Gamcheon Artist Village (naver 감천문화마을), also known as Taeguekdo Village, teeters precariously on a hill in Busan. It started out as a refugee camp during the Korean war. North Korean troops advanced pretty far down into what is today’s South Korea, but Busan was a strong-hold that wouldn’t budge. Seeking refuge in the hills is always a good idea, it’s easy to spot the advancing enemy and easy to defend your position (those hills would suck the energy out of most mortals).
What started off as a ramshackle collection of shacks developed into a village with a maze of narrow alleyways, steep staircases and colourful box-shaped houses.
History: Why is it also known as “Taeguekdo” Village? Gamcheon has a strange history intertwined with religion and war: the religionTaegukdo was founded in 1918 and states that the Taeguk, aka yin/yang symbol, represents the true meaning of life and the universe. Cho Je-chol converted many refugees by offering to uplift them from poverty and eventually he had so many followers that the religion’s headquarters moved here. I didn’t see any yin/yang symbols painted on the walls so I don’t know how popular it is nowadays. The main temple is located at the foot of the village but I didn’t have time to visit it.
During the 1970’s another movement took off, the Saemaeul “new village” movement, during which slate roofs replaced the pre-existing corrugated iron ones and running water was installed. Gamcheon only got electricity in 1965!
More recently, a government initiative was launched in 2009 to uplift the community via art and many people were sceptical at first. It turned out to be so successful that Gamcheon is now being touted as a great example of urban rejuvination and has had many official visitors from other countries seeking to improve their own shantytowns! Although this area is still seen as poor in comparison with other Busan neighbourhoods, it is definitely far more aestetically pleasing than modern Korea’s concrete jungle.
It must be pretty annoying to live there and have hundreds of tourist types traipsing past your house every day- especially when your front door opens right onto the walkway and everyone can see your laundry drying in the sun. There are loads of photogenic faces in Gamcheon- so many old people considering the hills! It’s worth noting that you should always ask permission before taking photos of people. Don’t be a dick- a little respect goes a long way. The walls are pretty thin, providing a living, breathing soundtrack to your journey through the labyrinth. Just before I left the village I saw 3 old men sitting at a table outside, having a very heated discussion. One of them reminded me of Carl Fredricksen from “Up”- same outfit but instead of his tennis ball-adorned walking cane, this guy’s chair had tennis balls as floor protectors. If they weren’t having an argument I would have asked for a photo.
Highlights: Most people go here to take photos of the Little Prince. When I got to Korea I was very surprised to learn how popular Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s literary character was here. In fact, I recently bought a mini book that features the Korean/ English version of the book complete with scetches at a local bookstore. The installations around Le Petit Prince change from time to time, as does the other murals so what you see on other blogs may not exist when you visit. I found the baby-faced pigeon gargoyles fascinating and creepy at the same time. For me, the best part was watching the locals, the soulful eldery characters, going about their daily business.
Novelty factor: You can buy a map at Haneul Maru (2,000 won at time of writing) and take a stamp tour of the photo gallery, book café, art shop and Gamnae Eoulteo observatory. If you get all the stamps you will receive two souvenir postcards at Haneul Maru.
Opening hours: You can visit the village between 9AM and 6PM.
How to get there: Take Line 1 (orange) in the direction of Sinpyeong. Get off at Toseong-dong (토성역, stop 107). Take Exit 8 and jump on mini-bus # 2 or 2-2 from outside the PNU Cancer Center and get off at Gamcheon Elementary School (감천초등학교). Alternatively, catch the 17 or 17-1 bus across from Busan Station. Get off at the last stop and walk to the mini-bus stop to take the 2 or 2-2 mini bus (“maeul”).
More photos on my Instagram page.