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Tattoo Taboo in Korea

Abby Preece, What's Trending writer

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South Korean tattoo artist Apro Lee’s body is a canvas for the art that covers it. The piece that circles his neck and falls to his chest stands out above all: a noose. “Tattooist is not a job in South Korea. And I’m doing illegal,

“Tattooist is not a job in South Korea. And I’m doing illegal,

so I’m a criminal here. This is the meaning”

Lee is part of a rising subculture in South Korea that denies the old ways of conformity and basks in self expression. Infamous for its world of cosmetic surgery, in Korea, procedures such as nose jobs and shaving down your jawbone are typical. Body modification that aims to assimilate, to fit in with the trending Eurocentric beauty standards is welcomed, while body modification that aims to differentiate from the norm is shrouded in shame. Therefore, tattooing, without a doctor’s license, is illegal.

Suji, a young woman living in Seoul, knows firsthand the negative attitudes towards tattooing. At club Mystic, a safe haven to those who push the bounds of Korean beauty standards, activist and advocate for beauty in all forms, Grace Neutral met and spoke with her about her tattoos. With tattoos from head to toe, Suji has a handful of bad experiences. She tells Grace about a specific example.

“When I was in the subway, maybe last year, in the summertime an old lady suddenly yelled at me, and just said very bad words.”

“It hurts. It’s very sad for me to say this, but I’m getting used to it.”

Grace also accompanied Suji to tell her parents about her tattoos, which she had successfully hidden for years. On the way, Suji speak about how “…in Korea, the expectations of what a woman should be is more apparent.” Highlighting how her father was utterly confused as to “Why a girl would want to pierce her ears,” when Suji asked to at a young age. Along with the already existing controversy around tattoos, in both the west and east the expectation that Asian women should be a “weak” and submissive people adds to the negative perception people have on her body modifications. When the bombshell is dropped on her parents, they show obvious dislike for Suji’s choices, but insist that if she’s happy, then they are. People like Suji, with a drive to change the attitude about body art, are a huge influence to not only the younger, but also the older generations. Yet sadly, not all parents are as accepting as Suji’s. A man Grace spoke to on the street told her about when his parents found out. His mother had cried for hours, and for five years his father has still not spoken to him; so evidently, attitudes differ.

As you can see, among the older generations, not too different from in western countries, tattoos are seen as a symbol of danger. Young people with tattoos come to expect dirty looks. Harsh words thrown at them are not something foreign, forcing many of those who refuse to hide their body art to avoid public transit. Tattoo parlours, to avoid random raids are forced to be quite literally “underground”, with unmarked doors whose location is spread by word of mouth and social media. Although, with pop culture in North America and Korea blending more and more, the hostility towards tattoos is changing among younger generations. Celebrities like Jay Park are a driving force as to why the attitude towards body art is slowly changing. As one of the biggest musicians in kpop, if not the biggest solo artist, his influence is enormous. Despite his life in the public eye, he does nothing to hide his tattoos. Although, outside of his control, when performing on tv he’s forced to wear clothes to cover up, or any visible tattoos will be blurred out. Park acknowledges that many of his fans have dropped him because of his tattoos, yet continues to not be ashamed of his body modifications; giving many young people in Korea the confidence to explore new forms of beauty. Numerous other kpop idols and athletes have joined the movement and gotten tattoos, slowly training the South Korean people to see tattoos as something normal, to be familiar with them on people they love and respect, and to not see just the criminal stereotype.

At this point law is almost lagging behind a more welcoming generation, where thousand of incredibly talented artists set up shop. Who knows, if you’re ever in South Korea and feeling adventurous, Apro Lee might have a few openings.

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Tattoo Taboo in Korea