Village of the Ants

Written by on February 10, 2012 in Travel
Two of Seoul’s most striking features are its ragged mountain terrain, and the imbalance in urban development seen throughout the city. These two features come together in Gaemi Maeul — or Ant Village — a small community built on the western shoulder of Inwang Mountain.
Named for its residents’ industrious spirit, Ant Village is a hillside community of rustic buildings made of cinder blocks, sheet metal, and ceramic tiles located in Hongje-dong, a neighbourhood of Seodaemun District in northwestern Seoul. Most of the 400 residents are in their 50s and 60s, and have spent their whole lives here, overlooking the city as it grew below them.

The city rises up below Ant Village.

This area is one of Seoul’s few remaining dal dongnae (moon village), built high up on the slope of an urban mountain or hill where one can be closer to the moon. Moon villages have their origins in 1953, when Seoul residents moved back into a devastated postwar city. Wealthier people claimed the more convenient lowlands, and the poor had to build their homes at higher altitudes. What started as tent encampments developed into more permanent residences, and due to the extreme terrain that was unsuitable for larger construction projects, these neighbourhoods were protected from urban renewal for decades.

From one side you get an excellent view of the other side.

As Korean transportation and construction improve over the decades, redevelopment climbs the slopes of the mountains, replacing the moon villages with modern highrises. This has led to feelings of nostalgia for this rustic way of living. Ant Village was the shooting location for the 2004 film When I turned Nine, a drama set in the 1970s, and it needed absolutely no dressing up to get the right effect for the era. Time Magazine wrote a feature about it, advising “those interested in a glimpse of mid-20th century Seoul will enjoy visiting this unique enclave while it’s in its original form.” It has become quite a surprising domestic tourist destination; looking back up at the top photo in this story, see how many photographers you can count.
They’re everywhere…like ants at a picnic.
In 2007, the laws were changed to allow redevelopment in areas like this. However, the only development in the area, sponsored by Kumho Engineering & Construction, was a beautification project. In August 2010, Kumho sent art students to breathe life into the aging buildings through mural artwork. Five themes were chosen for 51 murals, such as family and film.

Art fuses with architecture and terrain.

Suddenly, Ant Village became something to be celebrated, not tucked away and forgotten. Suddenly it was socially acceptable to visit this area and admire the majesty in this community, itself evident of the nation’s will to overcome all the bad fortunes handed to it throughout the 20th century.

An excellent time to visit is early spring, when everything is starting to blossom.

The residents, now finding their lives inside a living museum, have taken this initiative in stride. The artwork places their homes on display, and communicates a message to the casual onlooker.

Hello!

Here’s some more of the artwork around the Ant Village.

Sunflowers make a crack in the wall seem more dramatic.

With artwork it gives the impression these small homely buildings could just fly off.

Wall pigs!

A slight attention to detail transforms an ordinary wall.

I don’t even know what this is.

Even the stairs get a makeover.

As you can tell, it’s a popular spot with photographers.

Residents and guests mingle together.

The steep roads make for some beautiful views.

Even without street art, there is beauty in the old buildings.

Definitely more fun to photograph than a complex of We’ves.

Be sure to watch out for guard dogs.

There’s even a Buddhist temple near the bottom of the hill.

The 7 bus frequently runs between Hongje Station (exit 2) and the top of the hill.

Never has there been a better time to take the advice of a fox wearing a shirt and tie.

Areas like this have been popping up all across the country, giving artists an opportunity to flex their creative muscles on a uniquely Korean canvas, and providing a shot in the arm for local businesses that otherwise wouldn’t get so many customers. While Korean society continues to develop, people are finding a way to keep the uniqueness of neighbourhoods like these alive and relevant.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is an editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats