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Meet Mikki Paek of Koreatown Times Map by Mmmikkalous

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mikki Paek.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Mikki. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I’ve been making art almost my entire life, but really took a transition of the last 6 years of focused work and a little, lot of luck to be here today as an artist. Last year through the Art of Freelance, I put together the concept for my Koreatown Map Project. But to be honest, the inspiration for this community art project started many years ago, when I was a child.

Growing up in the US during the mid-90s, there were not that many places for Korean Americans to get authentic, fresh Korean groceries and goods outside of Koreatown. I have many memories of family road trips and memories with college friends making weekend trips to play and eat in K-Town. My friends poke fun at me, but it’s true, I’m a little obsessed with the neighborhood. I’ve called it my “Korean Disneyland”, because when we were kids, my siblings and I were so excited to visit K-Town’s Artbox, (a stationary shop that still exists today), the many Korean grocery stores and restaurants to catch up on the latest music, trends and food from Korea. Back then, it felt like we were in a Korean themed amusement park. But beyond that, viscerally, the sights, the sounds, the smells reminded me of my childhood back in Korea. It was like a time & space travel back across the water into the 80s in Seoul. Same, same, but different.

When I finally got to live in K-Town six years ago, I still had the same excitement I had all those years growing up, but now I could enjoy it every single day. And over time, I started to appreciate the smaller, quieter things. The diversity of culture and food on each block, the potholes on certain roads, and cracks in the strip mall signs. The long history and complex concerns of the neighbors and people invested in its well-being. I wanted to express my love for the neighborhood and found a way, in the only way I knew how, through art. And as I started to illustrate the neighborhood, people started to respond.

I would get messages from people who thanked me for recognizing their childhood street corners and from people who would share their stories of growing up or just recently moving into the area. It was an amazing experience to know and feel that other people felt things from my simple drawings of the strip mall signs. So I kept going and it grew into this project. And as I write this, I am preparing to launch the first Koreatown Times Map as a physical printed piece to be distributed and shared around the neighborhood via a few bright green colored cardboard newspaper dispensers.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
In some ways it has been serendipitous moment after moment, especially in the amazing people that I’ve gotten to connect with through this project. But in other ways, it was a difficult moment in my career where I wasn’t sure if I’d see the light at the end of the tunnel and if choosing to switch careers after ten years from corporate office life to freelancing could be viable. In hindsight all the difficulties I was facing actually turned into things that helped me make this transition very easily.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am open to collaborations and commissions. I specialize in illustrations, particularly local landmarks, signages and buildings. I love working with local businesses and learning about the people, their history and personalities behind the storefront. Which is why I am working on this community art project illustrating and mapping out the many mom and pop businesses and everyday people’s stories online and on paper.

I like to take notice of the small details that often get blurred in the background of busy day-to-day life. I guess that makes me an artist or a very sentimental person. But I can see people appreciating that more and more. And without sounding too sentimental, I think that’s what makes life worth living when things don’t go the way we hoped it would. A little flower growing through the concrete cracks, the smells of meat grilling mixed in with fresh laundry cause they share the same ventilation of a building, or a funny story about stepping in dog poop on the walk home. Whatever it is, if it makes someone smile it should be shared and also, maybe, marked on my illustrated map.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Being authentic, kind, professional and lastly, skilled. And I mean their importance in that order. If my authenticity of what I was passionate about was not real, I don’t think I would have gained as much support from the community as I have. This might be the hardest part, figuring out and honing in your authenticity, what drives you. It took me all my life, especially the last six years in LA to focus it and probably the rest of my life to continue developing it.

The world is large and very small at the same time. Los Angeles, the art community, the neighborhood–we are all connected somehow. And as long as you’re kind and professional, you’ll do well. And if you’re great to work with on one project, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited back for another job or get referred to another client. This has happened to me on a few occasions already.

And finally, being skilled. What I mean by it being last is that in art, there are so many different levels and styles of art-making that it’s kind of the least important out of all the qualities. In this technological age, anyone can spend a month online learning the latest technique from traditional oil painting to animation. And it’s not to downplay them, but without authenticity, without passion, your technical skills have no meat to them. All the fixings, but no turkey (or tofurkey)! And if your authenticity is strong, your skillsets will naturally follow and develop over time.

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Mikki Paek

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