The Unintentional Tragedy of Well-Intended Social Projects

Blooming sunflowers on stone walls, mosaic flowers and swimming carps on stairs, wing of lost angel next to a house—these beautiful pictures of Ihwa Mural Village initially lured me into visiting. On my actual visit, however, it was not the cute little paintings on the wall that greeted me but aggressive messages painted in a violent red color by an angry villager— “The Rights to Rest”; “We Are Not Monkeys in the Cage”.

In 1958, the Ihwadong village was constructed in its current form under the government. The village was based on a “townhouse model”, where all the houses were constructed in similar floor place. In the 1980s, however, followed by a declining apparel industry, the village started to fall behind. Traffic inconvenience and restricted Housing Reconstruction control exacerbated the situation. In 2006, the government came to the rescue. It decided to launch a project called “Naksan Public Art Project,” where 68 artists were brought together to transform the village into piece of art–murals and artworks. After 100 days, the Ihwadong village was no longer a townhouse, but a “mural village.”

Patches of vibrant colors splashed on the walls of the village definitely added some bright atmosphere in the area. Even the residents themselves were proud of their village’s renaissance at first. In fact, Ihwadong is not the first village that launched such an initiative, as the success story of Gamcheon mural village in Busan motivated Ihwadong to follow the same model. Indeed, as expected, the mural played a big role in establishing vibrancy, tourism, and safety. Even the police statistically informed that the mural actually decreased the crime rates at mural painting villages.

Although the mural project brought these vibrancy and safety to the village, a few major conflicts had also been growing among the people in this region. More visitors and tourists flooding into the village ignited tensions between the shop owners and residents. These shops began to take place as the public’s interest grew. Landowners welcomed these shops, for they bring more wealth. The local government also held the hands of shop owners, as they added economic value to the village. However, due to multiplying numbers of shops, the residents started losing their homes, not to mention facing harder economic difficulties. Also, due to the attraction of visitors, the residents started suffering from noise pollution. In the end, at core of the conflict stood the economic interest of the shop owners and the serenity the residents had been demanding for the past several years.

Additionally, conflicts between the government and residents took place in the village as well, due in part to a lack of communication. The residents filed a civil complaint about the noise pollution visitors were creating. However, due to the fact that the visitors brought economic benefits that filled its budget, the government was passive in fulfilling the demand of the residents. After several attempts, the residents¬—enraged that their government was not hearing their voices—were pushed to an extreme solution: vandalism. They poured cement on a famous fish mosaic on a central staircase and wrote complaints with red spray paint on the walls of their houses.

Smiley face On the community level, a sharp contrast between the mural and the mural-less neighbor part of the village created an unfortunately vicious cycle—the sudden change of the atmosphere, determined by the existence of paintings, selectively attracted the visitors, leaving the neighboring mural-less region even more neglected and avoided. In addition, on the way to Ihwa mural village, it’s not hard to notice a lot of luxurious hotels and houses on Namsan, another famous tourist attractions, right next to crippling small markets and houses. Ihwa mural village as a tourist attraction seems to have exacerbated the poverty gap even within the area.

Even though the tragedy of Ihwa mural village seems to portray the failure of Public Art Projects in general, it is important to acknowledge and learn from other successful cases where murals brought positive effects. Mural village in Gamcheon 2-dong shows what it takes to ensure a long-lasting harmony among the residents, government, and tourists: bottom-up approach, co-creation, and communication.

Using a bottom-up approach was one of the key components in the success of Gamcheon mural village. The very first step of bottom-up approach is the voluntary involvement of the residents. The city hall and the gu-office (gu is the Korean term for county) first provide budgets for the improvements of the village. Allocation of the budget is then moved into the hands of the local residents. Residents themselves have the opportunity to consider what tourist attraction and system they can provide as a village. This type of self-supporting community creates a community business with the residents having a sense of ownership, which was one key factor in maintaining the success of mural village in Gamcheon 2-dong that even led to a culture autonomy committee.

It is important to remember that not only the preparation step, but also the implementation and evaluation step should be co-created by the government, artists, and the local residents. If mural village in Gamcheon 2-dong only had the residents as its actor, the success wouldn’t have been in long-term. In order to raise the quality of the project, the residents in Gamcheon 2-dong allowed the stakeholder and professionals to be involved in the project. Both the inside and the outside members of the community played a role in creating the still beloved mural village. The success of mural village in Gamcheon 2-dong portrays a message: in the process of creating a city, the city government’s leadership and strategy is important. However, the local citizen’s cooperation is a must. Comprehensive and continuing participation and cooperation is the key to a successful Public Art Project.

Participation and cooperation can take place under one condition—communication. Communication during the project is obviously necessary, but even after the project is done, ceaseless feedback is what fuels the mural village towards further improvement. For instance, Gamcheon 2-dong citizens’ community committee gathers complaints about any inconvenience, which are relayed to the village headman. Then the village headman collects these complaints and delivers them to the higher authorities—the chief of the village, and eventually the government. This continuous loop of feedback beautifully demonstrates what a constant communication can do to benefit both the community and the government.

Based on the strikingly different outcomes of similar Public Art Projects carried out in two villages, Ihwadong and Gamcheon 2-dong, a few suggestions can be made for the future Public Art Projects. First, ample preparation on researching the city’s characteristics is needed before progressing on the project in the region. It is important to acknowledge that a simple imitation of other successful Public Art Projects does not guarantee another success in different region. After sufficiently researching on the characteristic of the city, the people involved in the project should investigate thoroughly on what kind of distinct characteristics to highlight and what parts of the previous projects they can derive from.

For example, in Ihwa mural village, the rampart that half-encircles the village is the unique beauty that could have been highlighted. Instead of making photo spots like the sunflower and the wing mural—indistinctive imitations of the Gamchen mural village—utilizing the cultural heritage site could have led to more civic awareness as well as distinctiveness. Not only physical aspects, but also the distinct cultural aspects of the village should be respected so that different villages launch “customized” public art projects that lead to success.

Along with capturing the region’s distinct beauty, decentralizing responsibility is another key component in the stage of project approval. The community business could be responsible at the citizen level and the compilation of budget could be responsible at the city or gu level. Portioning out the plans in the project to various authorities will increase the efficiency, attachment, proficiency, and even a sense of true community. However, professionalism is also something that cannot be neglected in a large scaled public projects. Therefore, I suggest that while decentralizing responsibilities to different sectors, the roles of cultural artists, administrators, and residents should be divided according to their specialties.

Based on the fact that one of the biggest conflicts within the Ihwadong mural village is between the residents and the shop owners, making a resident-based commerce may be a future suggestion. Since the cafes and business blooming in the village lead to the noise pollution and complaints, providing the economic benefits from these businesses to the residents living in inconvenience may reduce the complaints.

In order to make a cooperative creation strategy, agreement on a common goal is the first step. In the preparation step of the project, tolerance and clear progress need to be guaranteed. Furthermore, the participants should be allowed to plan for the progress of the project. In the progress step, responsibility needs to be emphasized and leadership should be displayed. Lastly, when problems occur after the project is finished, fact relevance should be confirmed and the solution should be provided all together with the participants.

Visiting Ihwa mural village, I definitely learned the importance of sociological projects revitalizing the village, and what good intention the project had for the village. However, paintings buried under cements and furious red marks over what was once art aroused my attention in what it takes to avoid failures to these well-intended social projects.

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