Korean American Artist mmmikkalous Creates Iconic Koreatown Times Map

Mikki Paek aka mmmikkalous on California Marketplace rooftop

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Meeting Mikki Paek aka @mmmikkalous

On a cloudy Monday afternoon, I had the pleasure to have a chat with Korean American artist, mmmikkalous (Mikki Paek), at Ye Stage & Tea, located on the historical rooftop of California Marketplace.

Most famously known for being the artist behind the “Koreatown Times”, Mikki is contributing to the identity of Koreatown LA. Furthermore, through her work, Mikki wants to convey to the world that “Koreatown LA has something for everyone”.

Over traditional Korean tea and rice crackers, Mikki explained what her experience as being Korean American means and gives us her insider tips to Koreatown LA.

Were you born in the USA?

Illustration of three common Korean vegetables, Sesame/Perilla Leaves, Green Onions, & Red Leaf Lettuce

“I was born in Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, Korea, which was considered to be US soil at the time. Because I was born on a US army base in Korea, I automatically became a US citizen. Although I consider myself an immigrant, my life as an army brat and privileges of being a US citizen really colored my identity and experiences differently.”

Koreatown highway sign on yellow background

Where did you grow up?

“After growing up in a bustling urban city like Itaewon, my family and I moved to a sleepy, little town in Arizona, an hour and half away from the border. The contrast between the two places were drastic, but not unfamiliar. Some of my relatives live in a town called Munsan in Paju, which also is a small, sleepy town. I have a lot of memories of visiting them and staying with my emo and halmonee when I was young.

A lot of my creative work draws from visceral inspiration and living in these different places allowed me to be very observant of these changing environments as a child. There was always this dichotomy of longing of the place I was leaving and the excitement of moving to a new place.”

Catalina Liquor Store on light blue background

When did you first experience Koreatown?

“When our father retired from the US Army, we settled in Nevada. Las Vegas in the ’90s did not have the large Korean American population it has now. There was one or two small Korean grocery stores. This was when we started making weekend day trips to LA’s K-Town. It was like a whole other world, where we can get our fill of fresh Korean groceries, childhood snack staples, latest K-pop music, newspapers written in Korean …really anything Korean or from Korea, so easily available in one location.

I remember one of my earliest experiences in Koreatown was seeing Korean ahjumas and ahjushees, that looked like my aunts and uncles, speak fluent English with no accent. Up until that point, all the Korean/Korean American adults in my life spoke only Korean or accented English. It felt like culture shock. But these moments continued, coming across Latinx grocery workers responding in Korean to customers, Black security guards who spoke countryside accented Korean so naturally. Koreatown reminded me of the Itaewon of my childhood, but at the same time was something altogether special on its own.”

1st edition map of Koreatown

What was the first business you experienced in Koreatown?

“The earliest business I remember is Gold Optometry in Rodeo Galleria on Western Ave, across from the former IB Plaza. Gold Optometry was the first business I remember visiting over 25 years ago. Every year, our whole family would get our eyes checked and prescription updated in our glasses there. I remember a vivid memory of watching my younger brother (struggle to) learn how to put on contact lenses for the first time in their shop.

Gold Optometry is still in business and operating in the same location, the owner showed a lot of kindness and welcomed my parents in, especially after hearing that we had drove all the way from Vegas to find an optometrist that spoke Korean. Because of her hospitality, my parents chose to make the trip every time we needed new glasses. I know that their top-notch service is what has kept customers returning time after time.”

Jail Joa - Photo @misspiggieeats

What are your favorite restaurants in Koreatown?

“This question is one that I dread the most! Partly because there are so many great places and partly because my taste in food is finicky–sometimes my tastebuds are searching for something familiar that a cranky old Korean grandma from the countryside would approve of and sometimes my tastebuds are searching for something new and trendy.

With that said, one of my favorite is the braised codfish (은대구조림) from Mapo Kkak Doo Gee. If you order that dish make sure to get it with 묵은지, which is very, very, very fermented kimchi. But makes it very, very, very delicious.

One of the newest restaurants that I really enjoyed is Jail Joa. They recently took over previous Prizon Bar. I appreciate their word play in keeping the theme (& decor). “Jail Joa” in Korean, 제일 좋아, means “the best” or “most favorite”. The owner is no stranger to the food industry with over 30 years of experience. She truly loves to cook and feed people. During the pandemic she perfected her mandoo making skills by making tons and tons of mandoos (korean dumplings) to sell for at home cooking. Her beef fried dumplings are delicious with super thin and light wrappers that are the perfect crisp. Also her water sashimi salad is insanely fresh with generous pieces of raw fish.”

Art Share LA's Street Surreal show from summer of 2019 showcasing Koreatown Times illustrations

How did you get started with art?

“I was always drawing and making things as a kid. In Korea, like many parents in Korea, my parents sent me to 미술학원 (art tutoring class). I enjoyed it so much, but when it came to college, my parents urged me to choose something more practical and stable. Although I got to minor in art, after college the recession made it hard to make a living making art and really I had no idea how to “become an artist” or make money through art. It took me a long, roundabout route, but I finally said goodbye to my soul-sucking corporate job after paying off my college debt. I figured, if I can make it in a job that I hated, then I can handle figuring out a career in something I love.

Even in my office job, I’d sprinkle in creative skills anyway I could. Whether it was making my Halloween costumes for every office competition (to win every year) or using office supplies to make personalized birthday cards for coworkers. I just couldn’t help making things.”

Illustration of artist's K-Town home with official welcoming

Your first memory as a Koreatown resident?

“I call it my “official welcome to K-Town”. It was a few weeks into moving to Koreatown, my roommate had a wild night with friends that ended at our place late into the night. They were having a good time, so they were a bit noisy in the hallway on their way out of the condo. I remember a neighbor was not having it and yelling from some floor above.

The next morning, as I was heading out the door, I noticed something like a chocolate cake smeared all over the door. I thought it strange cause I didn’t think my roommate and her friends had any cake. As I leaned in to get a good sniff, I realized it was definitely NOT cake. I guess the neighbor was really upset. It was disgusting at the time, but it’s a funny story looking back. It felt like a hazing, a rite of passage, my official welcome to the neighborhood.”

KW Lee (WVU Magazine)

Who is your biggest inspiration in Koreatown?

“Koreatown has always had a special place in my heart. Not only because it reminded me of my childhood in Korea, but because of its unique and painful history with the ’92 LA Riots/Uprising. And still its resilience to continue to survive. The relationships the diverse communities in this small space share. I wanted express my love and give honor to this neighborhood in my own way. And in the process of figuring out how to do that, I came across KW Lee.

I have heard of him before in college, but did not really learn about him until that moment. He is revered as the “godfather of Asian American journalism”. The first Korean American journalist. He covered civil rights issues during the ’60s, investigated and help free a wrongly convicted Korean immigrant from murder, and one of the few voices that truly understood what happened during & after the LA Riots. He founded the first national English language, Korean American newspaper, Koreatown Weekly and launched and edited The Korea Times English edition from Los Angeles. 

The namesake of my project “Koreatown Times” is directly inspired by his work. Although, I am not a journalist (nor want to be), I appreciated his philosophy of not the “bird’s eye view” of big media, but the focus on the “worm’s eye view” of the everyday person. I thought I was alone in noticing and appreciating the nooks & crannies of this urban neighborhood. But I received an overwhelming response by such a diverse range of people. And so I wanted this project to not only reflect my story, but include so many more voices. In this small way, I hope to leave a trace of those small stories that build up to our larger narrative of Koreatown.

Photo of The Koreatown Times map printed on the back page of The Korea Times in Oct 2019

What is the message of your work?

“The Koreatown Times is one small reflection of the diversity and gems in this neighborhood. K-Town is not just Korean, not just Latinx, not just American, it’s all these different layers that are constantly meshing together in different ways and at different times. I didn’t see much art that was showing this at the time. So I decided to make it myself.

The reason for the map was partially to make a map for my family, who are not from K-Town and still find it confusing to navigate the streets here. To help them understand how it’s not that intimidating and it’s actually a very simple grid system. But then I realized how for others it was very nostalgic and personal to see these places mapped. And for others, a helpful guide for them to explore the neighborhood. Whether they’re visiting from out of town or just moved to the United States or a life-long resident–it’s for everyone in different ways.

Koreatown in Los Angeles truly has something for everyone. There is rich history and culture, but also complex history and serious issues facing the community. There are many old and new organizations and involved people doing the hard work in helping our neighbors. One of the ways we can contribute to the future of our neighborhood in the right direction is getting to know each other and listening. And I hope my project helps us get to know one another one illustration at a time.”

Newspaper side of the 1st edition Koreatown Times art project

MYSTERIOUS HODDUK?

“I remember when Assi Supermarket was still on 8th, between Oxford and Serrano. I would go there often for their mini buffet during my lunch breaks. There was a 호떡 (hotteok) stand right in front of the entrance, a husband & wife duo would be there daily making fresh ones. I would buy one weekly–it was the best post lunch dessert. I would eat it up as I walked back to work.

When the market closed down, unfortunately the hotteok vendor also disappeared. I have been looking for a decent hotteok spot since then, does anyone know what happened to the hotteok family outside Assi market?

If you have any information about the hotteok vendor outside Assi Supermarket please contact us at [email protected]

First solo show at LA County Store from May 2019

TLDR

Mikki Paek aka @mmmikkalous is a Korean American artist based in Los. Angeles. After having lifelong Koreatown LA experiences, Mikki Paek is paving the way for other Korean American artists by making the Korean American identity the focus of her work. 

Hot of the press with her viral “The Koreatown Times” project and installation, Mikki Paek is just getting started and is paving the way for other Korean American artists to focus their craft on their own life stories, even if it doesn’t fit the glitz and glam mold of the mainstream.”

Thank you Mikki Paek aka @mmmikkalous for contributing to the Korean American identity. You are inspiring hearts and minds around the world.

You can find her at her work on instagram & purchase prints & K-Town merch on her website:

https://www.mmmikkalous.com/

https://www.instagram.com/mmmikkalous/

https://www.instagram.com/koreatowntimes/

Mikki Paek aka @mmmikkalous at California Marketplace Rooftop 7/20/21

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