Two men and a woman stand in an empty lot at Charles and 20th Street, looking at a mural that seems pieced together out of disparate images: a baseball player, a tiger, a landscape. Nearby, there is a hand-painted sign in Korean for Seoul Rice Cake, and the owner Jae Won Kim walks out of his shop, whose entrance is mysteriously blocked from street view by two trees and a wide awning. Kim joins the conversation about the art. “I know the artist, he painted that sign, too,” he says. “You see his signature over there, Gaia.”
“Oh, yeah?” one of the men says and takes off his sunglasses. “Well, I’m actually his father.”
“Did you see the face that’s over there?” Kim asks in reply, pointing toward a six-story-tall, black-and-white portrait of an old man, whose grim face watches over North Avenue with his furrowed eyes surrounded by numerous deep wrinkles.
“It’s the biggest portrait mural ever made on the East Coast,” Kim says. “That’s my father.”
According to Kim, it was almost accidental that his father ended up on the wall. During Open Walls Baltimore 2, which launched in 2014, one of the artists, Hendrik Beikirch, who also goes by the name “Ecb,” asked several local Koreans for their photos. Most people balked at the idea of having a humongous version of their face presented to the whole neighborhood. “Then he came to me, so I told him he can use my father’s photo,” Kim says.
It was an appropriate choice, however, because Kim’s father acted as a sort of representative of Koreatown. Kim’s parents settled in Baltimore about 38 years ago. There was no such thing as a Koreatown when they got here. “They couldn’t possibly imagine the idea of it,” Kim says. They had sold rice cakes before they left South Korea and began to sell them out of their home when they arrived in Baltimore, catering to the small group of first-generation immigrants who were opening liquor stores, corner shops, and carry-out joints.
“[My parents] used to supply rice cakes to Joong-ang Girl’s High School. Here they continued selling them from home and later decided to make it legit when I came.” They opened a small restaurant where Nak Won is now located, on 20th Street, and set up a small section for homemade rice cakes in the corner in 1981 when Kim left Seoul, South Korea.
Kim started working with one of his relatives as a fishmonger in Lexington Market. It was years later that he decided to take over the business when his siblings didn’t want to. In 1994, he bought this building and moved the shop to the current location.
At that point, the Korean community in Central Baltimore was booming.
“There used to be more [Korean] stuff here, like a gift center,” Kim recalls. “About 10 years ago, the whole street used to [be] full of Korean signs. Now the businesses all moved out to Ellicott City. They’re all disappearing from this area.”
Kim stayed because he loved the city.
“I like Baltimore, I like it here. It has its own signature.”
And Seoul Rice Cake in Koreatown has become a space where his two homes, Korea and Baltimore, coexist.
In the corner right next to the door, he decorated a small space in homage to Korean traditions, which have slowly faded out from daily lives. “It’s all handmade. But it’s hard to find traditional artisanship [in Korea] anymore,” he says.
Several pieces of pottery in varying styles and colors are displayed on the right, and on the top of the short table in the center of the room, there are miniature ornaments, a long pipe, old coins, Hanbok-garbed dolls, and pairs of Jangseung (Korean totem poles that guard villages)—as if he has been trying to capture and preserve the past.
Above the table, the portraits of his parents are hung on the wall, one of which is the same photo of his father he provided to the artist for the mural outside.
Since his father died in 2003, there has been something about his face—both the photo and the mural—on the wall that makes Baltimore feel more like home.
On the top right corner of the mural, a bilinear phrase is neatly painted in Hangul, the Korean alphabet that consists of lines, circles, and squares, with a random-looking “Z” in the middle of it (¿¿¿¿¿¿¿Z/¿¿¿¿¿¿¿). The phrase, according to Kim, is the result of the kind of cultural mixing that has come to typify the relationship between the arts and Korean communities in Station North. Ecb came to Kim with an English phrase—something like “Baltimore that remembers the future and Open Walls”—and asked him to translate it into Korean.
When Kim went to check out the progress a couple of days later, he realized that the fragments of the phrase were jumbled in a slightly different order, giving it a changed nuance—“Wall opening Baltimore Z/ Remembering the Future.”
“So the Z is supposed to be N. ‘And,’ you know, a misprint I guess. They also connected it wrong, but Koreans would know what it means,” he says, as in Korean the syntax and meaning can be still intact in most cases even if components of a sentence are listed in a mixed order. “And it became kind of more interesting,” he adds.
Back in the lot with Gaia’s father and the others, he is filled with pride. But there is something more in his expression, which hints at affection—deep affection toward his gone father, toward the Koreatown where he and his family have lived for more than three decades, and toward the Station North area and its artistic movements, one of which now commemorates the presence of the man who has watched and will continue watching the past, present, and future of the neighborhood. Just like those Jangseungs, the village guardians, on Kim’s table.