Real Stories: Exploring Seoul's underground tattoo scene

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Despite a union of 650 tattoo artists fighting to change legislation, a recent court ruling has confirmed South Korea as the only developed nation where it is still illegal to be a tattoo artist. The only group who can legally tattoo someone are medical professionals who hold a license, as tattooing itself is deemed a medical procedure. This means that the majority of tattoo artists there (an estimated 20,000) are operating illegally. Fines and jail sentences face artists daily, but it doesn’t stop them. 

The country’s youngest assembly member, Ryu Ho-Jeong of the Justice party, has led the fight within the legislature to liberalise laws around tattooing, as they (and many others) see current laws as outdated. Tattoos are no longer an uncommon sight in South Korea, and it’s not illegal to have one, but the laws against giving them to people mean tattoo artists are forced to operate underground. 

Tattoos in South Korea still have a lot of stigma attached to them. Up until the early 1900s criminals were given tattoos that described their crimes, to single them out within society. To this day, they are associated with criminality. In the 20th century tattoos also became commonplace within Korean gangs, who were imitating the yakuza of Japan, known for their intensely tattooed bodies. 

The older generations who lived during this time still view them in this way, despite younger people openly accepting tattoos. But many young people do choose to get smaller tattoos that are easily hidden, to avoid being wrongly judged by their elders or authority figures. 

Korean TV stations will often censor tattoos by blurring them out, or asking for them to be covered by clothing. Tattoos are also prohibited by the military in South Korea, but this has led to some groups getting tattooed in order to dodge military service. 

To get a better understanding of how the tattoo industry works in South Korea, English teacher and content creator Kiki (@clarapart2) filmed their experience getting tattooed by Kirby (@kirbeeys on Instagram) in Seoul. You can watch the full video here:

“I hope that in the next ten years when singers or other entertainers come on TV that they can show their tattoos with pride, and not cover them up like they are doing now.

“I hope to see that someday” - Kirby