Ihwa Mural Village continues its struggle with noisy tourists

By 줄리 잭슨 (Julie Jackson)
  • Published : May 22, 2016 - 18:03
  • Updated : May 22, 2016 - 20:44

On the night of April 15, a 55-year-old resident of the Ihwa Mural Village surnamed Park and two other accomplices took buckets of gray paint and painted away one of the village’s most famous, flower mosaic-tiled outdoor staircase murals. 

A week later on April 24, a 45-year-old resident surnamed Kwon and another person followed suit and went on to gray over another of the village’s most photographed 3-D koi fish painted staircase murals.

However, this act of vandalism was not committed as a means with no end; the paint was meant to send a message to the city and its tourists -- keep quiet. 

A view of the mosaic flowers outdoor stairwell in its original state at the Ihwa Mural Village in Seoul. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)
A view of the once mosaic flowers outdoor stairwell that has been painted over by disgruntled Ihwa Mural Village residents. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)

Deemed a cultural project in 2006 by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to transform the poor neighborhood into an artistic tourism landmark for the city, the village in Jongno, Seoul, is now home to dozens of colorful murals painted by various local artists and university students. 

However, murals are not the only visual stimuli that decorates this picturesque hillside village. Nowadays visitors will come across signs plastered at nearly every turn of the head asking people to respect the residents living in the area and keep the volume to a minimum. 

Mirroring the ongoing struggles of residents of the must-see Seoul tourist hot spot of Bukchon Hanok Village next to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the noise caused by the continuously growing tourist traffic is making the once-quiet neighborhood of Ihwa Mural Village virtually unbearable to live in for many of its local residents. 

A painted sign asking visitors to keep quiet at the tourist hot spot of Ihwa Mural Village. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)

However, the scores of signs begging guests to keep quiet appear to have done little to help the village residents sleep peacefully. 

“It’s not just the noise,” said one of the village’s local shop owners, asking not to be named.

“I know residents who have complained about the noise at all hours of the night, about people graffitiing their homes, tourists blocking traffic because they’re all over the road and about all the littering,” he continued. “It’s a serious problem that this neighborhood has been having for years. And despite all the formal complaints to the city by the residents here, it has made no difference. This is why I have chosen only to work here and to live far away from this area.” 

A view of the koi fish-painted stairwell prior to being painted over. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)
A view of the once koi fish-painted stairwell after it was painted over by disgruntled Ihwa Mural Village residents. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)

However, while the act of vandalism may have succeeded in voicing their message to the city, the actions have also led to some expected negative backlash.  

“Since the incident happened, sales at my shop have dropped 35 percent,” said the owner of Songahgi Jewelry, a boutique shop located directly at the foot of the former flower mosaic stairwell. “And no one knows how long the stairs are going to remain ‘under construction’ so I don’t see things improving any time soon, so that has me worried.” 

“To be honest, I’m not saying I don’t understand why those men did what they did and to some extent I feel their frustrations, but I think they took their actions too far,” she continued. “I think there are other ways in which the residents could have approached the issues without having to vandalize these artists’ works. I’ve noticed that some of the biggest issues with noise is with young kids and teens, I think we need to reach out to these young kids about proper etiquette in neighborhoods or else the problems are never going to go away.” 

Tourists wait to take pictures at the popular Ihwa Mural Village. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)

Many of the locals also have voiced their opinions about the situation on various social media outlets and appear to be split in their opinions, with some saying they would have done the exact same thing in order to get people to understand that visitors need to be quiet when wandering about the neighborhood, while others saw it as an unnecessary destruction of property and a disservice to the artists who volunteered their time and creativity to the destroyed works of art.

“Good for them, I have no issues with what they did,” said local university student Kim Se-hwan, who added that he decided to visit the village despite recent events.

“What do you mean good for them? Look what they did, they destroyed these beautiful pieces of art,” his friend quickly responded while pointing toward the now-grayed out staircases.

“No, I don’t agree at all,” Kim argued. “First and foremost we should be thinking about the rights of the residents that live here, not about the rights of tourists and the artists. People should be quiet and respectable because these residents have the right to enjoy peace and quiet when they are in their homes.”

A tourist poses for a picture in front of a mural at the Ihwa Mural Village. (Julie Jackson/The Korea Herald)

The fate of the village’s famed stairwells is still up in the air as the city will hold hearings to decide whether or not to repaint the murals. 

The worth of the vandalized flower mosaic stairs has been estimated at more than 40 million won ($33,600), while the koi fish painted staircase received an estimate of about 10,000 million won. According to the police, the five accused may face criminal charges for destroying public property.

By Julie Jackson (