The ongoing struggle to legalize the tattoo industry
This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Groove Korea. Edited by Anita McKay. Story by Ian Henderson. Photos by Peter Kim. Read PDF here
In the summer of 2014, tattoo enthusiasts endured the merciless Korean heat for over two hours in order to gain entrance to INKBOMB, a tattoo convention featuring both domestic and international artists. Soon after the needles started to buzz, however, a handful of cops showed up to shut the whole thing down, demanding the removal of equipment and visible ink and leaving many of the patrons and visiting artists baffled. Turns out, even though hordes of young, freshly inked Koreans and numerous parlors can be found throughout Seoul, tattooing is actually illegal in Korea when not performed by a doctor.
Tattooing exists at the nexus of culture and economics. At the heart of this nexus is probably the person who personifies the struggle more than anyone else in Korea, Hernan Chang, owner of Tattooism studio and the head of the Korean Tattoo Association. Coming from an artistically inclined family, he and his friends began DIY tattooing, using nothing more than a simple needle and an ink pot. “Korea didn’t really have needle guns or equipment then, most of us hadn’t even heard of all of that.” Without the Internet or a domestic support network to learn his trade, Hernan lined up an apprenticeship in Mexico City under the tutelage of Tony Serrano. He found a niche market designing the classic “Oriental” dragons popular among his clientele, honing his skills in the very beginning by giving away free tattoos to the homeless population there.
The entrance of the tattoo into the Korean mainstream can perhaps be traced back to a soccer game between Korea and Japan in 2003, a moment that many artists view as the precise moment they knew the zeitgeist had changed for the younger population. After scoring, Korean player Ahn Jeong-hwan removed his shirt and proudly displayed a tattoo on his shoulder. Matz, a tattoo artist and co-owner of Carpet Bombing Ink, relates how this impacted the collective psyche. “Celebrities having tattoos, like Ahn Jeong-hwan and Yoon Do-yun (of hard rock band YB) changed the concept that Koreans have about tattoos a lot.”
Hernan recognized it as a sign that he should open up shop in Korea and founded Tattooism at an old location in Yongsan-gu. However, though high-profile tattoo-bearers had served to broaden public perception of body art, some of the old stereotypes concerning the practice held true. “Most of my customers were thugs who wanted yakuza-style work done,” he complains. “They didn’t care about art at all, they just wanted it cheap and quick.” After finally having grown disgruntled fulfilling self-defeating stereotypes, he took off for a brief stint in Japan before doing a three-year stay in Bangkok.
The long association in the Far East between tattoos and organized crime is one aspect of the long and mostly negative cultural history surrounding the issue. Hardline Confucianism, much like Rastafarianism, strictly forbids any body modifications, even extending to the custom in the Joseon period of wearing the hair long in a top knot under a hat. During the Japanese occupation, one of the main strategies used to destroy the Confucian system was cutting off the top knot, which caused many scholars to disembowel themselves in protest. Likewise, those with an iconoclastic bent or anti-authoritarian stance in later generations would get tattoos as a way to thumb their nose at tradition.
Before 2001, tattoos weren’t officially illegal in Korea or regulated in any way, but most people self-regulated and shunned them, so there was no need for the law to be involved. It also helped that tattooed individuals were often hassled by the authorities on the assumption that they were up to no good during the military dictatorships of the past. The government finally took an official stance on the matter in 2001, and ruled that any procedure involving a needle had to be performed by a licensed medical professional. As a result, the only legal ink one can get here is in the form of permanent makeup.
Hernan formed the Korean Tattoo Association in response to this peculiar law and began holding TATTOO VIRUS conventions. Along with Taerem, the owner of Sunrat Studios which organizes INKBOMB, they hold conventions and contact legislators to help raise awareness of the issue. Being involved in an illegal industry — let alone the activist face of it — is bound to cause some logistical problems. Most shops don’t have signs out front, and Hernan even goes as far as to move his shop every so often to stay ahead of the police should they come looking. Bomi, owner and artist of Badass Tattoos says she’s often paranoid but has never had a problem. “The cops actually eat at a restaurant next door and we turn the music down and try to be low key, but I don’t think they really care.”
Competition and Crackdowns
Most police crackdowns on the industry are the result of tip-offs. Though there is no shortage of groups opposed to the legalization of the tattoo industry, Hernan thinks the most influential are medical organizations, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The Korean Medical Association supports the illegality of non-medical professions performing tattoos on the grounds that there are too many side-effects, such as hepatitis B and C, syphilis and AIDS due to use of unsanitary tattoo equipment. However, Hernan suggests that these organizations, in addition to not particularly trusting the professionalism of tattooists, have a deep-seated fear that, if traditional tattooing is legalized, it could be competition — an idea he deems absurd. “I don’t give a shit about permanent make-up. I’m an artist, we care about art.”
Hernan and Bomi both speculate that one of these groups may have been responsible for the bust at last year’s INKBOMB convention. The police admitted they were there because of a call from the public, but did not disclose who it came from.
Not everyone is against them however, and tattooists have allies in some very unlikely places. Case in point: The normally ultra-conservative Park Geun-hye administration is one of the main supporters of legalization, seeing it as a great job creation program for youth that wouldn’t necessitate more years of expensive schooling. Bomi at Badass points out that she originally got into tattooing because she had majored in design; faced with a weak job market upon graduation, tattooing became an attractive option, something in which she could use her skills and knowledge. Bomi can also see another simple economic factor behind the unexpected support of the government: “They’re really desperate for tax money wherever they can get it.”
As with most forms of prohibition, black market economies will arise, and with them the negative consequences typical of an unregulated industry. For tattooing, these consequences include money-grabbing opportunist artists, the tattooing of young teenagers, low-quality ink from China, and a general air of fear that real artists have to live under day in, day out. It seems a roll of the die decides who gets pinched, and often the person holding that die is an informant. And when the cops make a show of cracking down, they do so with gusto. Fines can be up to 10 million won (US $9,000), property can be seized, and prison time is not unheard of. Hernan has been escorted to the police station several times and knows of another artist who has served time. Bomi related a story she heard secondhand about an artist who committed suicide when the hammer finally came down.
While legalization would obviously remedy many of these problems, the Korean business world would present a new set of challenges. Bomi thinks her life will be different if her profession is legalized, but not necessarily for the better. “It will just be new problems to deal with. Primarily I think the wealthy people will buy up independent artists and studios and turn it into just mass-produced crap. They’ve got the advertising budget to crush all the low level competition as well.” Hernan, on the other hand, sees nothing but positives coming out of it. “If the chaebols (large Korean business conglomerates) do that, then fine. It will increase the quality of the artists through competition, as well as making a tattoo artist someone young people can look up to as something cool and respectable to do with your life.”
There are mixed feelings regarding the legalization of tattooing, but the consensus is that if it’s going to happen, it will happen soon. Hernan explained, “I thought in 2003 that it would be done by this point. I really think this is one thing that Park Geun-hye could use to her advantage and pass. We have until September — after that the National Assembly is out of session. We’ll lose all this momentum we’ve got going at the moment. If not now, then it’ll be a long time until we get the chance again.”
Inked Korea — an English service for tattoo bookings and shop information