Call it art, but the law sees only a dark threat

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Call it art, but the law sees only a dark threat

A phoenix got Kim Jun-hyeon into trouble. It also proved to be Lee Jun’s undoing. After it landed, both of them were carted off to jail.
The phoenix was tattooed on Mr. Lee’s back by Ms. Kim, who refers to herself as an artist. The only trouble is the courts and Ms. Kim disagree on where art ends and crime begins. The 29-year-old is fighting a one-year sentence. As for Mr. Lee, he admits to having broken the law and is in prison. His is guilty of disfiguring his body to avoid conscription.


The door to Ms. Kim’s second-floor studio in Daerim-dong, west Seoul, is ajar on July 13. Ms. Kim, who also goes by the name Gunwon, is expecting a client; she extends a cheerful greeting to the man who walks in. She is well-known as a tattooist. Referrals stream to her office. She studied fine arts at Sungshin Women’s University, which gives her an understanding of the contours of the human body. She has placed real tattoos on modern dancers and fake ones on musicians and actresses, like the one she affixed to Shin Eun-kyeong, the star of the movie “My Wife is a Gangster.”
The man who appears to be her latest client is carrying a camera and starts taking pictures of her spacious atelier as other men appear. She becomes suspicious. One of the men says, “Lee Jun is in jail.” She, the man continues, is under arrest. Ms. Kim shouts for her parents, who run the pharmacy downstairs, but it is too late.
Ms. Kim is snagged by a nation-wide dragnet for young men who get tattooed to avoid military conscription. After 10 nights in jail and a court appearance, she is released. The judge notes that she has no prior record and that her parents are outstanding members of the community.
The police also net Choi Gue-sik. A dragon perched on the back of a high school graduate is what got Mr. Choi into trouble. Mr Choi says, “I didn’t know a guy would be rejected by the army if he has a tattoo. I have plenty of friends with small tattoos who have been in the army.” Mr. Choi is fined 2 million won.
On Aug. 8, three men are charged with getting tattoos across their entire back to disqualify themselves from military duty. They are sentenced to 18 months in jail, the heaviest sentence ever for draft dodging.
According to Lim Il-Kyu of the Military Manpower Administration, tattoos are considered a physical deferment. “If you have a tattoo 7 centimeters or less, or tattoos that cover no more than 30 square centimeters, you are still eligible for army duty. If your head or a large portion of your upper body is covered with a tattoo, you serve in the public sector. You can never be absolutely exempt just because you have a tattoo.”
Mr. Lim compares tattoos with ailments such as the entire face or body covered with acne. “You’re likely to upset your peer soldiers,” he says. Men suffering from such conditions spend their two years of mandatory service working as civil servants.
Asked why the army does not just remove the tattoos and get on with making the transgressor a warrior, Mr. Lim says, “It’s not easy to remove them, and they are never completely erased.”
Mr. Choi agrees that laser surgery is costly and leaves a mark, but he sees no reason why a tattoo is a disqualifier. Kim Joon uses tattoo techniques to emblazon plastic representations of body parts. He says the law is “odd.”


Aug. 22 is a very hot day. Ms. Kim and her mother, Shin Youngsoon, sweat it out, literally, as they wait outside courtroom No. 108 in Suwon Court for a verdict.
“At first all of this was too hard to take,” Ms. Kim says, but as time went by, I realized that I should stay firm in order to defend my beliefs.” She spent most of her time in jail reading books on meditation to calm her nerves. The whole thing does not make sense,” she says.
Ms. Kim speaks about the case. The first time Mr. Lee came to her to be tattooed, she turned him down. She told him, “A tattoo is permanent. Give more thought to your decision so you do not have regrets.”
A year later, she says, he returned and said, “I’ve given it enough thought, and I’m ready.”
Since her arrest, Ms. Kim has filed a petition bearing the signatures of 5,000 people, including professors and celebrities, who support an easing of the restrictions on tattooing. She says Korean culture is beginning to accept tattoos as an art form and that it is about time the government realizes this.
Ms. Kim’s mother looks confident, showing none of the anguish that would be expected from a parent whose child is being prosecuted for what many believe to be unsavory activity. “At first I was scared of what might happen to my daughter, and I was also unhappy with the kind of occupation she chose. But now I trust her decision and support it,” she says. She says the government should bring tattooing out of the shadows, which would result in better hygiene and drive out those who lack the required skill.
Koreans have scorned tattoos and there are no clear regulations, says Kang Byeongun, who helped organize Moonsingage, a tattoo exhibition held recently in Seoul. “If there are two things Korean parents hate, it is a crew cut and tattoos. Both are reminiscent of the Japanese occupation. Also, when you see criminals on television, they are identified by their tattoos. With that kind of image, why would any parent want their kid to have a tattoo?”
Ever since Ms. Kim starting tattooing clients six years ago, she has been aware that she was flirting with the law. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that tattooing falls under the laws that govern medical practitioners since it can pose a threat to the public’s health. In 1996, however, the Constitutional Court excluded tattooing from medical restrictions, defining medical treatment as preventing or treating diseases by diagnoses and the application of professional medical knowledge. A previous ruling made tattooing legal for only doctors.
Finally, Ms. Kim and her mother enter the court room, where dozens of other people, lawyers and a few reporters wait in silence. The presiding judge speaks slowly but clearly as reads a list of verdicts and sentences. Five minutes after Ms. Kim walked into the courtroom her turn comes: “Case number 3827,” the bailiff calls out. A guard escorts Lee Jun, 24, before the judge. Dressed in blue prison garb and handcuffed he stands still, eyes staring at the floor. Ms. Kim assumes a similar position, but there is a note of defiance in her squared shoulders. She is trying to reclaim her life and set the record straight about her art.


In the 1969 movie, “The Illustrated Man” the lead character is searching for the woman who made him a “freak show.” As he slept, this “witch” covered his entire body from neck down with colorful tattoos. An outcast, he wanders the landscape, seeking his revenge.
While this American “B” movie is a journey into the darker side of fantasy, it offers a comparison with the shadowy world of tattoos. Although “freakish” is not an apt description of most tattoos, some of them are viewed as defiling the body. This can invite further questioning of character and moral rectitude.
When Kim Joon first began organizing Moonsinsange, he posted an invitation online to attract the largest number of people. “I wanted to show that tattoos can be an art form and counter the stereotypes people hold about them and the people who have them.”
About 40 tattoo artists responded to Mr. Kim’s Internet message. But around the same time the crackdown began and many of them were forced underground. “My invitation looks like an undercover cop trying to catch these people,” Mr. Kim says. When he opened an exhibition on Aug. 21, only two of the nine participants, Ms. Kim and Mr. Choi, who gave the high school student a dragon, were tattooists. Mr. Kim says that viewing the videos and tattoo equipment, most visitors to the exhibition wanted to know: “Does it hurt?” “Will people think I’m a gangster?”
The tattoo culture is hostage to misconceptions. But the sheer beauty of the art is attracting people other than pop and movie stars. Women who choose to this form of expression usually opt for a rose or butterfly on the ankle or shoulder. For a few, a buttock is a suitable canvass. Men asked for a dragon or Chinese characters on the chest or back, or a tribal design around a bicep. An estimated 500 people practice this "illegal" art.
Although there are no confirmed cases of HIV being transmitted through tattooing, such potential danger, however remote, is a concern that helps drive much of the anti-tattoo rhetoric. Ms. Kim says she throws out a needle once it has been used. Her mother says that because of AIDS, regulating tattooists is a good thing, but the practice should not be restricted to doctors.
Jun Jong-ryeol of the Ministry of Health says no death resulting from a tattoo has ever been reported in Korea.


The judge’s voice is calm, but he pauses frequently. Ms. Kim is found guilty under a special law on violators of welfare codes. She is sentenced to one year in jail, a 3 million-won fine and two years probation. The punishment is lighter than the original three-year term. The court also orders that her confiscated tattoo equipment be returned.
Mr. Lee is sentenced to one year in prison followed by one year public service for the army.
Retreating from the courtroom, Ms. Kim’s eyes water. Her boyfriend, videotaping the scene, expresses his dissatisfaction with the outcome, calling the Korean law banning men with tattoos from the military “absurd.”
Ms. Kim’s lawyer, Moon Gun-young, says, “We’re working on an appeal to reduce the sentence and revise the law.” An appeal was filed at the end of August claiming that the law governing tattoos violates individual liberties based on “freedom of the body.”
The government’s case is seen as a warning. But it apparently is giving people reason to make money. As another tattooist, who asked not to be named, said after appearing in court, “I have to get back to work again. I have a fine to pay.”

by Joe Yong-hee
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