The Dragon’s Head Neighborhood (龍頭洞), Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul

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I’m going to try something different in this post. Usually, after getting rolls of film developed, I will pick out the most compelling film photos, tag on some iPhone pics, and write up a post based on that time and place. It sates an immediate craving to share what I have discovered.  This post is part accident and experiment. I take a lot of pictures, and sometimes I forget about them. At the same time, I thought it would be interesting to take a step back from immediate gratification posts and present documentation of all my visits to an urban redevelopment zone in the Dragon’s Head neighborhood in Northeastern Seoul.

In total, I went to the Dragon’s Head five times. My first visit was on April 20th, 2019. It was still in the early stages of abandonment.

The taggers beat me to the place.  I concede the murals are vivid, alluring, and colorful. They’re not as dumb as the scribble throw-ups you see everywhere.  However, I’m turned off by what they did the rows of hanok. The graffiti looks out of place on the beautiful doors. It does not blend well with the tiled roof. There is no harmony or synthesis of old and new here— just nihilism. A temporary installation that will be knocked down eventually.

Gongga (공가 空家) means empty house.


More graffiti! This would not be the last instance.

Besides the graffitied hanok, Dragon’s Head had a couple clusters of This first visit was a scouting mission, to get the lay of the land. The brown tarps used to cordon off the condemned area hadn’t been put up yet. A few families still hadn’t evacuated from their homes. I didn’t take a chance of going into buildings. The empty houses were mostly locked up. It would take time before neighbors would knock down the doors in search or something to resell. With patience and caution, I was confident I would be able to see inside some of the hanok of this neighborhood.

After a considerable amount of time, I returned on September 14th to investigate any progress occurring in the neighborhood.  Nature was beginning to reclaim the neglected streets and alleyways. IMG_0979sept141000030IMG_0981

I think my self-restraint paid off. On this visit, I found a bunch of hanok with kicked-in doors. Neighbors raided the left behind electronics, or construction workers began to use the houses as trash receptacles. I came across a hanok that was modernized inside and would still be a charming place to live.

The demolition was beginning to pick up, so I came back two weeks later on September 29th to explore other pockets of Dragon’s Head. I brought a crew with me. Shane, Enki, and I surveyed a new alley that was filled with lots of fascinating artifacts.  Each house in that alleyway offered a small view of the occupants’ lives. We spent hours coming across childhood photos, certificates, bujeok, or military IDs. I’m not sure if Shane or Enki were as fascinated by these modern relics, but I hope they were still intrigued by the spectacle.  Pardon the light leaks in some of the photos.

As we began to head out, we came across the hanok cluster tagged by graffiti artists. The doors had been knocked down, allowing us to wander around inside. Not much inside, except to admire the doors and woodwork. Afterward, we took an analog self to proclaim this adventure a victory.

December 8th was my last real exploration of the neighborhood. I did come back around the start of the new year to see if there was anything else I might have missed. Most of everything was gone at this point. A few buildings still hung around, but the area was about eighty percent gone.  Anyways, armed with my iPhone and a medium format camera, I was able to take some 6×4.5 photos of buildings I hadn’t got into. At this stage, the tan tarps draped the entire area, even the graffitied hanok. These tarps are meant to only be mental barriers; they are usually hastily constructed. I can guarantee you will always find an easily accessible gap. Most locals are not curious about what’s going on behind the tarp. The tarps serve as a visual band-aid for the passersby to not be subjected to griminess of urban redevelopment. Here are some of the 6×4.5 photos. As you will see, I have a thing for hanok doors.

000001 2000002000004000007000011000013000014 copy000015 2000014000015On this particular day, I ran into another foreigner, eager to explore the demolition zone. I saw this guy as I did my walk around. He was carrying around a pricey HD video camera on a bulky tripod. A visible sign that he wasn’t an urban explorer. Turns out, he is a professor that has an apartment in the area. Curiosity got the best of him, and Professor wanted to document the neighborhood before it all came down. We engaged in small talk, but mostly he was absorbed in shooting the area. I can’t blame him, I get in that same zone while exploring.

While I get absorbed in my explorations, I can still maintain a level of awareness of my surroundings. I noticed a worker heading our way, so I decided to go the other way. Professor continues walking towards the wreckage of a church. This is where we went our different ways. I wonder if Professor was asked to leave. As our paths diverged, I found even more graffiti, which I presume was put up by the same artists mentioned before.

I am currently scouting out a couple of neighborhoods in the Gyeonggi-do and Seoul area. It will probably take me a while to post about them. While this post started out as an accident, I like the idea of posting in this format in the future. In the meantime, there is still plenty of material from the last four or five years I need to present. Thanks for reading.

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