Underground Art: Illegal tattoos in South Korea
Tattoo culture grows in the country, but laws and prejudice stop it
29 April 2022
A large part of the world's population has already accepted tattoos as a new branch of art and has left behind any kind of stigmatization and negative connotation. However, there are still cultures where it gets a bad press.
In South Korea, as in the neighbouring territories of China and Japan, although their society has evolved in several aspects, there is a deeply rooted traditional education where the conservative principles flatly reject designs on the skin.
Korean culture considers this practice inadmissible for several reasons:
A tattoo as a punishment
During the Joseon dynasty, which began in July 1392 with the founding of Taejo of Joseon and ended with the replacement of the Korean Empire in October 1897, a peculiar sanction was practised.
Any criminal offence was punished with tattooed inscriptions that contained the name of the crime committed. Also, women who were unfaithful to their husbands should be marked in the same way.
Tattoos and organised crime
A long time ago, in South Korea any person who got a tattoo was considered as a criminal involved in illicit businesses. In gangs, they used tattoos as an internal communication code.
Confucianism is a life philosophy that entails particular religious practices and moral views, which are adopted by its followers in their daily life. This doctrine, which is predominant in the country, promulgates the cult and respect for the human body and rejects any kind of harm towards it, considering physical modifications as a disrespectful aberration.
The opinion of the environment still has great weight in today's Korean culture. That is why it is thought that tattoos defy the rules and cause problems such as the difficulty to get a job or the disapproval of an old man.
Only doctors are authorized to tattoo
In 1992, the Supreme Court of South Korea ruled that professional doctors are the only authorized professionals to make tattoos, since they considered it a risky procedure and a potential source of infections due to the ink and the dubious sterilization of materials. However, only a few doctors who have decided to practice as legal tattooists because their medical degree is considered highly prestigious in society body art would just ruin their reputation. Besides, most of them are not artists. So even though they are legally qualified for the job, they lack the technical skills of a tattoo artist.
This means that those who have the passion and skill for this art but not a medical licence, are outlaws.
Due to the aforementioned situation, there are countless artists who always work underground, with the uncertainty of being detected by the authorities and facing high-cost fines, or even being sent to prison. For this reason, tattoo studios do not have any ad system for public places, and they promote themselves through word of mouth, or using their social networks very cautiously
One of the best-known cases is Doy’s, a tattoo artist considered one of the best in South Korea, who had the opportunity to tattoo highly relevant public figures such as Brad Pitt and Lily Collins.
Last year, after a video of him tattooing a well-known South Korean actress went viral, a court in Seoul (capital of South Korea) sentenced Doy to pay a five million won fine (€3700) for breaking the law that only authorizes doctors to carry out this practice.
Road to legalization
In 2016, a member of the New Democratic Political Union named Chun-Jin-jin introduced a new act in the 17th National Assembly, which would have enabled a large number of artists to come out of hiding. The 'Tattoo Law' was rejected due to the risk to public health.
Recently, this problem caught the attention of the presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung, belonging to the Democratic Party.
He stated that an industry that generates over 900 million euros a year should not be illegal. For this reason, he promises to support the projects that promote its legalization and that are pending in the parliamentary process.
Of course, this has raised enthusiasm in among tattoo artists in South Koria and Doy told Reuters (news agency) “I am very grateful for the promise. It's the best artistic inspiration tattoo artists have had lately.”
Currently, tattoo studios (still clandestine), increase their clientele day by day, since young Koreans are progressively managing to break down the prejudices of their culture. According to the research company “Gallup Korea”, 80% of youngsters in their twenties and 60% of those between the ages of 30 and 50 support the legalization of body art carried out by tattoo artists.
The new generations are emerging in this fight for future legalization, and hopefully, victory will soon be theirs.
What do you think of the tattoo culture in South Korea? Could you live clandestinely? Let us know!