WEDGED BETWEEN a quaint bakery and a mysterious flight of stairs, SunnyInk is easy to miss. The only telltale sign of the studio are the curling letters that hover above the subterranean door reading: Old & Newschool, Black & Grey, Japanese Style, Tribal. Like most tattoo shops in Seoul, SunnyInk is underground, both physically and figuratively. In fact, Sunny’s workshop is almost conspicuous in Seoul’s tattoo world; it is situated on a high traffic street, has clear (though obscured) signage, and even possesses an online presence. He already has one citation for his practice, but Sunny says he’s not particularly worried that this conspicuousness will draw attention or discipline from the police.
A legalized bias
Sunny debuted professionally six years ago. Three years later, he joined the Itaewon studio he now runs. Originally an animation student, he was drawn to tattooing because the medium offered more control over his art. He takes client requests, but he has the freedom to create his own designs and has autonomy over every piece’s style. Despite this freedom, Sunny says the laws in place that earned him his first citation limit him in terms of clientele and visibility.
Unlike other countries where tattooing is legal, Korea requires a medical license to practice. As a result of not having one, Sunny is forced to work behind closed doors. Although he says the police generally leave tattoo parlors alone as long as they practice safely and avoid scandals over conditions or clientele, he wants to avoid another citation; should he earn a second or third, he risks being sentenced to six months in prison. Over the years, the medical lobby in South Korea has successfully continued to classify tattooing as a medical procedure by claiming the process is similar to acupuncture. In a 2014 interview with *The Korea Times*, a Ministry of Health official explained that tattooing is strictly regulated because it has the potential to cause bodily harm. Due to the art’s legal standing, tattooists risk being charged for malpractice if caught.
According to Tomoko Seto (Prof. UIC, Asian Studies), this social-turned-institutionalized stigma surrounding tattoos can be traced back to the ancient times, when Japanese criminals and ex-convicts were tattooed as a form of punishment. Even after the practice ended, tattooing was adopted by fringe communities as a way of advertising their outlaw status. This outlaw culture became associated with tattoos in Japan, and spread to Korea, later merging with imported fashion tattoo culture from the United States during the American occupation. She says that although this collision of tattoo cultures and new-age style has slowly been changing the public’s view of tattoos, the outlaw culture that popularized the art still dominates social undertones.
While displaying tattoos is still taboo in South Korea, Facebook hosts groups where individuals share pictures, stories, tips, and other information about tattoos. The largest of these groups boasts 125,000 members. Each one is closed, and several ask for potential members to fill out short questionnaires on why they should be admitted before their request to join can be approved. Tattooists have also flocked to social media, posting their pieces on Instagram, where many Seoul-based artists have gained international attention for their work. The online tattooing community has risen to fill circumvent the strict government regulations on the industry as members connect artists to clients and each other.
But even as tattoo parlors permeate the streets of Seoul and more citizens adorn their bodies, the historic stigma attached to tattooists and the tattooed continues to stick. Hwang Yang-jae (4th Sem., Graduate School of International Studies), says although his perception of tattoos has changed in recent years due to normalization, he used to think of tattooed people as different from most, due to the informal cultural education he received from his family, teachers, and the media.
A recent Ehwa University graduate, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid job complications, says although her tattoos didn’t impede her from getting hired, her employers later demanded that she conceal her body art. This new standard for her appearance, which was implemented a year after her hiring, includes hiding everything from her tattoos, to her piercings, to her dyed hair. The interviewee says this quiet stigma isn’t restricted to the workplace. Acquaintances often prod her to “explain” her body modifications by asking rhetorical questions, and strangers in public spaces are even prone to stare. She says she has noticed an improvement in how others treat her and her tattoos, but only within Seoul and among the younger generation, so they don’t believe this can be seen as a nation-wide or even city-wide shift.
A slowly shifting stigma
However, there are exceptions to every rule. An So-hyun, a student in Underwood Inernational College (UIC), is one of these. So-hyun says her first tattoo, a small flower on her ankle which is part of a matching set with her mother, hasn’t garnered a negative reaction, even amongst the older generation. But exceptions happen for a reason; despite the positive reactions she has received, So-hyun makes a point to mention that the placement of her tattoo means she can “easily cover it up regarding the circumstances.” While So-hyun’s experience indicates a growing social acceptability for tattooing, there is not enough active support for the practice to cause legislative change.
The lack of momentum driving social change can be seen in the fight for the legalization of tattoo artists. In 2015 the vice president of the Korea Tattoo Artist Association (KTAA), Choi Jung-won, used an op-ed in Ink Magazine to call for medical professionals around the world to write to the Ministry of Health explaining that doctors do not have the artistic skills or proper training to practice tattooing. However, there has been no significant shift towards legalization in the two years since. Police continue to raid shops and conventions. Sunny says just last year the Hongdae police shut down several shops after establishments became too noticeable.
The Ewha University graduate says these societal and institutional biases are hard to combat due to an aversion to difference in the country, one so strong it has entrenched itself in the language. “In Korean to be different is da-reu-da and to be wrong is teul-li-da, and da-reu-da and teul-li-da are technically synonyms in our language system… So if you’re different, you’re wrong.” Like Professor Seto, she believes public opinion and even laws may change; however she does not see it happening in the near future, as the theological foundation of tattoo bias is too deep to be eradicated in one generation. “Maybe this is just how people in this area have changed in past four-five years,” she said. “Maybe they can spread the word… But it’s not going to be big enough or legitimate enough to change an entire generation.”