To many, Seoul is a city that is stark and clean. Cloned, white high-rise apartment buildings are replacing old, demolished houses, and graffiti and street art is rare. Some neighborhoods have yet to be redeveloped, such as my neighborhood in northeast Seoul, comprised of 1970s style houses with kimchi pots and gardens on rooftops. Others are slowly being converted, like Mullae (문래) the “art village of Seoul” situated in Youngdeungpo-gu on the west side of the city. Mullae is one of the few neighborhoods in Seoul where murals snake alongside the buildings and sculptures have been assembled on rooftops. But how long will this last?

In the 70s, the neighborhood was filled with small iron and steel factories, but many factories closed in the 90s when the area became overcrowded and the larger factories moved to the outskirts of Seoul. Also, many factories were abandoned during the financial crisis in the late 90s. Artists saw potential in Mullae’s desolate state, and when they moved in, they created street art that was harmonious with Mullae’s original atmosphere.

However, recent development in the surrounding area has led to gentrification; the metal shops and artists are slowly being pushed out. Many artists have become activists, creating art that strongly opposes these changes, since the redevelopment may eventually destroy all the hard work and passion they’ve devoted to establishing Mullae as an artists’ community.

A sculpture on the roof of Lab 39.

My friend was doing an art residency in Mullae, so one night, we wandered around the neighborhood, documenting the small factories, narrow alleyways and street art illuminated by the dim glow of street lights. Later, I shot a series of images in the daylight before mingling with mask dancers, painters, installation artists, performance artists and a guy who runs an online sex toy shop at a potluck party, most of whom live and work in this neighborhood.

The square format and red writing reminds me of a Korean seal used for signing documents.

The daylight revealed colorful imagery, beautifying each building’s tarnished walls and rusted metal, contrasting with Seoul’s usual bleak, beige high rises and sleek, gray towers. Other pieces merely captured my attention by their thought-provoking statements and their pure aesthetic quality. I walked along streets framed by long murals, and I strolled through an alleyway with paintings snaking along the walls and sculptures assembled next to colorful doors, listening to poetic recordings projected through speakers overhead. By day and night, I documented the creativity of this neighborhood with fresh eyes.

A portrait on the roof of Lab 39.

A worker left his old pants outside to gather icicles.

A doll is sticking out of the wall next to the cart.

To get to Mullae Artist Village (문래창작촌) and industrial area from Mullae stn, line 2, Exit 7 go South on Dangsan-ro (당산로), a slight left on Dangsan-ro-2-gil (당산로2길). Have you ever visited Mullae? What did you think?

Words and photographs by Sarah Shaw. She writes creative non-fiction, makes art, blogs at Mapping Words, and teaches English in Seoul. She’s also on Twitter .

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