In the 1960s, small scale iron and steel working facilities began transferring out of the core of Seoul around Cheonggyecheon (청계천) to Mullae (문래), which was toward the southwest and at that time largely outside the city. Industry boomed in Mullae throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but started to slow in the 1990s as costs in the area increased compared to outlying provinces (and mainland China). Demand also decreased as the South Korean economy slid dramatically toward the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
By the mid-2000s, the number of empty industrial facilities in Mullae had increased considerably, and these cheap small spaces — often only about the size of a one- or two-car garage — began to attract the attention of artists that increasingly were being priced out of Hongdae (홍대) on the other side of the Han River (한강). Artists in the area began referring to Mullae as the Mullae Art Village (문래동 예술촌) soon thereafter, and the Seoul government began formally supporting the concept by 2013.
Mullae is well known among Korean tourists — and Korean photographers, in particular — but at the time that we first wrote this piece, the area had yet to receive any significant attention on the big tourist advisory sites or yet to be considered a tourist attraction on the world's search engine. Accordingly, travelgasm.com considers it to be a solid choice for our "7 Things Tourists Don't Do in Seoul, but You Should."
What is particularly interesting about the Mullae Art Village is that unlike some locations around the world that have been gentrified, the relationship between the "old" industry and "new" art feels largely symbiotic rather than competitive or parasitic, at least for now. The artwork is heavily industrial in its character with sculptures that often appear to be made from scrap metal left over from industrial production and some murals even are honoring of the industrial workers and their craft. There are fashionable new coffee shops, restaurants, and a digital studio or two, but there also are new industrial businesses that produce trendy shelving made from planks and pipes and shops that design and produce ultramodern handmade furniture. This is all alongside and interspersed with decidedly old school metal fabrication shops that have been there for decades.
The character of the neighborhood is quite different depending on when you visit. If you visit in the mid-morning during the week, the trendy shops tend to be asleep, but the industrial workshops are up-and-running at full tilt with real men operating heavy machinery and cutting, shaping, bending, grinding, and welding sheet metal, steel rods, and pipes into finished products. Don't bother these guys when they're working. Heavy industrial equipment is dangerous.
By the afternoon during the week, the trendy businesses have sprung to life alongside the industrial ones. On the weekends, industry largely takes a break and camera wielding groups of Korean tourists are easy to spot photographing the artwork and hanging out at the coffee shops and restaurants. In the evenings, some of these places serve alcohol and become more like bars; but they tend to be low key and people are sitting around, chatting, or even reading, rather than drinking heavily.
The best time to visit depends on the Mullae that you would most like to see. It would be easy to assume that over the years the heavy industry will go away and it will become more and more full of trendy shops and tourists, but Mullae is a fairly distant location — four metro stations and a river from the core of Hongdae rather than right next door. Although there are notable exceptions, many of the structures were intended to be temporary, have been poorly maintained, and have far less architectural character than older structures in other neighborhoods like Ikseondong (익선동), so there appears to be less interest in restoring it completely. Mullae could remain a largely "hidden gem" for a while longer. Alternately, there have been various redevelopment proposals over the years, and the entire area very well could be leveled and replaced by tower apartment blocks like much of the rest of the district.
To eat in Mullae, we enjoyed the La Crescenta coffee and dessert shop for a yogurt shake, the Chichipopo Library "Bookcafe & Gallery" (치포리) for a Korean lunch, and the Old Mullae (올드 문래) for European-inspired pub grub at one time or another, but feel free to wander around and find your own favorites.
If the purpose of art is to make you think, the fusion of industry and art in Mullae is particularly compelling because it definitely makes you question the nature of both. Is the pile of pipes art? Is it just a pile of pipes? Is the industrial worker shaping pipes into precise U-bends more or less of an artist than the creative shaping pipes into a giraffe? Is the work intended to be art? Does the intention matter if it seems like art to you? Discuss it over a coffee or drink.
We've mapped out the quick route to Mullae Art Village from Mullae Station below. We've also noted the heaviest industrial areas so that you can either see them or avoid them, depending on your preference. Be careful and pay attention.
How to Get Here: Take the Green Line (Line 2) to Mullae Station. Take Exit 7 and turn left. The Art Village portion of Mullae starts in about a block on the left hand side of the street.
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