, increased rents that the factory workers could not hope to afford in a dying industry. In revolt, the factory workers ripped out or painted over the street art that made Mullae-dong famous among young people, but that has not stopped factories from being forced out by rising rents. The village’s raw atmosphere and relatively cheap prices sparked a still-growing attraction that could not be extinguished, and the balance between the workers and the artists has only grown more distressing.
The unspoken rule of night and day is not one made out of convenience but is the village’s defining characteristic which keeps it from becoming the Hongdae of present — a shell of its former face of young, experimental art. It is the mix of grimy, leaking two-storied buildings and colourful art that gives Mullae its particular charm, and when the balance has tipped too far towards art is when the warp of the cloth will separate from the weft, ripping apart the fabric of Mullae. Although small in numbers, the artists have the power to influence the place in which they have decided to adapt as their home.
As artists, what are we to do when the pursuit of our creative endeavors destroys the very thing that brought us here?