In the March 2019 issue of Gwangju News, I wrote an article introducing the reader to the world of urban exploration. It was written as a primer for those who had no idea that there was a culture (and many subcultures) of people who enjoy exploring man-made structures, often abandoned ones. This time I present my methods into exploring Korea in a way you might not have thought about before. I offer these tips after getting emails and DMs from people asking how to get into the hobby. I also get messages from people requesting exact locations, which is a faux pas in our community. I know from hanging out in the underground culture scene that people can be standoffish or elitist about newcomers. However, with a pastime like urban exploration, some discretion and gatekeeping is needed to preserve itself and not be destroyed or hijacked by outsiders. It’s not a justification, but I believe certain people in the punk/indie scenes of the 90s were snobbish to protect it from outsiders. I’d rather not be a jerk, but I don’t want to give information to people who might give our hobby a bad name. So, I would like to give everyone a shot at discovering urban exploration. By sharing my methodology for finding locations, I hope you will enjoy the hobby responsibly. I believe you can learn and discover more about Korean culture and society through this different form of recreation.
As I wander around cities throughout Korea, I am always keeping my eye out for clues that show a neighborhood is in the early stages of demolition and redevelopment. The most telling sign is if you see brown tarp or pastel-colored cloth scaffolding that is used to shield neighbors and passerby from the unpleasant scene of the eviction and removal of a community. Before the scaffolding is assembled, there are other indicators, such as buildings without any windows and spray-painted doors and windows. From my experience, red spray paint is the most commonly used color to indicate which buildings are being razed. Demolition workers spray phrases such as “removal” (철거) and “empty house” (공가) to identify the condemned houses and buildings. I’ve also seen large stickers used to show which buildings are vacant and ready for removal.
I also make use of online resources to find places to explore. Internet conglomerates Naver and Kakao have online maps with street view options that are extremely useful and convenient (if you know how to use them) when you don’t want to waste a day wondering around blind, hoping to stumble upon an abandonment. Google Maps is terrible here in Korea; I rarely use it finding my way around the city, let alone, finding new spots to explore. Searching keywords like “폐교” (closed school) or “폐쇄” (closure) will bring up some results. I also scan the terrain map of an area to search for old housing clusters, built in the days before urban planning. These tools have helped me tremendously, but this most significant aide in my search has been Instagram.
Searching hashtags on Instagram is something I check daily. It’s how I discovered an abandoned Buddhist temple and the Great Japan Hanok (大日本한옥 ) in separate northern Seoul neighborhoods. Just like the navigation tools mentioned above tools above, Instagram is handy for efficient explorations. I have found places using the same keywords I use for navigation maps, I even found a neighborhood once using “철거,” but typically I only see pictures of people’s remodeling their bathrooms. The hashtag I have the best luck with jaekaebal (재개발), or in English, redevelopment. Some people post pictures of urban renewal happening in their area with the name of the “동” or neighborhood in the photographs, making it easy for me to find the place. Other users are less forthcoming with their information, so I use landmarks I see from the photos to search for the location on Naver or Kakao maps. I have also found many abandonments this way.
Once I discover a neighborhood that is in the initial stages of a demolition operation, my documenting process begins. The primary motivation for exploring abandoned neighborhoods in Korea is to chronicle the area before it is razed and erased from people’s memory. Depending on the size of the redevelopment zone, I make numerous visits to the neighborhood, using various film formats and an iPhone to shoot scenes that capture my interest. It’s quite unbelievable what people leave behind as they vacate their residence or workplace. School annuals, wedding photos, bankbooks, hanbok (한복), even graduation certificates are typical examples of personal items that I find while investigating neighborhoods being redeveloped. Abandoned residences, stores, and even Shaman’s houses (무당집) are a dime-a-dozen to discover in the jaekaebaljiyeok (재개발지역) or redevelopment zone.
I offer these methods that I have gathered from years of trial and error. My advice is based on exploring Korea and might not be applicable in other places in the world, so take it with a grain of salt. When I lived in Japan, I relied on Google Maps. The process is still evolving. When I started this blog, I had years of photos that I needed to share immediately. Now, I try to balance writing about the past with my current explorations. These days I don’t share a neighborhood’s location until it is completely gone and have a full archive of photos to sift through. I will share a recent discovery but keep the details vague to protect it.
I leave you with this information. You can take it and try it out yourself, or you can read it to understand my process. I hope that you, dear reader, use it carefully and be mindful of your (and others) actions and behavior if you choose to go urban exploring in Korea.