[TURNING 20] The man with the rose tattoo

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[TURNING 20] The man with the rose tattoo

The Korea JoongAng Daily is turning 20 this year and to celebrate we will be bringing you 20 coming-of-age stories whose subjects range from people to animals to organizations, all of which have also turned 20. 
Doctor and tattooist Cho Myung-shin tattooing a client to cover a scar. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Doctor and tattooist Cho Myung-shin tattooing a client to cover a scar. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Plastic surgeon Cho Myung-shin turns people's scars into art 
Twenty years ago, it was nearly impossible to spot a young person with a tattoo in public in Korea. Nowadays, however, just step onto the subway or people-watch in a coffee shop and you'll see lettering, patterns, dragons, roses and tigers, among others, tattooed on both young men and women's arms, legs, ankles, wrists and backs.
While a lot has changed about how tattoos are viewed in Korea, one thing that has remained the same over the past two decades is that tattooing is illegal in Korea, unless you are a medical professional.
Based on the judicial precedent made in 1992, tattoos are categorized as a medical service — which means that only medical professionals are allowed to hold a tattoo gun. As the majority of tattoo artists here do not hold medical licenses, they are technically working illegally. 
Although non-medical tattoo artists are rarely prosecuted, they do face the risk of having police reports filed against them, which can lead to heavy fines or, in a worst case scenario, their studios being shut down. However, there is a unique — and perhaps the only of his kind — tattoo artist in Korea who isn’t bound by this law: Doctor Cho Myung-shin, a 56-year-old plastic surgeon and tattoo artist who owns “Vincent Tattoo & Piercing” in Myeong-dong, central Seoul, a tattoo and piercing shop that also offers cosmetic procedures. 
When Cho, a well-to-do plastic surgeon, decided to pursue a career in tattooing, he was met with some serious trepidation.
"They called me a wacko, and I didn’t disagree," Cho said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at his clinic. 
This was the year 2000, when Cho opened up his own place to receive clients for tattoos as well as cosmetic procedures. 
Among the doctors, and even the nurses who worked with me, many disapproved my decision. They [the nurses] came up to me and said, ‘Why are you doing this? You are already making enough money as it is,’ Cho reminisced.  
Cho's story begins in the summer of 1999 when a middle-aged man visited his hospital to erase a tattoo.  
“Usually the patients who visit my hospital to erase their tattoos had pretty good reasons for coming in,” Cho said. 
Although the tattoos may have been precious to them at one time, they are now somewhat silly and of poor quality. But this one tattoo stuck out to me for a different reason.
The tattoo Cho had hesitated to erase was of a rose. While erasing the tattoo, Cho asked the patient where he’d gotten it done and ended up going to visit the tattoo artist whose work he had removed. 
"I was just hit with the realization that tattoos can be pieces of artwork. I became curious to know more about this person who etched this beautiful rose tattoo," Cho said. "I still don’t know his real name — he went by the name of Kim. At first, he was on guard — which is understandable. A complete stranger comes barging in asking this and that about tattoos when what he’s doing is illegal. But I had him visit my hospital and earnestly asked him to teach me how to draw tattoos. [After seeing my enthusiasm,] he gladly took me in as a student.”

Cho speaking in his clinic in Myeongdong, central Seoul, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Cho speaking in his clinic in Myeongdong, central Seoul, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. [JEON TAE-GYU]

Even before the man with the rose tattoo came into his hospital, Cho says he always had a thirst to become a pioneer in his business.
“Double-eyelid surgery can be done by anyone, but I wanted to challenge myself in a new, unique field as a doctor,” Cho said. 
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Cho to hear more about how the local tattoo scene has changed in the last two decades, and his stance about decriminalizing tattooing for non-medical professionals. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.  
While stereotyping still exists, the public perception about tattoos has changed radically compared to the early 2000s. Do you feel that change?
It has been changing for the better. But it’s still too early to say that tattoos are being positively accepted by this society. The mainstream still feels negative toward tattoos — a lot of people don’t understand why people get tattoos. But there is no right or wrong here. Tattoos definitely don’t inflict harm on others. It’s different than smoking. What’s on my body may disgust others, but that’s their problem.

It was interesting when I first started business in tattoo. I mean, it wasn’t exactly a pretty picture when a man who looked like he belonged in a gangster mob and a woman getting double-eyelid surgery were sitting next to each other in the waiting room. And the nurses were intimidated [by such clients] too. But such gangsters have never caused any racket or trouble in the hospital.

After about a decade in this business, a lot of other doctors were beginning to understand what I do. I don’t only draw dragons. I also do medical tattoos, such as evening out the skin tone of patients with vitiligo.

Perspectives are certainly shifting, but there are still those who point fingers, shake their heads and say it's "not something a doctor should do.” But as I’ve told you before, I’m a wacko, and I have no care in the world for those criticisms. What I do with my own life is only mine to consider, and I’m going to live in a way that I want.  
What about your clients?
They have changed drastically. At the beginning my clients were limited to those in unique occupations or gangsters.
But I think after the 2002 FIFA World Cup, people were no longer hesitant to look for ways to express themselves, and there is no longer a distinction in the age or social class of those getting tattoos.
Monks, doctors, nurses, pilots […] I take underage clients as well as long as they have their parents’ permission. The oldest client that I’ve ever met was a 76-year-old man. He had a scar on his knee and he wanted to cover it up with a rose. He came all the way from Haenam County, South Jeolla, and he said that this scar had caused him stress all throughout his life. When he left the shop very much satisfied, I was struck with the notion that I was doing this job well.  
One of Cho's clients who covered a large scar on his back with a tattoo.[CHO MYUNG-SHIN]

One of Cho's clients who covered a large scar on his back with a tattoo.[CHO MYUNG-SHIN]

Do you have any specific goals that you try to pursue as a tattoo artist?

Nothing special. Just that I want to do the best I can to satisfy my clients’ wishes. But over the years, I’ve learned to let go of my standards about tattoos. At first when they would bring the pictures, I would think, ‘Why are they bringing such low-quality pictures?’ and spent more time changing their minds to get tattoos that I thought were cool.

But after about five or six years, I realized that I’m not the keeper of my tattoos. My clients are.
Even if [the tattoos] seem cheap or lack detail, I decided to draw what my clients wanted because they were the ones going home with them.
If, one day, they suddenly think that their tattoos are lousy, they can come back to erase them or cover them up with other tattoos. But until that happens, I focus on what the person wants. If I don’t understand their needs, I keep asking questions until I do.
An example of Cho's medical tattooing where he evened a clients skin tone. [CHO MYUNG-SHIN]

An example of Cho's medical tattooing where he evened a clients skin tone. [CHO MYUNG-SHIN]

In your 20-year career as a tattoo artist, what has been the most memorable or meaningful work that you've done?
The moments when I feel proud of my work are when people who come to me to cover up their scars leave my shop no longer having to care about their wounds. There is a big proportion of my clients who come to me because they are hurting— not physically, but mentally. But when I completely covered the wounds, they would miraculously stare at the place [where the scar was] and exclaim, “Wow, you can’t really see it,” and cry. Those are healing tears, and that’s when I feel proud of my work because I’ve fulfilled the purpose that they’ve wished for.

One memorable client was a woman who would etch her boyfriends’ initials on her body. She would come back every time the relationships ended, but she didn’t want to erase the initials, she just wanted to cover them up with another tattoo so that they were no longer recognizable. When she left the shop content, I was happy too. But when she would come back to get the initials of another boyfriend, our staff and I would be racking our heads wondering how we would end up covering it up.  
Do you have any tattoos?
I only have puncture marks because I test the new machines on my body, but no, I have no tattoos because my family was strongly against it. My ex-wife was a pastor and she despised tattoos — she said that they were the origins of Satan and thought that I, as a tattoo artist, was practicing an act of evil. Whether or not she’s right or wrong, I didn’t want to trouble someone who I’m living with. So I didn’t.
Then it just became a habit, so I just refer to myself as a naked tattoo artist.
Despite how popular tattoos have become, why do you think there are no laws to legalize the profession for non-medically qualified people?
The National Assembly hasn’t made a bill to overturn the previous precedent. Why haven’t they? It’s because they’re afraid that they would have to carry the responsibility of that bill. The assembly consults with professionals in the respective fields when they make a law, and the stance that the Korean Medical Association takes has always remained the same: Tattooing is providing a medical service. They probe the assembly members, "If something goes wrong, are you going to be liable for it?" Then everyone backs down.

The consumers, at the end of the day, are the public, and they deserve the best services for the money they spend, right? The government is obliged to fulfill their demands, which means that it needs to be in control of selecting who is qualified as a tattoo artist. So what I propose is to take it by step by step. 

First, the bill should include nurses — there’s bound to be some who want to get out of the hospital — and then extend the bill to nurse's aides too. That would make consumers feel safer, to be able to get tattoos from a licensed practitioner.

There might be those who think that it’s too much to become a nurse’s aide just to be a legal tattoo artist. But if they’re able to legally perform their services, then why shouldn’t they? What has happened over the last two decades since they’ve kept up their stance? Nothing. It’s still illegal. It takes about a year to become a certified nurse’s aide, and anyone can become one if they are diligent. My wife is a nurse’s aide. You just need to keep track of your attendance and take the test, and the test isn’t even that hard.  
Do you think the laws on tattooing will ever be eased in Korea?
I do. It’s just a matter of time, really. The current system is unstable and unfair on all of us. Doctors neither benefit nor lose interest by putting tattoos under the wings of a medical act, but they’re not going to be the ones performing the services.
Medical associations should step up and tell people that getting a tattoo isn’t dangerous, and they are not categorized as medical procedures. Isn’t that the proper thing to do.
It just doesn’t make any sense. So this unreasonable system will be upended soon, mark my words. Maybe things will be overturned after this article comes out.
BY LEE JAE-LIM   [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]


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