Although thousands of teenagers are free to undergo drastic cosmetic surgeries, it is not socially acceptable to have tattoos and considered illegal to be a tattoo artist in South Korea.
This archaic reaction toward tattoos is rather surprising coming from a nation worldly famous for its progressive fashion and pop culture. Indeed, many people in South Korea still regard those with tattoos as anti-social and the prejudice that links tattoos to delinquents or criminals is still very much there.
With its six billion dollar domestic beauty industry, South Korea allows its citizens to take possession of their bodies through plastic surgery. But for those who would rather alter their skin with ink, it’s another story. This leaves the young generation with no other choice than to leave the country to legally get a tattoo. If not, they run the risk of getting arrested – along with the tattoo artist.
South Korea considers tattoos a medical procedure that can be performed only by qualified medical personnel in hospitals. As a result, the country has more than 20,000 illegal tattooist artists working in illegal tattoo studios. They cannot put any sign on the door and they regularly face fines and frequent raids.
Tattoo artist Mighi told Vice about her multiple arrests: “I’ve been brought down to the police station three times. The first time, someone reported me, and the police came to my studio. I lied and said I just liked to draw and that I was an artist, but not a tattoo artist. They didn’t believe me and took me to the police station and made me sit there for four hours. Eventually, I paid a fine, and they let me leave.”
This created breeding grounds for the emergence of an illegal subculture of tattoo artists taking the risk of getting caught for art. Lyuhwa, Mirae, Ellie, and Jiran told Vice about their experience as illegal tattoo artists, but also as citizens with tattoos.
Lyuhwa’s parents’ church has stopped her from coming to services: “They feel like I’m some sort of ‘satanic’ being with my tattoos, “ she said. “People typically avoid me when they see me on the street. Some people are fascinated by my look, but most feel uncomfortable and scared.”
Jiran is luckier for she can count on the support of her family. Yet, she still faces criticism on the street: “Young kids think it’s cool. But I’ve also had random ladies nudge me on the street and say things like, “How will you ever get married with tattoos?” And, “No man will ever love you.””
On the stigma on tattoo changing, they all hope for a quick change: “Tattoo culture is like fashion; it’s always changing, and changing quite rapidly. I just hope it changes for the better,” said Mirae. As for Ellie, culture cannot be changed: “The culture won’t change, but the people can. We can change how we perceive tattoos and how we react to people who have them. I’ve had people come up to my face and tell me how “gross” I am, but I’ve also had young girls come up to me and say, “You’re cool,” and “I want to be like you.” At the end of the day, I’m just expressing myself, and that’s really the best message we can convey.”
Tattooing is now seen as a form of rebelling against social control, a way to reject orders and break away from a normal mode of living. But the weight of patriarchal familism and sexual norms is still there. For now, it seems that it’s about finding the right balance between compromise and resistance, namely still getting tattoos, but hiding them, for now…
Words: Pauline Schnoebelen
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