There are no signs indicating that a three-story building in the fashionable Hongdae area in western Seoul is home to a busy tattoo parlor. After walking up three flights of stairs to Tattoo People, one is greeted only by a large, black door, and, before walking through it, is required to change into slippers and make as little noise as possible as not to disturb the artists who may be inking skin inside.
It’s not illegal to get inked in South Korea, but hundreds of tattoo shops operate underground and outside the purview of the law. Many of them are run by artists who openly advertise their services online and in magazines despite frequent government crackdowns.
“Khan” inking the skin of a foreigner at his tattoo shop. (Yonhap News)
In Korea, only licensed doctors can ink skin. Violators can be fined up to 20 million won ($18,939).
This outdated medical law has caused much debate: If skin ink is an art, then how is it possible that only doctors can give tattoos? Many argue that doctors do not have the skill it takes to be tattoo artists.
Historically, criminals were stigmatized with tattoos and cast out from society in Korea. Tattoos have often been associated with criminal behavior as well as membership in the Korean mafia, known as “kkangpae,” or “gangsters.”
Aerok Kim is an influential tattoo promoter and founder of Korea’s most well-known tattoo shop called Tattoo Korea. He has had his parlor raided by police on separate accounts.
“I called my lawyers who came in and asked the officers to leave,” he said.
Most owners are not as lucky. Many tattoo artists cannot afford lawyers and live life on the run, setting up shop in a new location every couple of years to avoid run-ins with authorities. Tattoo artist “Khan,” for example, manages an independent tattoo shop in the Hongdae area and has had his equipment confiscated several times.
For a long time, there was a low demand for tattoos in Korea, but recently public attitude towards ink have changed as more Korean celebrities come out of the tattoo closet and popularize them as fashion statements.
Last year, the famous Korean singer Park Jae-bum, a former member of boy band 2pm, visited Tattoo Korea to request three tattoos: one behind each ear and one on his chest.
“The next day, we received over 100 phone inquires and a lot of people were requesting the same tattoos,” Kim said.
Tattoos have also been popularized through sports.
Well-known Korean football player Ahn Jung-hwan flashed his tattoo to the world when he revealed it at a soccer match in 2003.
When South Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002, it was evident that a few soccer players were sporting tattoos, helping to make it a more culturally acceptable trend.
Skin ink has thus far been interpreted as a fashion trend rather than an art and many customers are influenced by what is popular, requesting a certain tattoo because they saw it on someone else and liked it.
Kim, who claims his clientele base is roughly 50 percent Koreans and 50 percent foreigners, says he notices significant differences in customer trends.
“Many international students in Korea come here for cultural stuff like dragons or other meaningful Korean cultural symbols,” he said. “Other foreigners will get things like their name written in hangeul (Korean alphabet), and usually their tattoos are focused more on cultural acceptance.”
American military men also frequent the shop and request talisman-type tattoos like a crucifix or other symbol of protection, Kim said.
To keep up with customer demand, Kim hopes to see changes in the laws restricting who can give tattoos and hopes that necessary changes will be made in order for industry standards to be raised.
“Right now there are no sanitation standards set up in Korea and many unqualified young artists are working without a license because there isn’t any training available,” he said.
Opposition legislator Kim Choon-jin had proposed a bill in 2007 recognizing tattoo artist as a profession and setting strict sanitary requirements. The bill fizzled out without getting much deliberation.
Aerok Kim was trained as a tattoo artist in California and is currently helping Korean artists receive international licenses.
“At Tattoo Korea, our customers sign a California release form because there isn’t a Korean version available,” he said.
San Lee, owner of Studio Red and one of the most talented female artists in the industry, shared similar frustrations: “There isn’t a licensing process set up that is authorized by the Korean government so I have had to seek training at tattoo conventions around the world for qualification.”
Lee majored in fine arts at a Korean university and is well known in the tattoo business as being one of the top color artists, winning first place in world-renowned tattoo competitions in Taiwan and most recently Australia.
The Tattoo Korea operator, Kim, talked about tattoo trends in South Korea.
“Many designs that people request come from North America and Europe that were popular maybe 15 years ago, like hearts, arrows, etc.,” he said. “Back then, we (the artists) weren’t using computers to design tattoos and everything came out of our heads.
But these days artists are putting a lot more style into their tattoos. They look at the top artists and learn from their images and styles.”
Kim said a lot of Korean artists are getting ideas from Youtube videos. Korean artists also learn how to use tattoo machines from Youtube since there isn’t a legal way of learning in Korea.
Korean-American artist Philip Spearman, who grew up in Los Angeles and is famous in the tattoo world for his artwork and Korean mentorship programs, visits Korea a few times a year to educate tattooists on better supplies and equipment, keeping them up-to-date with industry standards.
The Korea Tattoo Association said it has been campaigning for the last five years for the government to allow non-doctors to give tattoos. The only promising sign so far was that the health ministry recently conducted a field study. For now, tattoos remain taboo in South Korea.