Illegal Tattoo Artists Gain Global Hype
South Korean tattoo artist Ilwol Hongdam has inked close to 4,000 people in the last 10 years, many of whom flew into Seoul just to see him.
With more than 371,000 followers on Instagram, he is one of the most well-known names in the South Korean industry. He's drawn in fans around the world with his intricate creations, which are influenced by traditional Korean art.
There's just one problem: What he's doing is illegal.
In South Korea, tattooing itself is not against the law, but it's defined as a medical procedure that may only be carried out by licensed medical professionals. Hongdam, like the 3,000 other tattoo artists registered with the Korea Tattoo Association, is not a doctor. If caught, they face a minimum two-year prison sentence or a fine upwards of one million won ($822).
"Some artists draw on canvas or even rocks, I happen to draw on skin. Why is that illegal? It's not justified," the 35-year-old told Insider.
He is, however, hopeful that change is on its way, especially given the attention that some politicians have bestowed to the issue of late. In the run-up to the presidential elections on Wednesday, ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung has promised to back bills, now pending in parliament, to legalize tattooing. And in June, lawmaker Ryu Ho-jeong proposed a bill to allow trained tattoo artists to be legally certified. Pictures of her promoting the bill at the National Assembly instantly went viral when she showed up with erasable tattoos on her back.
Insider spoke to seven South Korean tattoo artists about the paradox at the core of their profession, as they build up social-media presences to attract customers but hide their workshops in basements to avoid drawing the scrutiny of the law. Among those Insider spoke to, the female tattoo artists described an extra layer of challenges, in which they're unable to report instances of sexual misconduct by customers.
"People have tried to lobby for tattoo legalization for a long time, but it's never been in the spotlight as much as it has in the past year," Hongdam said.
Once a stigma, now a trend
While tattoos have long carried a stigma in South Korea, the younger generation has come to embrace them.
"Having a permanent mark engraved on one's body was a source of social shame and lower status, because they were associated with criminal gangs or slaves," said Jo Elfving-Hwang, director of the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia.
"But now tattoos are quite popular in Korea, and it's not unusual to see younger people sporting them," Elfving-Hwang continued. "Tattoos are becoming fashionable, and perhaps even a signifier of individuality."
According to the Korea Tattoo Association, at least one million people in the country currently have tattoos. The tattooing industry is worth about 200 billion won ($164 million) a year.
Top celebrities such as Jungkook of superstar boy band BTS, heart-throb actors So Ji-sub and Ji Chang-wook, as well as K-pop singer Lee Hyori, are all known to have tattoos.
Lee has multiple tattoos on her body, including a flower pattern on her shoulder, the word "love" on the back of her neck, script on the back of her right arm, and small motifs on her hands and wrists. She has done multiple cover photo shoots with Cosmopolitan Korea showing off her tattoos, including in 2017, which was warmly received by fans on Instagram.
"They're seen as trendsetters," Elfving-Hwang said.
Even so, celebrities are still often required to cover up their tattoos on mainstream TV. Jungkook, for example, wore long sleeves and bandages to cover up his hand tattoos on a talk show aired by public broadcaster KBS.
Despite the changing social attitudes, South Korea's law means tattoo artists have to work underground — sometimes literally.
Hongdam's studio is in an office building with no visible signage. He only shares the address with customers the day before their appointment. Occasionally, he said, he provides clients with the address of another spot nearby and picks them up from there.
Meanwhile, Sol, another popular tattoo artist with more than 572,000 Instagram followers, runs a nondescript studio in the trendy Hongdae neighborhood. The area is littered with hip cafes and clothing stores, but from looking at the bare white walls outside of Sol's store, passersby would never be able to guess what's inside.
"You cannot proudly hang a signboard outside your tattoo shop. All tattoo shops in Korea have to be operated in private," said Sol, who is known for his detailed designs of animals and flowers.
Source: Waiyee Yip, Insider (May 2022)
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