Inked in the ROK

Tattoos take hold as stigmas start to fade.

As published in Groove Korea 

The sound is distinct. The rhythmic buzzing of vibrations as they pulsate from a machine, through needles and into the skin. It sounds eerily similar to a dentist’s drill, only here you look forward to the pain that will subsequently take place – because it’s art.

As a tattoo enthusiast, I began looking into parlors soon after arriving to Korea in August 2010. I figured that living in Seoul, the modern epicenter of the country, this wouldn’t be too daunting a task.

I figured wrong. After a year of depressing internet searches yielding results like “underground” and “illegal,” I began to come to terms with the idea that perhaps Korea just wasn’t going to be the place to get my next tattoo.

Then I came across Seoul Ink. The shop is tucked away behind a small alley just outside of Sinsa Station in Gangnam, and it had the most superb portfolio I had seen so far in Korea.

I walked in and was welcomed by the manager, Jay Lee. A U2 mixtape was playing as he led me into a large consultation area furnished with black leather couches, tattoo magazines and an enormous Jimi Hendrix painting that took up most of one wall.

“We value art over money,” Lee said, which he believes is one of the main things that sets the shop apart from most other tattoo parlors in Korea.

During my visit, American Garrett Jacobs from California was in the middle of a session with tattoo artist Kil Jun.

Kil Jun spent a lot of time learning how to tattoo in the States, mainly in Virginia, where he met his late mentor Billy Eason, a well-known tattoo artist on the East Coast and also the main organizer for the annual Richmond Tattoo Arts Festival.

Kil Jun’s artistic capabilities encompass a range of styles, but his favorites are traditional and color pieces. He has tattooed many Korean celebrities, including members of the famous K-pop boy band 2PM and the punk band No Brain, as well as female Korean hip-hop rapper and R&B singer Tasha. He’s also an award-winning tattoo artist, the most recent of which include Best Artist of the Day at the 2012 San Francisco Body Art Expo, 2nd place Best Large Black and Gray at the 2011 Nashville Tattoo Convention and 2nd place Best Artist of the Day at the 2011 San Antonio Tattoo Convention.

At the shop, Kil Jun was in the process of finishing a zombie-themed sleeve for Jacobs, a product of more than 40 hours of work, spanning many visits over many weeks.

Jacobs sounded very happy with the final result.

“Seoul Ink is definitely one of my favorite tattoo studios I’ve ever had work done at, by far,” said Jacobs, who has visited many studios in the United States. “The work centers are extremely sterile and orderly. All the artists and staff are awesome, from their work to laughing around with them outside during breaks.”

But it’s not just foreigners who frequent the shop. Lee said that because of his ability to speak multiple languages (he speaks perfect English and some Chinese as well), he’s always had a high ratio of foreign clients while working in the tattoo industry here, but he also notes a significant increase in interest among the locals now, too. That’s a positive sign, since tattoo culture hasn’t quite hit the mainstream – yet.


The gangster connection

Tattooing gets scant recognition as a form of art in Korea. The reasons for this are complex, stemming from long-held traditions and the unfortunate associations with tattoos that have evolved through history.

As modern as the country is in many ways – from being a world leader in robotics and hybrid vehicles, to self-parking car garages, and its status as the plastic surgery capital of the world – it still holds many traditional perspectives very near and dear.

An example of this is the reverence for the Joseon Dynasty, which exists throughout the country, and particularly in Seoul, amid preserved palaces and temples interlacing megalithic buildings and city streets.

During the dynasty’s 500-year history, the act of permanently marking someone’s skin with ink was specifically used for one of only two things: identifying current and former criminals, or slave ownership. Having a tattoo during this time meant that one would be an outcast without the hope of gaining any respect or status in Korean society.

The Joseon Dynasty was also heavily based in Confucianism, the remnants of which still permeate the culture today. Confucianism views the body as a sacred gift from the ancestors, so the idea of permanently marking or modifying it in any way represents a contamination. This, of course, includes body art, no matter how beautiful or meaningful it may be to you.

Then there’s always my favorite – the gangster connection.

The Kkangpae, or Korean mafia, was a predominate problem during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as the country was struggling to develop and recover from a Japanese occupation that lasted until the end of World War II, and the fallout from the Korean War. The kkangpae modeled themselves after Japanese-style organized crime syndicates, or the yakuza, right down to their tattoos.

The yakuza are known for having tattoos with traditional Asian designs, ranging in length from those covering the arms, shoulders and torso to those covering half or all of the body (oftentimes with a line of bare skin running down the center, separating each half).

Tattoos subsequently came to represent a form of gangsterism in Korea, especially because, for a while, gangsters were the only ones getting tattooed.

Then came the strong push of Westernization and, with it, films from the U.S. and elsewhere that showed all sorts of people with tattoos as a form of self-expression rather than gang affiliation.

Discrimination and draft dodging

Nevertheless, the negative stigmas around tattoos exist today, particularly among the older generation.

Chelsea Votel, another heavily tatted expat, has personally experienced the ramifications of this way of thinking and has even experienced a few bizarre scenarios because of it.

“I was once told by an old man that my face is not a gangster but my arm is gangster,” she said. “I’ve also had an older man try scratching at my tattoo to see if it was real or drawn on.”

Votel said people often stare at her because of her vivid, brightly-colored tattoos. This sometimes makes her uncomfortable, but she thinks it’s good for the locals to see.

Not all Koreans react to it in such a negative manner.

“Younger generations (of people), especially in busy areas like Hongdae, Itaewon and Gangnam, enjoy my tattoos,” she said.

Until not too long ago, Koreans with tattoos were discriminated against in the most blatant ways: They were banned from public swimming pools and jjimjilbang, or bathhouses. Rules like these have eased up, though some places still enforce them.

The military has even taken a stand against tattoos by banning those with a significant amount of body art from the required military service that young men must fulfill. Ironically, the plan backfired when those who didn’t want to complete their duty began getting large tattoos just to dodge the mandatory service.

That law has since been modified so that heavily-tattooed Koreans are allowed to complete an alternative form of service instead, such as working in a public service office rather than participating in the regular combat training that most others have to go through. Yet this, too, is said to be changing.

Kil Jun working on a sleeve piece for Garrett Jacobs_2

Illegal ink and bodies of art

But perhaps the most frustrating hurdle for local businesses is a legal one.

It’s a law that requires all tattoo shops to have a medical license, since the government asserts that any form of piercing the skin is akin to a surgical procedure.

The tattoo community largely ignores the requirement, and the police rarely enforce it.

“Nowadays, one of the main reasons the police bother a shop is when the shop tattoos minors,” Lee, the manager of Seoul Ink, explained. “As long as you are hygienic and don’t tattoo minors, there shouldn’t be much problem, as no one will report you to the police.”

If reported, however, the shops can face fines, be stripped of their tattoo equipment and, in several cases, the shop owners are even arrested. While this isn’t very common, there are crackdowns on tattoo parlors from time to time.

Last May, the police disrupted the Ink Bomb Tattoo Convention in Seoul. The convention, attended by local and international tattoo artists and enthusiasts, was shut down early by the police on all three days because of disturbances.

The government’s actions clearly haven’t stopped the growing interest in tattoos among Koreans, but it has forced tattooing underground. Although there are talented artists here, it can be hard to find them.

“I was floored to see some of the artwork and portfolios from artists around South Korea,” Votel said, recalling her visit to the tattoo convention. There she met tattoo artist Momento, from Inkholic Tattoo, who ended up doing her 35-hour Halloween-themed sleeve.

Many businesses struggle, having to change locations because of police shutdowns or the looming fear of a raid at any given point and time.

Despite the obstacles, there are shops and artists around the country that are becoming very well known for their phenomenal artistic abilities, such as Jeong-hwi Jeon, or as his friends call him, “Johnny.”

Johnny literally transforms the body into his own personal canvas and his black and gray detail work is the best testament to his skill. When not working on people, he’s still using their bodies as inspiration. He has sketches of tattooed human forms at his studio and he’d eventually like to turn them into an art exhibit.

As I left Seoul Ink, one of the artists finished tattooing an older Korean gentleman in business attire, and the serious-looking man put on his jacket and headed towards the door. Before he left, he bowed in the traditional Korean manner, and I couldn’t help but think that, just maybe, the old stigmas surrounding tattoos in Korea are finally starting to fade.