The Myth of Ihwa Mural Village: Social Media, Tourism, and Place Identity

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Youjeong Oh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Studies and author of Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place, led the April 18th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed how “the transmedia circulation of images” can create “new identity myths” for places that shift their socioeconomic realities and grant them “branding power.”

Oh’s primary case study for this discussion and her unpublished essay, “From Concrete Walls to Digital Walls: Transmedia Image Circulation and the Making of Mural Villages in Korea,” concerned the impact that Korean television and social media have had on Ihwa Village, a former “shantytown” built on unoccupied hillsides in Seoul by garment factory owners and their workers. She explained that this village is now a tourism hot spot known as Ihwa Mural Village and valued for its romantic and quaint atmosphere. In 2006 the South Korean government commissioned 68 artists to paint murals in Ihwa Village to “improve” the aging and neglected neighborhood. According to Oh, the village became an international tourist destination and a popular filming location since the well-known Korean television show 2 Days and 1 Night tasked actor and singer Lee Seun-gi with taking pictures in front of some of the murals in 2010. Fans of that show and television dramas that also featured Ihwa village flocked to the neighborhood to recreate televised scenes, initiating the now thriving trend of traveling to Ihwa Village to take selfies and post them on social networks. Oh showed Faculty Fellows how Instagram contains countless pictures of tourists posing in front of the village’s now iconic murals of angel wings, balloons, and flower stairs.

Part of Oh’s attempt to analyze the relationship between the identity myth of the mural village and the village’s portrayal in social media has been to consider what social media’s images of Ihwa Village leave out. Residents’ erasures of several of Ihwa Village’s best known murals and the existence of a “Silent Tourism Campaign” indicate that those living in the village have had some negative reactions to its transformation into a tourist destination. However, Oh’s research suggests that “most residents are satisfied with the very fact that their property values are soaring” due to touristification, which Oh defines as “tourism induced gentrification.”

Oh also observed that the initial mural project represented an attempt to “‘cover up’ the neglected urban fabric” of a historically marginalized and impoverished neighborhood and noted that it ignored the necessity of improvements to housing and infrastructure in Ihwa Village. Features of the village such as undersized houses and “half-torn” walls, “the very symptoms of marginalization,” are now valued by tourists for their aesthetic qualities, according to Oh. Further, Oh suggested that Ihwa Village’s representation in entertainment and social media has given tourists reasons to value the mural village that are largely unrelated to its history (their favorite show may have been filmed there, for example).  Because Ihwa Village’s new identity developed as a result of a mural project and media representations that paid relatively little attention to the village’s past or its residents’ experiences, the tourists’ myth of the mural village obscures the realities of Ihwa Village’s social context.

Faculty Fellows responded to Oh’s discussion of Ihwa Village by noting that similar aesthetic improvement projects have been completed in marginalized sections of cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Medellín, Columbia. Fellows suggested that the extent to which these projects benefit the communities they are intended to serve depends on whether these communities are involved and invested in the project. Fellows also discussed how the appeal of posting selfies at tourist destinations like Ihwa Village on social media platforms lies in the exhibition of sociocultural capital that comes with publicly documenting a supposedly authentic experience of a culturally significant place. Further, Fellows noted that social media platforms function as storytelling devices and agreed that the images, text, and/or hashtags of social media posts Oh analyzed were being used to construct or participate in narratives of place, self, and society.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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