Tattooing in Korea – is it legal? Is it illegal? That would be “yes” to both questions. “What? Wait. How can it be both legal and illegal at the same time?” In this interview with Korean tattoo artist Ru Hwan, we’ll find out more.
Technically speaking, tattooing is legal in Korea (yes, this article is about South Korea of course), but you’ll need to be a licensed doctor in order to perform this type of “skin surgery”.
Now imagine yourself that you’re at the end of six years of medical studies at the university, it’s time to decide which path to choose: should you become a GP, a skin specialist, a surgeon or perhaps you should go wild and chase your childhood dream of becoming a tattoo artist?
Just like in every other country in the world, people with medical degrees don’t become tattoo artists – they become doctors – and that’s a good thing, because we all need someone who might be able to cure us when we are sick, but some of us also needs creative persons that can create art on our skin every now & then.
Unfortunately dubious tattooers exist in every single country in the world, but serious tattoo artists worldwide follows strict hygiene rules. The standard practice is to sterilize equipment in an autoclave machine, use new needles, disposable gloves and small plastic cups for ink that are changed between each customer. These hygiene rules are something that the tattoo industry has imposed on themselves. There’s really no need for a doctor to perform the tattoo. In an article (1) in the Daily Mail, published in January 2015, Korea Medical Association spokeswoman Ahn So-Young, says:
“It’s invasive. The skin is punctured and it bleeds. That’s why we look at it as a medical procedure,” (1)
Another article, on Korea4Expats, can also enlighten us further about the background of the tattoo history of Korea:
“Historically, Body Art or Tattooing were not common practice in Korea. A very long time ago, it is said that fisherman used tattoos as protection against evil spirits that might attack out at sea. During the long Joseon Dynasty period that ended in 1910, criminals and even slaves might be branded – a visible sign that they were outcasts since Confucian philosophy emphasized the important of keeping the body whole, of not abusing the body inherited from one’s ancestors.” (2)
Korea has come a long way since then: criminals and slaves are no longer being marked with tattoos. Criminals are being jailed, while the slaves get pay checks and credit cards, but the Korean government thinks that we need doctors to tattoo us and even though tattooing is legal, I guess you can say that it’s sort of illegal too. It’s almost liminal somehow. That’s why, when I met Korean tattoo artist Ru Hwan at a tattoo convention in Warsaw, I decided to ask him all kinds of questions about this. I’m a curious guy…
1. First of all: Is it true that you have to be a licensed medical doctor in order to be a tattoo artist in Korea?
Yes, we have to get a medical license to be a tattoo artist in Korea, but I have never seen any artist that has it in Korea.
So then, if you’re not a doctor, you cannot be a tattoo artist… Does it exist any tattoo artists that are licensed medical doctors? It must be impossible to find a “legal” tattoo shop?
I don’t know every studio in Korea, but as far as I know, there is no tattoo shop with medical license.
2. Can you have things like tattoo shop signs visible from the outside of your shop, or are all tattoo shops in Korea secret and hidden? Is there a lot of tattoo shops in Korea?
We have it already, but some of them are still in hidden. There are so many shops around Korea, I can’t even count it.
3. Are tattoo shops just “technically illegal” but ignored by the authorities/law as long as they stay under the radar? Is it possible to get jail or a fine for being a tattoo artist?
Yes , It is technically against law handling needles without a doctor license, but the random inspection is quite few now a days. If we got caught they would take all the machines and drawings and we would have to pay fine the first time, but the second time we would be going jail.
4. Are tattoos in Korea considered to be something for criminals? Like it is/used to be in Japan? (The organised crime stigma)
It used to be same as Japan , like we did it for gangsters (Japanese style tattoos) but now a days, normal people starts to get interested in every genre.
5. How about military service? Is it obligatory in Korea and can you go to the army if you have tattoos?
If you have tattoos all over your body, you won’t be able to go to the army.
(In other words it’s an easy, but somewhat painful, way to get an exemption from South Korea’s mandatory military service. – Max)
6. What about tattoo conventions? Are there any in Korea?
Do they have to be kept secret?
There were some, but they always ended up with police coming in and closing it down.
7. Is tattooing popular among celebrities? (sportsmen, movie stars, K-pop singers etc). Do you think that this is helping to change the general view on tattooing among the public?
It used to be forbidden to be on TV with visible tattoos, but nowadays it is getting better. Only some (of the celebs) are open about getting a tattoo, but it doesn’t seem to be a big help in changing the public opinion on tattooing.
8. I guess it’s popular among clients to have tattoos that can be covered up easily (standard practice among the majority of clients around the world), but, considering the illegality, do you also get clients that wants visible tattoos that can’t be covered? (hands/face/head)
Of course! The Korean Tattoo scene is getting bigger and bigger, so some clients don’t care if the tattoos are visible, but if they are working in a big company, they usually hide it.
Now some personal questions:
9. What got you into tattooing? Do you have any role models? What is your inspiration?
When I was in the army I met one mate who is a tattoo artist and after we had conversations about it, I was really into it. So, after I graduated Universty (fine art) I opened the studio and gathered my team.
10. Can you describe how you go about creating a tattoo, how you put your unique touch on the design? How does a client and a tattoo artist collaborate to make a successful tattoo?
Before we start working, I always have a long conversation with the client and let them choose big things like a topic or object. Then I put my design or creative spin on it after that.
11. Have you experimented with many different styles of tattooing? What is your favorite style?
Now I’m into Trash Polka, but before that the realistic style was my favorite. Sometimes, technically the Trash Polka style is based on realistic, so I’m really happy with it.
12. You have been to tattoo conventions in Europe. Is there a big difference between the tattoo culture in Korea and what you’ve seen in Europe?
The biggest difference is that most Korean clients are concerned about the price, while in Europe they think about art and skills. Also the level of what they think of the artist, is quite low in Korea.
13. What would you give as an advice to someone who doesn’t have a tattoo yet?
Good tattoos aren’t cheap, cheap tattoos aren’t good!
14. How has the tattoo scene in Korea developed since you first started in the business?
When I started, I could barely see other artists, but now new artists are coming out to practice tattooing and study about tattoos.
Also we can see ordinary people on the streets having tattoos, which means that people conception about tattoos have changed compared to earlier when you could barely see any tattooed people on the streets.
– I’d also like to add that Korea has many talented artists when it comes to tattoo skills and design, but because of the situation where we have to stay kind of hidden, as an underground scene, not a lot of people in the world knows much about our tattoo scene. I’m doing this interview in order to support the tattoo scene in Korea and hope that it’ll soon be legal.
Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
Thanks a lot to you too Ru Hwan, for saying yes to this interview.
Here is some of Ru Hwan’s work:
You can find all the tattoo related posts in this blog here:
Save Tattooing in Japan You can also sign this petition to save tattooing in Japan, where they face the same problems as in Korea: https://www.change.org/p/secure-the-development-of-japanese-tattoo-culture-by-establishing-a-licensing-system Read more about it here: http://savetattooing.org