Tom Hvala’s photographs invite you to experience Seoul in disparate moments. Join him as he spends seven days exploring hard-to-find bars and record shops, disorderly markets, contemporary galleries and drinking with well-traveled locals.
Words and Photography by Tom Hvala
I didn’t have a defined intention when I arrived in Seoul. I left London seeking a change of pace as a result of its unrelenting proclivity for edging people toward their absolute limits. I was eager to maintain my momentum but on my own terms – to slow down but not stop. Friends had recommended Seoul for its intriguing architecture, creative spaces, bars and food. Looking for a platform to explore before heading onwards to Japan, I felt like I was leaping into an immense but inviting city without really looking.
“This was the first in a series of small and unexpected encounters that exposed the friendliness and good fortune that I quickly learned abounds in Seoul.”
I stepped off the bus and stood, stuck at the lip of the staircase that descended toward the mouth of the subway platform. I felt around for the correct coins with my bags tumbled about my feet. The station master walked over from behind his post with a spring of urgency in his gait, pointing toward the LED sign. The ‘4’ flicked to a ‘3’. I was about to miss the last train. He waited for me to look back at him, chuckled, then waved me through the barrier. This was the first in a series of small and unexpected encounters that exposed the friendliness and good fortune that I quickly learned abounds in Seoul.
“Traveling alone lends itself to opening yourself to situations you might not otherwise consider at home or if you’re with friends.”
I decided to take a leap of faith and find accommodation via Couchsurfing.com. I stayed with a designer and brand director, Eunbyul. Incredibly generous, she was quick to introduce me to her friends. One friend called himself ‘Romantic Choi’ and had recently returned from spending four months riding his Honda Cub 90cc motorcycle from Seoul to London. He ran a small bar and he invited me to check it out. The next night, I sat at the bar, bumping elbows with strangers who were all friends. He stopped me mid-sentence after noticing the camera strapped across my back, ducking down to search for something. He sprung up from beneath the bar to lean over and hand me a wad of 6×4 prints he’d taken using a beaten point and shoot during the 9,000-kilometre journey. His frayed photo-journal, accompanied by an animated recounting of his misadventures, showed this seemingly coy man in photographs with gruff bikies, dirty hikers, and friendly families.
I returned the following evening. We sat on bar stools, drinking soju and trading travel stories well into the early morning as the beams of a projector playing dated Korean movies floated above our heads. This new-found friendship, encouraged by his kind insistence that we meet for lunch the next day, reinforced the notion that traveling alone lends itself to opening yourself to situations you might not otherwise consider at home or if you’re with friends.
Seoul’s creative spaces are incredibly engaging. Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a neo-futurism structure designed by Zaha Hadid. Its curving and steep walls hid a Keith Haring exhibition that filled the entirety of its bottom level. I spent the next three mornings wandering around Culture Station Seoul 284. The multipurpose arts and cultural complex was transformed from a former train station built in 1925. Each room was filled with coffee-related experiences, including a room full of coffee beans and a couch, for its ‘Winter Coffee Club’ exhibition.
A particular highlight was seeing Jasper Morrison’s ‘Thingness’ exhibition at Piknic. Taken from Morrison’s artist statement for ‘The Unimportance of Form’, the exhibition guide read:
Like most things, it’s not that simple, and in this case there can be no textbook approach to a particular problem; solutions are always arrived at in unexpected ways. Occasionally a form will arrive, either through hard analysis or, more satisfyingly, intuition and chance.
This passage perfectly captures the spirit of my time in Seoul. I left London with a refined sense of emotional independence and confidence thanks to hard analysis, and I arrived at specific realisations in unexpected ways because of intuition and chance.
“Passing through the city’s expansive and dense sprawl under the cloak of anonymity let me leave behind my inhibitions and spend time with a clear and calm inner dialogue.”
Seoul reminded me of the inherently fulfilling sensation that comes with travel and movement. Passing through the city’s expansive and dense sprawl under the cloak of anonymity let me leave behind my inhibitions and spend time with a clear and calm inner dialogue. As I recall my time in Seoul through these photographs – fresh faces, quiet spaces and soft voices – I realise I never really slowed down, but simply changed direction.