A Look At South Korea & Its Thriving Illegal Tattoo Scene

The younger generations’ value of self-expression through their appearances has led the art of tattooing in South Korea to be considered a form of rebellion.

south korea tattoo
Photo by Darius Marshall on Unsplash

In South Korea, appearance plays a large role in social structure. In fact, appearance can even affect the hiring process. Not only is South Korea the leading cosmetic industry in the world, but it continues to grow its thriving plastic surgical market as well.

In a country where beauty standards have such an impact, it’s easy to wonder what it is like for those who want to against the mainstream. For the most part, alternative beauty in South Korea is tolerated, but when it comes to tattoos, not so much. In South Korea, it is not illegal to be tattooed, but it is illegal to tattoo someone if you are not a medical practitioner.

south korea tattoo
INSTAGRAM @tattooist_nini

This law has not stopped the younger generations from revolting by inking their skin, but due to the law and South Korean society’s contempt for tattoos, being tattooed can significantly impact an individual’s life in Korea, which is why the Korean youth hope to break down society’s standards.

History of Tattooing in South Korea

The first record of tattoos in Korea goes back to the 4th century, as fisherman would often get stick and poke tattoos to ward off evil spirits.

This positive association with tattooing took a hard turn in the 19th century when it became common to brand criminals with the name of the individual they wronged by engraving it into their bodies. During the 1990s, the theory that tattooing is a medical procedure and therefore should only be practiced by healthcare professionals became common opinion. Since then, South Korea has enforced restrictions on tattooing. The law states that only licensed medical professionals are qualified to perform the act of tattooing. Until very recently, this law also existed in Japan. It has since changed, however, the stigma still remains prevalent. According to a member of the Korean Medical Association,

“Tattooing is a medical act that can pose a danger to the human body if it’s allowed for non-medical personal.”

Similar somewhat to Western culture, that of Korea tends to associate tattoos with crime and gang violence leading the older generations to look down on inked skin. There is also the matter of the Confucianist belief that our bodies are created and given to us by our parents, thus to change them is considered a sign of disrespect.

Male Tattooed
INSTAGRAM @apro_lee

The problem with restricting tattooing only to medical professionals is that tattooing doesn’t exactly bring in the big bucks, at least not in a country that looks down on tattooing. South Korean professionals are more likely to work in the plastic surgery industry or other specialized medical practices. Finding a licensed doctor who regularly tattoos in South Korea is slim to none.

This has led the untapped market of tattooing in South Korea to blossom, black market-style. Since it is not illegal to have a tattoo, only to perform the art, there have been a variety of tattoo shops popping up around the country for years. Hidden in plain sight, tattooing in South Korea has become the embodiment of youth rebellion and has created a massive subculture that values alternative beauty despite South Korea’s rejection.

Hidden in Plain Sight

INSTAGRAM @tattooist_nini

The prohibition-like way that tattooing is treated in South Korea has led tattoo shops to mimic the speakeasy vibe.

South Korean government – if you are reading this, don’t. I would prefer not to be put on another watchlist.

Most studios are found in unassuming buildings with concealed entrances. The artists often work under aliases and only accept cash payments while most of the studios work by appointment only for obvious reasons.

Nonetheless, the illegal practice has managed to thrive, especially in Seoul.

Seoul is like two sides of the same coin; on one side, it is the makeup mecca of the world full of plastic surgery clinics and billboards of K-pop stars rocking the typical Korean beauty standards. On the other side is the underground alternative beauty scene which salutes those with unique body modifications, hairstyles, piercings, cosmetics, and of course, tattoos. At certain clubs, patrons having tattoos is considered commonplace.

South Korean society’s disdain for tattoos has unified an entire community to combat Korea’s strict beauty standards.

Thanks to K-pop stars and celebrities who are inked, the acceptance of tattoos is slowly becoming more de-stigmatized. The spearhead of the alternative beauty movement, however, remains to be led by the people. Those risking their livelihood to create art and those who stand in solidarity as the ink of their bodies act as revolutionary propaganda.

This societal rebellion has amassed millions of soldiers, fighting for their right to be exactly who they are. Self-expression, even at the cost of arrest and social rejection, is the purest form of sticking it to the man.

No matter your opinion on tattoos, that in and of itself, is beautiful.

Allison Hinrichs

Content Editor Associate

Hailing from Minnesota, Allison is a vegetarian, meditating yogi who practices a conscious lifestyle. An adrenaline junkie at heart, she has gone rock climbing in Germany and surfing the waves in Mexico. She is a keen reader who loves to learn, as long as it’s not math. And she has hopes of discovering “the secrets of the universe” by exploring the globe, experiencing other cultures, and finding a variety of different perspectives.

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