▲ From left to right are Lee Kwang Hee and painters Kim Chul Hoo and Kim Geum Nam. Top left, bottom right: Photos by Darryl Coote. Others Courtesy Mirru Namu Gallery
Every city has its token artist haunts where people from all walks of life drift in for a drink and stimulating conversation. Paris has Les Deux Magots; Barcelona, The London Bar. Venice has Harry’s and Jeju has the Mirru Namu Café.
On quiet Lee Joong Seop street in the heart of Seogwipo rests Jeju’s modest claim to artistic fame. Discreetly hidden at the bottom of the hill, famous and amateur artists alike visit the teahouse to admire the works of locals that adorn the walls. A visit on any given evening provides the opportunity to meet Jeju artists whose paintings and sculptures may have been exhibited internationally.
This quaint establishment opened 22 years ago and was christened Mirru Namu after the poplar tree that the original proprietor admired for its beauty. Today, very little has changed. Contrary to most Korean cafes, Mirru Namu does not leave its patrons spoilt for choice. Aside from a variety of traditional teas there is only beer, whisky and possibly the best spaghetti on the island, a recent addition by the present owner, Lee Kwang Hee.
The décor is modest and welcoming with weathered wooden tables, handmade hanging lanterns and a vintage record player. Hoards of books and musical instruments are strewn about that one may pick up and play.
“We have a piano or guitar. If someone wants to he can play in here. And sometimes we all sing together,” Lee said. “And sometimes I play the cello.”
The café also boasts a digital projector for impromptu film nights. Though it has been open for nearly a quarter of a century Mirru Namu has the atmosphere of being much older.
“This is old,” Lee said as he touched the table. “The floor is old, old. The old type café makes the people comfortable, to remember the past.”
This sense of antiquity is a prominent theme at Mirru Namu. It is echoed not only in the handmade stone walls and the classic rock music that often hangs in the air, but is reflected even in the street where café rests. Lee Joong Seop Street is named after Korea’s most influential fine artist, who died in 1956.
Lee himself has a place in Korea’s artistic community, having written 13 non-fiction books, four of which were written in Mirru Namu.
“I can meet many artists, many ordinary people, many travelers. I can meet many various people. It is good. I write here. My work is here,” he said.
His work is a series of clever and honest retellings of harrowing historical events including both world wars and the Jeju and Gwangju massacres. Although written for children with bright illustrations and simple effective language, the books read as brilliant satire to an adult audience and Lee can count some of Korea’s foremost personalities as readers and friends.
This bittersweet reminiscence brings many artists such as Kim Geum Nam, whose work was recently exhibited at the cafe, to Mirru Namu.
“It is comfortable. Here is slow and simple and it is the old kind of café,” Kim said. “I can feel Lee Joong Seop here.”
Kim is a self-proclaimed stranger who came from Mokpo to paint Jeju’s Olle paths. He is not the only well-known artist that frequents the café. The world famous painter, Byun Shi Ji, often comes by to see the new works on exhibit and Ko Young Woo, who has work that hangs in the Korean room of the Smithsonian, comes for tea on Thursdays.
While the café boasts many famous artists among its patrons, the next Byun Shi Ji may stop by for a beer too.
Mirru Namu is located on Lee Joong Seop street a few steps from the Lee Joong Seop Museum in Seogwipo-si. It is open Monday through Saturday noon to 10 p.m. — or later depending on the quality of the conversation.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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