A look at tattoo art in Korea

A look at tattoo art in Korea

by Story and photos by Barbara Bierbrauer
Groove Korea
Old School, New School, Black and Grey, American Traditional and Neo-Traditional, Irezumi, Biomechanical, Lettering, Trash Polka and many more – tattooing experiences have transformed from a fringe group hobby to a genre of contemporary art, with many different styles branching out and gaining wider acceptance. A new type of tattooists is taking over the field – smart young people with a classical education in the fine arts, sound apprenticeships, technical knowledge, and passion. Groove Korea met with three famous Korean tattoo artists for a chat about the challenging and changing art of tattooing, a look back, as well as a glimpse forward, at this controversial subject.
The three musketeers of ink and needle
Ten years ago Kil Jun, later the founder of the Seoul Ink Tattoo Studio and tattoo enthusiast, studied Western Painting at Chung-Ang University. However, the curriculum offered Kil Jun no fulfillment and his urge for more than “just” painting could not be quenched: “I thought that art at university was boring,” he says, “so I started learning about tattooing.” But it wasn’t long before he recognized that there was a long way to go from oil paintings on canvas to the fine vibrations of a tattoo machine.
As Kil Jun tried to learn how to make tattoos, he ran against an obstacle – there was no place where he could do it. “I asked so many tattoo guys – about the pigment, about the needles, about how to get a tattooing machine. But no one knew everything,” he remembers. Sometimes the best way turns out to be the most distant one, and so Kil Jun decided to complete his tattoo apprenticeship in the United States. There, he traveled for several years, learned about the art, participated in tattoo conventions, became a certified tattoo master, shared his knowledge with others, met and worked with the legendary tattoo artist Billy Eason (named as one of 100 most influential people in the tattoo world) and learned how to teach tattooing using every trick in the book.
“In the US”, Kil Jun says, “people have to go through a two-year apprenticeship, they have to learn everything from the beginning, how to create a design, how to handle the tattooing machine, how to take care of sanitary issues.” Hence after coming back to Korea, he was in possession of profound new skills and was able to establish his own studio.
Soon after, Kil Jun contacted his former fellow students from Chung-Ang University, whom he knew were interested in becoming tattooists. One of them was Arang, a petite young lady, who was then one of the very few Korean female tattoo artists around. Drawing her whole life and graduating in Korean Traditional Painting, she grew up far away from ink and needles, but used to search the internet for images of tattoos. Similar to Kil Jun, she found no satisfaction in her studies: “When you study at a Korean college, it is like being in a factory: everyone has to follow the same steps, there is no creativity in that,” Arang says.
Still the classical education did not go to waste – you can trace elements from traditional Korean paintings in Arang’s work and her brush-stroke tattoos recall black ink paintings of the old masters, where the heavy brush leaves confident but airy lines.
Similar to Kil Jun and Arang, Camoz, the third in the trio, also looks back at the classical education he received at art college. Although studying Western art, his path to the tattoo studio went through custom paintings on motorbikes and graffiti. “I was looking for a perfect canvas to express my art,” he explains, “and the best canvas is the skin.” Surprisingly he found more freedom in tattoo art compared to the graffiti he used to do: “While I was making graffiti, I could not paint things that I wanted. [But before tattooing] you can change the image together with the client in every consultation.”
While on one hand the tattoo studios offer freedom of expression for both artists and clients, on the other, tattooing in Korea continues to struggle with numerous issues.
Illegal and secluded
Although the growing popularity and acceptance of tattoos in Korean society is a more positive trend, it creates some unexpected complications: tattooing without medical licenses is illegal in Korea and there is no certification for tattoo artists. Basically anyone can open an underground tattoo studio and start inking tattoos illegally. This illegality brings huge disadvantages for customers – there is no guarantee that they are paying for the skills and knowledge of tattoo masters. There is no authority that can guarantee technical knowledge or sanitation rules for allergology and dermatology – all required for safe work in a tattoo studio. As Kil Jun points out, “You are not drawing on a canvas – you can mess up somebody’s life,” but the lack of specialized education and qualifications is not hindering young tattooists from opening their own studios and attracting customers.
“I sometimes ask [other tattoists] ‘Can you fix your machine?’ and they say, ‘No, because I don’t care’” Kil Jun says. For some of these tattooists, the number of followers on Facebook and Instagram is proof enough of the quality of their work. “For me tattooing is more like life, but for some people it is just fashion. Tattooing a client’s body is for life, it’s a life art, [but] not many people think like that.” An apprenticeship, which is required in many countries, is supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff. “Those people who start making tattoos by themselves, without any background knowledge, they have to quit if they face a problem because they don’t know how to solve it. Easy start, easy quit.”
However, as long as the status of tattooists is not legally safe and the scene is not supervised, there will always be a danger for both tattooists and their clients.
Camoz, Arang and Kil Jun wish this would change; they would appreciate being able to work legally, without fearing any consequences for operation in an underground studio. Also the furtive status of the tattoo scene in Korea and the recent crackdown on tattoo conventions is negatively influencing the development of tattoo skills and art. Over the last few decades, tattoo conventions worldwide have developed to exhibit in places where artists go for the newest trends and machines, pigments and the exchange of knowledge, both technically and artistically. While companies send their employees to national workshops and artists attend master classes and exhibitions, the tattoo conventions are a bit of everything – places to demonstrate, share, learn, and teach. But Korean tattooists are denied this possibility, and that, sadly, has a negative impact on the skills of some and the development of the whole Korean tattoo scene.
More than just a painting
Using skin as a canvas requires respect and skill. “Every skin is different,” Arang says. “It reacts differently to tattooing as skin tones are different, some heal very fast, some swell a lot during a tattoo session, some people take the pain very well, some are very sensible, and for some, the healing process is very different and the outcome can be different, and not as expected.” This is what differs from oil or watercolor paintings, where a skilled master can choose a canvas to produce an expected outcome.
Arang is following current trends in the Korean art scene. Certain artists who cannot find fulfillment in academic drawing – the same struggle faced by her and Kil Jun – are melding classical paintings with other paintings, like Kwon Ki Beom’s pieces. “I like [his] work,” Arang says. “He mixes formal oriental painting with other [elements] of arts.” Kwon Ki Beom, who started with paintings of flower motifs, later investigated the conflict between civilization and nature in his video works, and is one of Korea’s most modern artists. Pushing the borders of his art further by involving new ideas and subjects in his installations, he has started moving away from pictures which can be hung on the wall towards complex artworks that, besides their visuals, can involve other senses, such as sound and touch, to change the exhibition visitor’s experience from being a mere viewer to participating in the artwork itself.
The fine arts education received by Kil Jun, Arang and Camoz follows a trend of the tattoo industry worldwide. These tattooists come out of the art closet and attract other artists to create a new modern art trend. Still, although tattoos are already relatively commonplace, with 23% of women and 19 % of men tattooed in the USA (as of 2012), tattoos have an aura of recklessness and coolness that attracts more and more followers compared to other art forms. Although there is no official data available about the number of tattooed Koreans, its popularity is growing. As Arang observes, there are many more Koreans getting tattoos: “If talking about international clients, it is about 50-50, but 90-10 [men to women] if speaking about Korean people.” Also the willingness to get a tattoo on a publicly visible area of skin is different: “Korean females get a tiny tattoo that they can cover up completely,” states Arang.
Speaking about newest trends in the Korean tattoo scene, Camoz identifies some of the most popular designs: “It is old school, Japanese and mini tattoos. Some very small, abstract tattoos with very thin lines can be called trendy in Korea.” As any other social phenomenon, tattoos get influenced by other cultural spheres. “Mainly because of the fashion business, a tattoo looks more like jewelry, not art. Some people, who are generally against tattoos might agree to such body art.” Another trend that creates hype in the West is steampunk and biomechanical tattoos, which do not have many followers in Korea “because it is only impressive on a big scale,” Camoz says, and many Koreans still choose to have tattoos that can be covered.
The Seoul Ink artists are at pains to point out that the decision to get a tattoo should not be taken lightly and that the tattooist should be chosen carefully. “It is a wholly different world of art compared to any other.” Camoz says “[There has to be] a connection and faith between the client and the tattoo master. Drawing is a private thing, but when you are tattooing, there is a link between you and your client.” While 10 years ago many clients copied famous tattoo motifs from celebrities, or, as Kil Jun remembers, “People wanted to have the same tattoos – letters, tribal or celebrities’ tattoos – copied work. Many people cover them up now.” Custom designs, unique artistic work for everyone, are now the prevailing trends.
The quality, the new technologies, the passion, the experienced background and deft skills – all of these factors have contributed to the rise of tattooing as a new art form. In the West, the tattoo scene successfully interacts with other art forms – car and clothes designs, graffiti, music and performance art. It puts the human in the center, transforming the viewer of art into an art subject and the tattooed into art objects. While many Korean tattoo artists are in no way inferior to their contemporaries in the West, they suffer from culturally dependent difficulties and long for more freedom of expression.

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