Tattoos aren’t illegal in South Korea, and you’ll see young people with tattoos everywhere you go, especially in Seoul. Getting a tattoo, however, is illegal — under Korean law, it’s seen as a medical service and only allowed if the tattooist is also a qualified medical practitioner. This make artists operate from their own homes and underground tattoo parlours.
The history of tattoos in South Korea:
The history of tattoos in South Korea goes back to before the 4th century. Tattoos were used by fishermen from the country’s coastal regions to ward off evil spirits and bring them good luck in their ventures. During the Joseon Dynasty, the connatation of tattoos became much more negative; in the 19th century, people found to have committed crimes, were marked/tattooed with the name of their misdeed. During this period, slaves were also marked with their master’s name.
Tattoos are often considered to go against Confucian values, which hold that as your body was passed down to you by your parents, it is a mark of disrespect to alter it in any way — for the same reason, many people did not cut their hair. In the 20th century, tattoos became associated with criminal gangs, who used tattoos to show their family and allegiances.
The Seven Star Mob requires a pattern of stars across the chest of its members, while the Double Dragons have two mythical beasts intertwined on their arms.
South Korea remains the only developed country where the act of tattooing is outlawed unless you're a medical doctor.
Pop stars have to cover up their body art while on television, with BTS singer Jeon Jung-kook regularly covering his hands in bandages.
Until recently, "excessive tattoos" could get you kicked out of the South Korean military.
Regardless, a thriving, underground tattoo community exists, with their artists considered to be among the best in the world.
Why Korea's underground artists are some of the world's best:
Of the estimated 20,000 tattoo artists in South Korea only 10 have a medical certificate, but it is still a destination for many seeking some new ink. Among the most sought-after tattoo artist is Doy. He has a reputation for precise, fine ink work and has left his mark on a variety of celebrities, including Brad Pitt.
He has recently been charged with a medical offence and faces a fine if he is convicted.
However, the punishment could have been much worse if he had been charged under public health laws, which carry prison sentences. Doy is instrumental in setting up a tattoo union last year to help protect artists.
He says that, although he has not had any conflict/issues with clients in his 15 years of tattooing, but the illegal nature of the work means that artists are vulnerable to blackmail.
"When a customer is not satisfied with the result or process of the tattoo, it can't be resolved by civil negotiation or compensation like in other service business," he said. "Customers can blackmail artists, threatening to report them."
However Assemblywoman Ms Ryu Ho-jeong says that she has public support on her side with her attempt to bring change to the current laws. According to a recent survey, more than half of the respondents agreed to tattoo legalisation changes she said. However, there remains a clear, generational divide.
"80 per cent of people in their 20s support changing the law, but the older age groups tend to be more negative towards tattoos," she said.
Still, she's pushing forward with her legislation changes and says that, if the law is changed, she'll swap the fake tattoos she exhibited recently for the real thing.
Photo from @kong_hyeon_uk