Breaking the stereotype of tattoos in Korea
“I love Jesus,” Yun Young-kwon says as he points to his first tattoo — a cross that covers the top of his right arm. “My mother thought it was a sticker so she tried to remove it,” he recalls, laughing while imitating her attempt at erasing it.
“When I got my second tattoo she was like, ‘sigh, OK.’ I am in the fashion industry and I have my own characteristics. I think she believes in what I do and what I pursue regarding my fashion style.”
Yun, like many Koreans has embraced tattoos. He got his first piece of body art after his conscription and in the decade that has passed, the musician, fashion brand director and father of two has added quotes, cartoon characters and musical influences to his body. He describes this artwork as an extension of his personality — a representation of his passions, creativity and life accomplishments.
“It kind of represents who I am and what I am doing.”
Doing it for the kids
For some, tattoos still symbolize a life involving crime but the association is beginning to fade. As the weather heats up and hemlines get shorter more and more Koreans are putting their body art on display, bringing a sense of normalcy to an underground culture that is still considered taboo. Some may view it as a fad or fashion accessory, but for Yun the meanings of his tattoos carry a more personal note.
“I like to let my sons know that tattoos are not bad,” he says. The Homer Simpson and Iron Man portraits on his upper right arm are testament this. “He (Homer Simpson) also has a tattoo but at the same time he is also praying.”
Showing tattoos in a positive light is important to dispel old stereotypes, particularly for parents who are partial to getting inked. Nadi and Matz, tattoo artists and owners of Carpeting Bombing Ink in Hongdae, go out of their way to make their body art familiar to their 6-year-old son. In celebration of his birth they both got matching tattoos and don’t hesitate to point it out when asked about their favorite piece. Still, some of their tattoos, like the bleeding Jesus-like figure Matz has on his left forearm, aren’t so child friendly.
“I name each of my tattoos. Especially for scary ones I give them cute names like ‘Mimi’ and ‘Jujubobby’,” Matz says. The couple, who have been in business for eight years, say that there are more Koreans visiting their store — a sign that Korea is becoming more open to the culture. While the desire to get a tattoo may still be repressed by the strict Confucianism mindset, Nadi says that Korea is beginning to view tattoos, and the work that she does, in a more positive way.
“More and more people are becoming open-minded toward tattoos and I think they treat me as an artist.”
Covering up and confrontation
Even with tattoos being featured in the mainstream media the idea that they must be covered up out of respect is prevalent. In general, Matz says he never feels the need to cover his tattoos, however Nadi insists that there is still a need to wear longer sleeves for certain occasions.
“When we go to the wedding of our friends, we should (cover up our tattoos) because their parents or older people in their family (are there).”
Kim Sung-hwan, a musician and clothing brand director, who has tattoos on his legs, arms chest and back, covers his ink “out of courtesy” when he visits his grandparents. “Korean culture,” he explains.
Not covering tattoos in public can still lead to negative attention — something Yun has become familiar with. In Korean bathhouses he says that there is a tendency for some to conform to the idea that people with tattoos are lawbreakers.
“First when the older people in public baths saw me, I felt that they saw me not as an ordinary person, even children. I thought I was considered a kind of unique person, not a normal person and I didn’t like it,” he says.
Not a fashion statement
While Yun says negative experiences still occur he is happy more Koreans are embracing tattoos. His only worry is that it will be viewed as a fashion accessory rather than represent the personality of the person it is attached to.
“I hope (people) don’t pursue tattoos just as fashion. I want them to accept this as a culture and I want them to love it.”
Special thanks to Chelsea Votel of Inked Korea for facilitating the interviews.
Carpet Bombing Ink