Singer Psy, artists’ co-op duke it out over space

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Singer Psy, artists’ co-op duke it out over space

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Protesters call on Psy (left) to stop the forced eviction of Takeout Drawing, a cultural space in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, that is a tenant of Psy’s pricey building. [JoongAng Ilbo], Provided by Takeout Drawing

A few blocks away from the revelry and the craziness, the bars and the neon signs of central Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood in Yongsan District, is a road referred to as the Comme Des Garçons.

artists’ haven, known as Takeout Drawing, and the singer Psy, who catapulted to international stardom virtually overnight with his hit “Gangnam Style.”

Takeout Drawing is a rare, unique place that serves as an artist’s workspace, a lodging, a gallery and a coffee shop all in one. As part of the collective’s artist residency program, it offers the two-story space to a new artist every two months.

Each year, six artists get to work there and exhibit their creations while interacting with customers. That’s why Takeout Drawing refuses to be called a coffee shop.

But the problem is, the landlord wants it out.

That landlord is Psy — often described as a cultural ambassador in Korea due to his influence — who filed an eviction suit against the group in November.

He reportedly wants to renovate the building.

“This isn’t the first time that we were told to move out,” Choi Ji-an, one of the founders and owners of Takeout Drawing, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The artists’ haven opened in Samseong-dong, in southern Seoul, 10 years ago. “But what prompted us to speak out is that Psy resorted to violence to kick us out,” she added.

Choi, the co-owners of Takeout Drawing as well as its supporters have argued that there are irregularities in the contract and have resisted calls to move out.

That’s why, two times in March, people hired by Psy’s side — presumably gangsters — trespassed into Takeout Drawing’s space, made verbal and physical threats and forcibly removed furniture and other items.

They also set up a fence.

The singer’s supporters argue that, because he owns the building, he can do whatever he wants with it within the law. They further claim that Takeout Drawing is merely attempting to grab on to his fame and use the media attention to its advantage.

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Artist Shin Jae-hyun (left), who is taking part in a residency program hosted by Takeout Drawing, has placed his artwork in the windows of the building, as well as furniture, to prevent hired thugs from causing chaos. Provided by Takeout Drawing

Yet, critics say that although the current system may be designed that way, as a cultural icon Psy should be behaving better.

There are a number of technical and legal issues surrounding the fight and the contract between the artists and Psy over the pricey estate.

Still, this is not an isolated case.

The situation is just one part of a sort of gentrification taking hold in Korea in which interest in a neighborhood suddenly peaks among artist workshops, galleries and independent shops and cafes.

But, perhaps ironically, as the area’s popularity takes off, those same artists and shop owners — as well natives who have lived there for generations — begin to migrate elsewhere.

That’s because the increase in clientele and publicity usually results in big-name franchises like Starbucks, Zara, Olive Young and Paris Baguette setting up shop.

The commercialization causes rents to skyrocket, and as the artists and shop owners who can no longer afford the rent move out, the neighborhood loses its distinct color, becomes yet another Myeong-dong, filled with tourists and traffic.

“Gentrification” was a term coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to describe a phenomenon, notably in London, in which the middle classes moved en masse into urban areas, displacing lower-class residents and thereby transforming the social character of the neighborhood.

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Takeout Drawing is a unique space that serves as an artist’s workspace, a lodging, a gallery and a coffee shop. Provided by Takeout Drawing

But the case involving Takeout Drawing and Psy has gained considerable media attention primarily because of the collective’s influence in Korea’s artistic circles and Psy’s status and international appeal.

Multitudes of similar cases, however, go unnoticed.

The Myeong-dong, Sinchon, Insa-dong and Garosu-gil areas lost their individuality long ago, observers say.
It’s possible the areas near Gyeongbok Palace — Samcheong-dong, Bukchon and Seochon — can be saved, they added, though gentrification is already under way.


Money is the issue

When Takeout Drawing first opened here in 2010, the building was worth around 3.5 billion won ($3.2 million), according to Choi.
But as the haven gained popularity, particularly after being featured in the 2012 hit film “Architecture,” its value soared.

Psy reportedly bought the place for 7.8 billion won, and its current worth is estimated to around a whopping 10 billion won at the very least, according to sources in the real estate market.

“The reward for making the area a popular, go-to place, however, is a forced kick-out,” Choi said. “We realized in the current system, the rights of the tenants are not guaranteed.”

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Psy is Takeout Drawing’s third landlord in just five years. As the prices for the property rose sharply over such a short period, it changed hands frequently, and the promises made by the former landlord became void when new landlord arrived.

The reason Takeout Drawing settled here, it’s co-founders say, was because the collective wanted a place where it could operate long term, become a part of the neighborhood, interact with the locals and make art together.

Its first landlord promised, in a special clause in the written contract, to extend the rent as long as the group needed. But in just six months the first landlord sold the property, and those words were not longer valid.

With the accompanying media scrutiny, Psy has taken a step back and postponed the forced eviction planned for April 22.

Yang Hyun-suk, the founder and CEO of YG Entertainment, Psy’s talent agency, even stepped forward to mediate. Choi confirmed that Yang called her and said he would try to help both parties find a middle ground.

Nonetheless, just in case thugs attempt again to force their way in, performance artist Shin Jae-hyun, who is currently taking part in Takeout Drawing’s residency program, has placed his works in the windows of the building as well as furniture.

“People [attempting to break in] break the windows and remove furniture,” he explained. “By law Psy and Takeout Drawing have a landlord-tenant relationship, but I’m in a unique position, relatively free from that correlation.”

Gone neighbors

The case faces a critical juncture this week.

For starters, a group of lawmakers will attempt to pass revisions to the current tenant protection law on commercial buildings at the National Assembly on Wednesday to help tenants have a bigger say.

“It’s a pity how this is happening at the building owned by Korea’s so-called cultural president, Psy,” Rep. Woo Won-shik, a member of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, told reporters visiting the artists’ collective on April 27. “I’ll do my best to revise the current law.”

Among other things, the revisions include making sure tenants get back the premium they paid to the former tenant from the landlord if the landlord plans to use the property for personal purposes. Typically, tenants must move out without getting anything in return.

In this case, Takeout Drawing paid 65 million won to the former tenant, who previously operated a barbecue place there. Should Psy really renovate the building as he says and use it for himself, Takeout Drawing won’t be able to reclaim any of that money.

The first hearing in the ongoing eviction suit Psy filed against Takeout Drawing is also scheduled for this week on Thursday.

Officials representing Takeout Drawing told the Korea JoongAng Daily that they plan to emphasize the fact that there were multiple irregularities when Psy purchased the building - for which they claim to have obtained adequate physical evidence.

It remains to be seen how Psy will react.

YG Entertainment’s spokeswoman Hwang Min-hee told the Korea JoongAng Daily that the agency could not comment on what Psy planned to do at the hearing or in the future.

But according to insiders, the area around Psy’s building has all been bought up by large conglomerates like Samsung Group. So even if Takeout Drawing manages to stay, changes to the area may be inevitable.

Saving grace

In Seochon - the cluster of neighborhoods west of Gyeongbok Palace - commercialization may stop or slow down, with its unique identity restored and preserved.

This comes after critics and the media have on numerous occasions expressed concern that the areas surrounding the palace, those both traditional and modern - namely, Seochon, Bukchon and Samcheong-dong - will become yet another commercial center similar to Myeong-dong.

Being near the Blue House and a number of cultural heritage sites, the areas were largely safe from massive city development projects in the 1970s and ’80s, with restrictions in place for security and preservation purposes.

But as these restrictions have relaxed and the areas became trendier over the past few years, rents have skyrocketed, leading artists and shop owners, residents and generations-old mom-and-pop stores to move elsewhere.

Considering the calls to save Seochon, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced in February that its city planning committee had passed a proposal that would restrict changing the area to include new bars, restaurants and coffee houses. It’s a tentative tool to prevent gentrification. The city will unveil in September its plans for the refurbishment of Seochon and its collection of hanok, traditional Korean housing.

Yang Jun-mo, the director of the Seoul city government’s hanok management department, told the Hankyoreh newspaper that in the refurbishment plans slated for September, officials were mulling ways to allow the residents themselves, including tenants, to have a say in the devising of design policies for the neighborhood, similar to the Village Design Statements (VDS) utilized in some areas in the United Kingdom.

Kim Hyeon-jeong, an official in the Ministry of Culture’s regional traditional culture department, added that the ministry has, for now, designated four “cultural districts,” though “the specifics on how to preserve these districts are more in the hands of regional governments.” Those four “culture districts” include Insa-dong, which many lament lost its quintessentially traditional characteristics long ago to cheap Chinese-made souvenirs and cosmetic franchises catering to Chinese tourists.

Korea isn’t alone

Although the Seoul government is taking a cue from VDS, struggles and protests to preserve unique neighborhoods are ongoing across many other nations.

In the anti-gentrification Reclaim Brixton demonstration at the end of last month in south London, protesters called on the local council to protect small businesses deemed representative of the neighborhood that were being forced out as a result of soaring housing prices.

According to The Guardian, the protesters highlighted the region’s unique cultural and ethnic mix, specifically its Latin American music and an international spectrum of food.

“A theme of the day was the fear that Brixton’s kaleidoscopic character will be diluted and displaced, to be replaced by a sterile monoculture of well-heeled financiers and bland, corporate retail chains,” novelist and writer Dave Hill wrote for the newspaper.

Brits also waged a Save Soho movement in central London to spare Denmark Street, which has long been associated with the country’s pop and rock music scene. “The protest is against what they say is a high-speed gentrification process that is homogenizing an area formerly known for alternative culture,” wrote Guardian reporter Peter Walker.

But in Korea’s case, it’s the speed that’s intensifying people’s concerns.

“What’s worrisome is that the displacement is happening at a much faster pace nowadays,” said Park Seong-tae, secretary-general of the Junglim Foundation, a cultural organization for architects and designers.

Whereas before, it took almost 10 years for a neighborhood to be inundated by franchises, that period is getting notably shorter, Park and other observers say.

The foundation arranges forums and puts out publications in a bid to paint buildings and houses as more than just real estate, but part of the culture.

Kim Geun-ho of the National Trust for Cultural Heritage suggested regional governments and civilians (often artists or business owners) purchase neighborhood buildings 50-50.

Likewise, Lee Won-jae, the director of the civic group Munhwa Yeondae, pointed to an art district in Busan where the city supports the rents as a exemplary model.

Still, most critics argue that freeing tenants from worries over rent hikes or eviction is a short-sighted solution. “Korea should deliberate on making alliances for community members and how [those groups] can have some control over the design of their communities,” said Kim Nam-gyun, an illustrator and festival and exhibition planner who has recently arranged and taken part in gentrification-related forums and campaigns.

In the meantime, the owners of Takeout Drawing refuse to budge, and have begun sleeping in their designated work shop for fear that it could be broken in to a third time.

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
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