Tattoo, a clandestine art in Korea

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Author: Carol Correa Torres

Today, tattoos are beginning to be seen as something normal, considered a form of expression and a pictorial work on the skin. However, there are still stigmas towards people who visibly show them. In South Korea, a conservative country, having tattoos is still not well-regarded, especially by older generations and those who do not share the same positive perception regarding tattoos. If you want to learn more in this blog, we will discuss the origin behind the taboo surrounding those who have tattoos and how efforts are currently being made to break down such barriers, although the desired success has not yet been achieved.

First of all, it is essential to understand the reasons why tattoos are considered a stigma in Korean society. It all began many centuries ago when only those who were marginalized by society, criminals or delinquents, were tattooed with the name of the crime they committed; such inscriptions were a symbol of “shame.” Similarly, women who committed adultery were required to be marked with these types of tattoos. In later years, people who engaged in illicit activities, such as gang members or gangsters, chose to tattoo their bodies with symbols indicating their affiliation with their peers. On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that a significant part of the country follows Confucianism, a philosophy that emphasizes respect for the human body and is opposed to any form of physical harm or modification, as it would be considered an “aberration.” For this reason, many still view tattooed people as those who defy norms like “criminals.”

Retrieved from Asia Times

Therefore, people with tattoos may encounter certain problems, either in getting a job or being judged. Nevertheless, it is now more common to see young people on the streets of Seoul with various tattoos on their bodies, even though it is still considered a “social taboo.” This suggests that this perception is slowly changing. Furthermore, they choose not to hide their tattoos but to display them publicly because having a tattoo is a “form of self-expression.”

It is also important to consider that this new generation has been greatly influenced by the media, where different celebrities (K-pop singers, soccer players, among others) have tattoos. An iconic example was the player Ahn Jung-Hwan, who revealed his tattoo to the public when he scored a goal in the 2003 World Cup; therefore, they began to consider this artistic expression as something “not bad.” This can be seen as the starting point for certain changes to be taken into account. However, several restrictions still exist, such as the fact that K-pop celebrities, for instance, must hide their tattoos when appearing on television.

Jeon Jungkook of BTS had to cover his hands with bandages during a TV show

On the other hand, it can also be found that certain hotels, resorts, sports facilities, or spa lounges prohibit the entry of people with tattoos. This is the case with a sports facility in Seodaemun-gu, which issued a statement prohibiting entry to any member with tattoos. This new policy was implemented due to complaints from non-tattooed members, since “they said they felt uncomfortable, and seeing tattooed members might have negative effects on children’s education” (The Korea Herald, 2022). Likewise, at the Westin Josun Seoul hotel, guests with tattoos are required to cover them with patches or wear long sleeves to enter the pool. Not to mention children’s cafeterias, where both the establishment’s employees and parents with tattoos must hide them if they wish to enter. This is because “there were negative customer comments about parents with tattoos, which led to the implementation of the new [no tattoo] policy,” as stated by Lee Si-on, a worker at a children’s cafeteria who always has to wear long-sleeved shirts. These examples are considered a form of unjustified discrimination since “while it is illegal for non-medical professionals to perform tattoos, displaying them is not against the law. Therefore, forcing people to hide their tattoos just because others do not like them is not a reasonable justification,” as pointed out by Kim Do-yun, the leader of Tattoo Union, who represents local tattoo artists.

A sign indicating the prohibition of entry for tattooed people at a sports facility in Seodaemun-gu

“In Korea, it is prohibited to tattoo unless you are a doctor.” This ruling was established by the Supreme Court in 1992, allowing only doctors to perform this procedure because it is considered “risky” due to potential consequences such as ink infections or improper sterilization. However, most medical professionals do not consider becoming legal tattoo artists since pursuing this profession is not regarded as socially prestigious. Therefore, no doctor even considers becoming a tattoo artist, not to mention that it is practically impossible for a hospital to have a “tattoo area” (Pérez, 2017). Although some clinics secretly hire tattoo artists to perform these procedures, since doctors do not have the skills for body art and do not want to do it. In other words, the law does not truly reflect the reality of South Korea, in addition to the fact that “people prefer to be tattooed by tattoo artists, not doctors” (Lim, 2022). This statement is entirely true because although healthcare professionals are qualified to perform this form of body art, they lack artistic skills. Thus, those who possess these artistic qualities do not have medical licenses and are relegated to the “shadows of the law,” in other words, to the underground.

Retrieved from the Medium website

Consequently, numerous artists work underground at the risk of being caught by the authorities, as penalties range from paying high fines of up to 10 million won (8,300 dollars) or being imprisoned for a maximum of two years, although in some cases, the law is not fully enforced. Nevertheless, people interested in getting a tattoo can find studios or parlors through acquaintances (word of mouth) or cautiously through social media, as everything must be kept “secret” to ensure that tattoo artists do not encounter any issues. A clear example of this is the tattoo artist Doy, one of the most well-known in South Korea for tattooing celebrities like Brad Pitt, whose video of tattooing a Korean celebrity went viral; as a result, the Seoul court fined him a sum of five million won.

Examples of work done by Doy. Extracted from the Vice News website

However, efforts are being made to achieve its legalization, although this situation sometimes appears to make slow progress. For example, in 2016, a member of the New Political Democratic Union, Chun-Jin-jin, introduced a project called the “Tattoo Law,” which was later rejected. Later, presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party promised to support various projects for its legalization, as it doesn’t make sense for it to remain underground when it generates an average of 900 million euros per year, in addition to the increasing number of young Koreans who want to get tattoos daily, as highlighted by Gallup Korea, which states that 80% of 20-year-olds and 60% of those aged between 30 and 50 support its legalization. Therefore, most of the time, it is the tattoo artists themselves who seek to change the prejudice associated with tattoos through their art, as expressed by the tattoo artist Zihwa (@zihwa_tattooer), “It’s sad to have to worry about doing what I love… I want to raise awareness about the tattoo industry in Korea,” who not only has to deal with prejudices but also with sexual harassment as a woman dedicated to this type of work, since, due to the “illegal” nature of her profession, she often cannot report it to the police because there is no law to protect her.

The tattoo artist Zihwa. Retrieved from the YouTube video titled Being a Female Tattoo Artist in South Korea | Asian Boss Español

On the other hand, it is hoped that more people will perceive tattoos as an “artistic expression” that carries a meaningful significance for each individual, as expressed by Zihwa, who specializes in floral designs because “a flower can imply joy or pain.” Similarly, another well-known tattoo artist these days, who has tattooed BTS, is Polyc (@polyc_sj). Like Zihwa, he believes that a tattoo can cover a person’s scar or make him feel more confident. A tattoo can have many meanings depending on the individual, so understanding the importance it can hold for many, having this beautiful art on one’s skin is not merely “superficial” but incredibly “meaningful.”

Polyc alongside Jungkook and some samples of their artistic works on skin. Retrieved from the YouTube video titled The Revealed Secrets about BTS Friendship tattoos

Therefore, it is genuinely valuable that more and more people are accepting tattoos as a form of art. However, there is still a long way to go for the new generations who are fighting for future legalization and against the prejudices of this artistic form of expression, which are not just simple images but have a significant background. It is possible that in the not-so-distant future, there may be more significant changes regarding the social stigma, and that the population gradually change their opinion and accept this type of artistic expression.

While there are still various prejudices and stereotypes that need to be eradicated, young Koreans and tattoo artists are doing their best to change the preconceived notions established by the population regarding tattoos. Therefore, the small progress made should not be stopped, as the more people become aware of and educated about this form of body art, a significant change will be achieved that could lead to Korean tattoo artists having laws that protect them, as their work would no longer be considered “illegal.” One way to support Korean artists dedicated to tattooing is to follow them on their official Instagram pages, where you can see a wide variety of their art. Additionally, you can encourage people to attend art exhibitions, such as paintings on canvases, produced by the same tattoo artists, as they don’t only create art on skin. So, I encourage you to explore more about the artistic works and techniques employed by different Korean tattoo artists. Don’t forget to follow @zihwa_tattooer and @polyc_sj on Instagram!

Revised by: Marisol Montiel

References:

Asian Boss Español (December 15, 2020). Ser una mujer tatuadora en Corea del Sur | Asian Boss Español [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4Ced61ZfFQ 

Choi, J. (October 25, 2022). ‘No tattoos allowed here’. The Korea Herald. https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20221025000542

Coyner, T. (May 23, 2020). Flaunting Korea’s tattoo taboo [Image]. Asia Times. https://asiatimes.com/2020/05/flaunting-koreas-tattoo-taboo/ 

Dewyns (April 4, 2023). BTS’ Jungkook is forced to hide his tattoos during TV show and raises concern [Image]. Music Mundial. https://www.musicmundial.com/en/2022/05/17/bts-jungkook-is-forced-to-hide-his-tattoos-during-tv-show-and-raises-concern/ 

Korea Now (June 3, 2023). [BTS 10th] Secrets of BTS’ friendship tattoo revealed [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gle-K_05NZE

Kwon, J. (April 1, 2022). Why Does South Korea Ban Tattooing? Vice News. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qjb5dd/why-does-south-korea-ban-tattooing 

10 Masters (March 11, 2022). Arte clandestino: Tatuajes ilegales en Corea del Sur. https://www.10masters.com/es/blog/tatuajes-ilegales-corea-sur/

Pérez, A. (April 2, 2017). ¿Por qué en Corea del Sur el tatuaje es ilegal pero crece de forma imparable? La Vanguardia. https://www.lavanguardia.com/cribeo/estilo-de-vida/20170402/47415681803/por-que-en-corea-del-sur-el-tatuaje-es-ilegal-pero-crece-de-forma-imparable.html

Polyc [@polyc_sj] (August 6, 2021). Polyc Rose The left one is 6 months old and the right is her husband who wanted to get the same tattoo! [Photo]. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CSOkmcPJYO_/?igshid=MTc4MmM1YmI2Ng%3D%3D 

SWI. swissinfo.ch (March 31, 2022). Corea del Sur estima constitucional castigar a tatuadores sin licencia médica. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/corea-del-sur-tatuajes_corea-del-sur-estima-constitucional-castigar-a-tatuadores-sin-licencia-m%C3%A9dica/47479424

Udrescu, A. (January 31, 2019). Tattoo Stigma in South Korea. Medium. https://medium.com/@audrescu/tattoo-stigma-in-south-korea-1f5e427bcd2c

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