Out of the shadows, tattoos are now fashion statementsAmong a certain group, Jin Young-geun is known as a guru of gangster tattoos. He learned tattooing at 19, when he was in a juvenile prison. For years after that, the clientele at his tattoo shop in Anyang, Gyeonggi province, mostly consisted of people involved in “underground” businesses, those who wanted tattoos of yakuza symbols such as tigers and dragons.
But within the past two or three years, Mr. Jin, approaching 50, says his clientele has radically changed. His new shop in Itaewon, which is located on the notorious “Hooker Hill,” now has a balanced mix of foreigners and Koreans ranging from government office workers to high-ranking officials in the construction business.
That’s a major leap from the industry reality a decade ago, when many tattooers had to hop from one motel room to another to get the job done without getting caught by the local police.
For years, tattooing was banned in Korea as a criminal activity. It is still illegal, unless done by someone with medical training, although no doctors do tattooing. As a result, tattoo parlors operate in a legal gray area, subject to police crackdowns. In reality, however, few have problems unless a customer lodges a complaint with the authorities over a botched job, for example. Police, too, have paid little attention to the issue unless it involves serious cases related to delicate subjects, such as military conscription.
Among the younger generation, finding out where to get the best tattoos in town has become an open secret. One could simply visit any club in the Hongdae area of Seoul on a Friday night and see how many men ― and women ― sport Celtic crosses beneath their sleeveless shirts.
“When I go to university districts, I see at least one or two people on each block who have tattoos on their bodies,” says Kim Sang-yong, a 30-year-old tattooist who got into the business three years ago. “We expect the number to double within the next few years.”
As younger Koreans with professional training in art started looking into the business as a career option, Mr. Jin says, an area that has long been viewed as a status symbol for social outcasts is now treated as an artful fashion trend. The Hongdae area in particular has become a new mecca for tattoo artists who majored in fine art.
“Until 2000, you couldn’t seriously talk about the creative value of tattoos,” he says. “There weren’t many examples to choose from. But now, people have high standards, because they’ve seen better samples traveling outside of Korea.”
JJ, a young tattooer who runs a studio in an apartment near Yeouido, is a design graduate of Gunguk University. The 27-year-old, who already has three assistants bringing him cold drinks and cleaning up, entered the business six years ago while he was studying fashion in Australia.
Posted on his Cyworld club at tattooistjj are dozens of memos from curious young women asking about the cost of his service. Currently, he charges 350,000 won ($347) per hour, about triple the amount one would pay outside of Korea.
The price in Korea, however, includes “risk fees,” he says, in case he gets into a legal dispute with clients. Under the law, tattoers are often obliged to pay full compensation to clients in case of a problem, plus a penalty for performing illegal surgery.
In 2002, Choi Gue-sik, a tattoer, was fined 2 million won for disfiguring the body of a young man who got a tattoo from him allegedly to avoid military service.
“I tell young tattooers that they shouldn't be afraid of a crackdown while they are in this business,” Mr. Jin says. “It’s not a sin being an artist.”
JJ even hints that some younger tattooers entering the business see the current legal situation as a way to earn extra cash. He himself doesn’t seem bothered by it.
“I may even consider quitting if tattooing becomes legal in Korea,” he says. “If that happens, the cost of the service will naturally drop, and we would have to deal with the competition, which isn’t what I want. I might set up a school to train more people who want to get into the business then, because there will be more demand for it.”
For young tattoo artists, prospects lie largely with young, fashion-conscious women, among whom tattoos and henna rinses increasingly have become key trends.
Chun Mi-na, who has been in the industry for three years, runs a tattoo shop near Ehwa Womans University that caters exclusively to women. For those who think Ehwa girls and tattoos don’t match, welcome to the real world!
“It’s a natural flow of fashion,” Ms. Chun says. “Skin art is all there is really left to explore in the world of fashion right now. They start with hair styling. Then they move on to body piercing and now tattoos.”
Currently, JJ says, 80 percent of his tattoo clients are women.
For veterans like Mr. Jin, though, the new trend has both good and bad aspects. The good side is that tattoos are increasingly being accepted in mainstream society, forcing artists to pay more attention to sanitation, he says. The negative is that tattoos are being treated as a light fashion accessory now, whereas in the past they were considered a more serious form of art among the professionals.
“I want to do free-style tattoos,” Mr. Jin says. “These days, many people prefer American styles based on character designs that already exist.”
Tattoos have also become a subject of academic discourse. In his recent exhibit “Tattoo You” at the Savina Museum, the mixed-media artist Kim Jun arranged a tattoo party in which he invited the audience to meet with local tattoers to discuss issues and the stigma that still exists in Korean society.
In a museum seminar held in late May under the title “Low Culture: Tattoo as Social Taboo,” the artist, who uses tattoos in his works as a metaphor for wounded masculinity, invited cultural critic panelists to discuss the hidden meanings of tattoos as viewed in Korean popular culture.
“I am interested in tattoos as a metaphor for our hidden desire,” he says. “I see the skin as an extension of a canvas, and tattoos reflect a displaced desire engraved onto our skin.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Mr. Kim handed a tattoo gun and an orange to a female visitor, a student of sculpture at Sungshin Women’s University, who was visiting the museum. The basement, almost as a protest, was designed to look like a tattoo shop, complete with operating table, a cart full of paints and needles and walls covered with drawing samples. During the exhibition, people who were invited to the museum could do anything they wanted in the basement except for tattooing human skin.
Mr. Kim asked the student visitor to choose an image and tattoo it on the orange.
She picked up her gun and engraved an image of a heart onto the fruit.
“It feels strangely good,” she cried out, smiling. “If I could get it done for free right now, I would do it.”
by Park Soo-mee