Mikki Paek’s Koreatown Times project is an astonishing illustrated memoir; a living map of the neighborhood’s iconic— and evolving — landmarks.
If you type “L.A. transplants” into a Google search bar, the first option that populates is “L.A. transplants are annoying.” How can our city’s newcomers celebrate their new home without prompting an eye roll from long-time Angelenos? Artist and L.A. transplant Mikki Paek has found a way. Her Koreatown Times project is an astonishing illustrated memoir, a living map of the neighborhood’s landmarks, including longstanding restaurants and mom-and-pop shops.
When Paek’s family moved to the U.S. from Korea, they laid down roots in Las Vegas. The city had very few Korean shops or markets in the mid to late ’90s, so her parents planned day trips to Koreatown in L.A.
“We’d wake up early in the morning, drive all the way to K-Town, do our grocery shopping, get things for mom,” Paek says. “It was like Disneyland for us. It wasn’t Disneyland that we went to. It was K-Town.”
Paek’s growing collection of illustrations — which she showcases on Instagram — bring to life her memories of Koreatown, while also capturing the neighborhood’s cultural mainstays. The idea rattled around in Paek’s brain for five years, before she started Koreatown Times while a student at the Art of Freelance, an online school that provides space for freelancers who want to tackle projects but “just can’t find the time.” Paek began posting the illustrations on social media, including one of famed Art Deco landmark, The Wiltern Theatre and one of Catalina Liquor store that features Joseph Lee’s mural of rapper Dumbfoundead. Paek says she was surprised at the positive reception.
“I felt very alone, and I was like, ‘I’m just making this for me because I like it,” Paek says. “Then people started responding on the internet. I really appreciate people sending me a DM saying, ‘Hey, that’s where I grew up. I love it.’”
Paek describes present-day Koreatown as a snapshot of what Korea looked like in the ’80s. “[Koreatown feels] like a time capsule and like time travel back to my memories of Korea,” she says.
The neighborhood has changed, however, giving rise to an evolved local Korean culture.
“There are Korean things in Koreatown that aren’t in Korea,” Paek says, like Korean restaurant Ahgassi Gopchang off Harvard Boulevard and 6th Street that specializes in small intestines, or “gopchang”. Koreans from all over make a point to visit the restaurant which features imagery from Korean culture of the 1960s-1980s with wood-framed windows and metal dinnerware sets, along with images of Korean wrestler-turned-comedian Kang Ho-Dong, also the name of a sister-restaurant nearby.
“I felt very alone, and I was like, ‘I’m just making this for me because I like it.’ Then people started responding on the internet. I really appreciate people sending me a DM saying, ‘Hey, that’s where I grew up. I love it.’”
Mikki Paek, creator of Koreatown Times
Paek says she and a friend once saw Korean R&B singer Crush perform his first U.S. show at the Belasco Theater in downtown L.A. followed by dinner at the restaurant, only to find the singer also dining there, presumably to experience the famed Korean time capsule only found in Koreatown. It’s rumored that Korean boy band BTS also loves the restaurant.
Acutely aware of how a place can mean something different to each person, Paek accepts requests and recommendations for future illustrations — as long as those requests also state why that place is special. This allows her to make Koreatown Times a truly collective history.
Next up, she plans to release a K-town map in four editions, each with a different theme. The first edition launches in June, which Paek says will feature “anybody’s fond memory or funny or boring memory, as long as it’s the memory of Koreatown.” Her work can also be purchased as prints at the Los Angeles County Store, where she’s a featured artist through June 12.
Paek says she takes special care to stay true to life when working on her illustrations.
“There’s this weird ugly-beautifulness of K-Town,” she says. “A lot of the buildings are run-down and really dingy from the outside. You’d think it’s a dead business, but if you go inside, it’s so vibrant. The attitude is they’re too busy living life and doing business, that they didn’t care to fix the facade of the building. It relates to the history of L.A. and the L.A. Uprising in ’92. I think there’s something very endearing about it. It kind of just shows the passage of time.”
Los Angeles County Store
“L.A.’s Unsung Landmarks Hidden in Plain Sight” Exhibit by Mikki Paek