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Gods, Easels, and Graffiti: Asia’s 10 Best Art Villages

Discover Asia's most fascinating artist communities.

Walls are splashed with intricate graffiti, streets are lined with sculptures, back alleys brim with creative studios, and artists seem to be at work in every nook and around each corner. All across the continent, particular neighborhoods have become hubs for artists. Some of these communities have a history stretching back more than 500 years, while others have formed recently. From the Kolkata community that crafts Hindu gods to Seoul’s revitalized art village, Hanoi’s town of wooden idol craftsmen, and Bangkok’s canal of painters–here are 10 of Asia’s most interesting art enclaves.

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Ihwa Mural Village

WHERE: Seoul, South Korea

Nowhere in Seoul is there a place more Instagrammable than Ihwa Mural Village. It seems to have been built for the social media generation, yet Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter didn’t even exist when, in early 2006, Seoul authorities decided to rejuvenate the rundown neighborhood of Ihwa-dong, which had been slated for demolition.

They commissioned artists to embellish this community’s walls, stairways, and alleys with more than 100 vibrant murals. This attracted not just visitors, who came to take photos of this colorful hillside setting in downtown Seoul, but also artists who set up studios and galleries in Ihwa, which is now firmly on the city’s tourist trail.

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Khlong Bang Luang

WHERE: Bangkok, Thailand

On the edge of a canal, beyond a maze of narrow alleys, in one of Bangkok’s least-visited districts, which hides a flourishing community of artists. Over the past 30 years, artisans from across the Thai capital have been drawn to this creative neighborhood of traditional teakwood houses built over the water.

Bangkok residents began to hear about Khlong Bang Luang and it slowly became a popular weekend destination, with galleries and art museums opening their doors to the public. But few foreign travelers are aware of Khlong Bang Luang, in Bangkok’s western suburbs, except for the glimpse they get as they cruise past it on the canal boat tours offered by many of the city’s hotels.

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Song Dong

WHERE: Hanoi, Vietnam

Few cities in Asia have a stronger, longer history of art communities than Hanoi. For centuries, the Vietnamese capital had dozens of villages specializing in particular arts and crafts. Some focused on conical hats, others on making ceramics, kites, flags, bags, silk products, or musical instruments.

While many of these communities have now died out due to competition from factories, one village in Hanoi’s west continues to churn out handcrafted religious idols, just as it has done for more than 1,000 years. The woodworkers of Song Dong village create custom-made Buddhist statues for homes and temples, varying in size from a mere two-inches tall, up to giant 10-foot deities.

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Bhaktapur

WHERE: Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

They start with very little and finish with something special–this has been the process of Nepalese artisans for more than 500 years as they’ve managed to survive the advent of modern technology by producing items of rare quality.

Their clay products are laid out in their hundreds to dry in the sun in the squares of the ancient city of Bhaktapur, where locals still love to buy these ancient earthen lamps, called Pala, to use during annual festivals. While Bhaktapur is a city, rather than a village, many of these Pala artisans are clustered together in the heart of Bhaktapur’s UNESCO listed old town.

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Kumortoli

WHERE: Kolkata, India

Watching the birth of a god is spectacular. What begins as a floor full of raw materials is shaped into a fearsome-looking deity right there in the cramped workshops of Kumortoli. For more than 200 years, this small community in Kolkata’s northern suburbs has been the city’s hub of Hindu idol production.

Teams of between three and five artisans combine to craft statues of deities such as Kali, Durga, and Saraswati, which they sell to be displayed in temples and homes. These artists use their skill and creativity to regularly come up with fresh ways of depicting these gods.

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798 Art District

WHERE: Beijing, China

In north-east Beijing, beauty sprouted from a dreary setting. For more than 40 years Dashanzi was an unattractive military-industrial precinct, but, in the late 1990s, it began to slowly be reborn as an art community. By the mid-2000s, dozens of artists were working in Dashanzi’s cluster of former factories and now it teems with painters, sculptors, illustrators, architects, and musicians.

The streets of this sprawling precinct are embellished by whimsical art installations and lined by studios, galleries, cafes, bars, and restaurants. It has become not just China’s largest art community but also a popular entertainment district.

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Cattle Depot

WHERE: Hong Kong

Just like 798 Art District, Cattle Depot was once a grim place. This former slaughterhouse, built in Kowloon in 1908, was transformed into an art community in 2001. There are now 20 art collectives based out of this historic complex and tourists are free to wander the grounds to admire their murals and installations.

Visitors can even peek inside some of the studios and, if they ask politely enough, may get a tour of the facilities and a preview of works-in-progress by resident sculptors, painters, and multimedia artists. Cattle Depot also hosts occasional art exhibits.

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Pier-2 Art Center

WHERE: Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Continuing this theme of overhauling unattractive cityscapes is Kaohsiung’s Pier-2 Art Center. In this city on Taiwan’s south-west coast, a former harborside industrial area is now the country’s biggest art precinct. Pier-2 is massive. Since it was opened in 2006 it has attracted more than 50 artists, designers, architects, and musicians who ply their trade from spacious studios inside more than 20 renovated factories and warehouses.

It draws locals and tourists alike due to not just its array of art galleries and museums, but also its many bars, cafes, restaurants, and performance art venues. Pier-2 also has a huge number of exhibitions and events each year, featuring artists from across the world.

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Gamcheon

WHERE: Busan, South Korea

Whether near or far, Gamcheon is eye-catching and attractive. Draped across a hillside, overlooking the ocean in Busan, this art community is renowned for its bright buildings, which range in color from sky blue to yellow to mandarin, lilac, rose, and everything in between.

Once visitors enter this village they see that many of Gamcheon’s homes, shops, galleries, studios, cafes, and restaurants are also decorated by light-hearted murals. This was part of a 2009 revitalization project in this former refugee colony. Gamcheon is now one of South Korea’s most photogenic neighborhoods.

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Georgetown

WHERE: Penang, Malaysia

The capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, Georgetown has grown into a busy city, spiked by large condos and hotels. But in some of the narrow streets of its historic Old Town, things haven’t changed much. In this timeworn area, it is possible to find a number of artisans who are keeping alive ancient pursuits.

This community in Georgetown is home to one of Malaysia’s last Songkok (Muslim cap) makers, as well as the only handmade incense craftsman in Penang, a traditional Chinese puppet troupe, and a Nyonya bead shoemaker. These artisans are the last of dying breeds, so visit now to appreciate their rare talents.

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