Tattoo Culture in Korea Joshua Lernihan Art, Underground Body image and physical appearance being such a big concern in this country, we wanted to find out how those with body paint have found their tattoos being received here in Korea. We interviewed a number of tatted residents – foreign and otherwise – to get their take on tattoo culture in Korea. Bryan How many tattoos do you have? I currently have seven tattoos with plans on getting more. Where did you get your tattoos done? I have been to a few different shops however a majority of my work has been done by Greg Fly from The Tattoo Shop in Long Island, New York. Do you have any tattoos directly related to Korea ? Yes, I do. I have a Magpie, the Korean national bird, tattooed on my left rib cage. Have you had a tattoo done in Korea? Where? How did the prices and methods compare with other places? Yes, I have. In October of 2013, I went and got the magpie tattoo. I had it done in Songtan, near Pyeongtaek. For a piece this size it would cost somewhere around $300 in the US and here in Korea it was only 200,000 Won. The methods and set up were the same except people were smoking cigarettes in the shop. The place was clean and it didn’t get infected, but I still wouldn’t go back for that reason. I can’t recommend anywhere, but I’d recommend doing your research and going to a reputable place in Seoul. My next tattoo will be done at Tattoo Korea in Seoul, although I’m expecting to pay more like back home prices. Are your tattoos visible? Most of my tattoos are pretty big but, they’re not visible because at work I always wear long sleeve shirts. In general, how do you think Koreans react to your tattoos? Most young Korean men think they’re awesome. I haven’t gotten any serious reactions from older people just a few strange looks at the jimjilbang and at the beach. How does your employer react? /Your parents?/ Your friends? My boss doesn’t care as long I keep them covered and not visible to the students or their parents. My mom hates them and gets very angry whenever I get a new one. My friends like them I guess. I don’t really care what other people think, if you do then you’re getting a tattoo for the wrong reasons. In some jimjilbangs, gyms etc., there are often signs up banning tattooed people from entrance. Have you ever been turned away from somewhere? I have heard about these signs but, have never actually seen one. I have never been turned away or asked to leave. I would find it really funny though and kind of hope that it happens one day. In the past, in Korea and much of East Asia, tattoos have been linked to gang and criminal activity. Have you ever suffered prejudice or misunderstanding because of your tattoos? I was told about this by a few Korean friends when I first got here. I have never suffered prejudice or anything, but, one time when I was writing on my white board, my shirt rolled up. A few students saw my tattoo and started yelling “mafia, gangsta.” One Friday night after work, my boss wanted us to go to dinner. The next morning I was heading on a trip to Gangwon-do so, I brought a change of clothes with me. I got changed into shorts and a t-shirt before dinner. She immediately asked me to change back into my dress clothes in case we saw a student or parent at the restaurant. Is there anything else you want to highlight about tattoo culture in the ROK? Only that I don’t think it’s as big a deal anymore as people say. If you have tattoos I wouldn’t worry about it as much as I did before I got to Korea. If you can keep them covered while you’re at work then even better. But, when your own your own time don’t feel self-conscious about it. Jaceon How many tattoos do you have? I suppose you could say I have three tattoos. Two are rather large and cover large portions of my midsection, and the third currently covers over a fourth of my back. Where did you get your tattoos done? I have my first tattoos done in California by various artists and locations. My current piece has had work contributed from Japan, Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea. Do you have any tattoos directly related to Korea ? I have my mother’s name written in hangeul on my chest. My back piece is also based on Korean/Japanese/Chinese folklore with a contributing artist coming from Korea. Have you had a tattoo done in Korea? Where? Yes. Tattoo Korea in Gangnam. Pricewise, it was bit more expensive for the size. Setting an appointment up in Korea was actually not that difficult or out of the ordinary, most shops operate by appointment basis. Would you recommend anywhere? If you’re willing to pay a little extra, Tattoo Korea is a good option, as its price is a reflection of cleanliness and the overall scale of operation – It’s a large shop that’s been in business for quite some time. Are your tattoos visible? My tattoos cannot be seen if I wear a T-shirt. A loose tank top/singlet will show parts of all of my tattoos. As far as size goes, the first spans my entire chest, the second takes my right ribcage, and the third is over a fourth of my back. In general, how do you think Koreans react to your tattoos? It really depends on the person. Some find it a bit intimidating as I can feel them staring from a distance. Those that are genuinely curious always point to the Hangeul on my chest first. And then the brave seek to see everything. I feel their mixed reactions are a product of a culture whose opinion on tattoos is changing rapidly with the times. How does your employer react? /Your parents?/ Your friends? My employer may not know the whole range of my tattoos, as I’ve never attempted to reveal them at work. My co-workers think they’re interesting, often wondering how much it actually hurts to get the work done. My parents…don’t know I have any tattoos, haha. My friends are rather indifferent to them; many of them also have tattoos, or are accustomed to tattoo culture. In some Jjimjilbangs, gyms etc., there are often signs up banning tattooed people from entrance. Have you ever been turned away from somewhere? Yes, I actually have been turned away. Their reasoning was to make sure that other guests were not made uncomfortable, which I didn’t mind. I was a bit sad that I wasn’t able to enter, although I’ve found that many places will let you in with tattoos. However, those places that see a large flow of families and children are the ones that will turn tattoos away. In the past, in Korea and much of East Asia, tattoos have been linked to gang and criminal activity. Have you ever suffered prejudice or misunderstanding because of your tattoos? Yes and no. Like I said in the above story, I wasn’t allowed into an establishment due to my tattoos. The representative actually stated that if the tattoos were on my limbs that I would have been allowed to enter. My tattoos are all located on my torso and hidden, something common for those associated with the aforementioned groups. So while that can be perceived as prejudice, it was not like they actually accused me of being a gang member, they simply followed very basic guidelines that anyone could fall into. However, due to the fact that I am Asian, my tattoos will tend to draw a bit more attention in public areas versus those of perhaps a Caucasian person due to the gang-related stigma. Do you have any funny or interesting stories about your tattoos from your time in this country? Well, when I had first gotten the tattoo of my mother’s name in America I actually could not read or write Hanguel. I had asked my mom to write her name down and I took that to the artist. So, unbeknownst to me, it had been slightly misspelled for years, and no one in America would really have come up to say something about it. When I moved to Korea literally every Korean who saw it commented on how the name was wrong and what I had written actually wasn’t a name at all. I’ve since gotten it fixed, but needless to say it was a bit embarrassing when I had learned enough to confirm what they had all been telling me. Any other comments about the tattoo culture here? It’s growing! More and more shops are starting to open up and those that are legitimate all have medically licensed artists (working legally with needles requires a medical degree in Korea). The culture has seen a rapid change in the last 5 years, from underground and secretive, to licensed and advertised professionals. I would love to see extensive tattoo modelling and media exposure portraying it as the artwork it is. Artists need to be recognized for their work as much as the person wearing it. I would also love to be able to address concerns of tattoo health and culture to those without knowledge to better inform the curious and apprehensive alike. The more knowledge that is made available the more progress will be made in removing the negative stereotypes surrounding tattoos and tattoo culture. Sojeong How many tattoos do you have? I have 9 tattoos on 5 parts of my body: my head, back, left shoulder, and around my collar bones. Have you had a tattoo done in Korea? Yes, in Anyang city near Seoul. How did the prices compare with other places? I compared the price of my tattoos with prices in Canada and some were a bit more expensive than Korea. Was there any difference in method? A little bit. In Korea, tattoo artists tend to consider size and detail. In Canada, the consideration is how long it will take. Would you recommend any place to get a tattoo? All Day Tattoo in Anyang! The artist really cares about cleanliness. Are your tattoos visible? Very visible but not in work clothes. Each tattoo is smaller than my hand. In general, how do you think Koreans react to your tattoos? They said ‘Cool,’ or ‘Awesome!’ and also envy me (Haha). But they always ask me, ‘didn’t it hurt?’ How do people react to your tattoos? My employer doesn’t know I have tattoos; I always wear a formal suit in the office. My mom knows that I have tattoos, she just doesn’t like the design. I think she prefers Japanese style more than old school. And my dad doesn’t know what I have. My friends? They love it. They have the same reaction as general people. Have your tattoos got any strange reactions? A few grannies just stare at me. Sometimes, it’s creepy. In some Jimjilbangs, gyms etc., there are often signs up banning tattooed people from entrance. Have you ever seen this? I’d never seen the signs . But, a Jimjilbang asked me to leave. I got shocked and felt shamed. Of course, I got angry with them, until they kicked me out. In the past, in Korea and much of East Asia, tattoos have been linked to gang and criminal activity. Have you ever suffered prejudice or misunderstanding because of your tattoos? Well most Ajummas asked me what my job was, because they judge me by my style. Do you have any funny or interesting stories about your tattoos ? My five-year-old cousin asked me “Can I draw on your arm, too?” She thought it was painted. Any other comments? Well, Tattooing is not actively an artistic pursuit in Korea yet. Tattooing is still the activity of medical people, so artists need a medical license in Korea. This makes it hard to vitalize Korean tattoo culture. But these days, it’s going to flourish. People have been very active with parties, conventions. The law must be changed. I really want to understand people who say they hate or don’t get tattoos. Why don’t they like it? Do they think it’s disgusting?