For a lot of people, tattoos hold special meanings and are not purely for aesthetic purposes. You can get inked with plant-themed designs, reminisce about your childhood with your Disney faves, or have something engraved with your significant other (like a ring!). While the Philippines is very open when it comes to tatts, unfortunately, it’s not the case in South Korea. Getting inked in their country is actually considered taboo.
You may have noticed how some of your favorite K-pop idols hide their tattoos whenever they perform on stage or go on live broadcasts. Take BTS’ Jungkook for example: JK has a whole arm filled with tatts, including a purple heart, the group’s debut date (0613), and the letters A.R.M.Y which stands for BTS’ fandom name (yup, we’re crying). Although we can sometimes see some of his tattoos, JK is often seen wearing long-sleeved shirts, and when he performs on stage, he always has flesh-toned patches to cover up the ink. You'll also see a lot of photos of him where his tatts are edited out.
K-pop idol Jay Park is known for his beautiful body art, but he has had his own share of struggles in the past. During shows, his tattoos are censored out, catching more attention from the audience. In the same vein, ordinary tattooed citizens get judged looks and are sometimes not allowed to enter jimjilbangs (public baths).
So why are tattoos considered taboo in South Korea?
Tattooing in their country is heavily associated with the image of gangsters and criminals, aka groups who commit violence. Aside from that, the older generation sees it as a sign of rebellion. According to Confucian belief, a person’s body is an important gift from parents, which is why you shouldn’t tamper with it in any way.
But why is plastic surgery so common in South Korea, but not tattoos?
In an exclusive Zoom interview with Cosmopolitan Philippines, Sun Jung Woo, Ph.D., a Korean Studies Program Instructor at Ateneo De Manila University, explained why Koreans view body ink in a bad light: "Koreans have a negative perception of tattoos. It is considered as an exclusive property of gangsters which represents their atrocity and also was exploited by foolish young men who wanted to be exempted from the national service. Hence, tattoos ended up having a bad reputation in Korea. This is also why celebrities’ tattoos are often blurred on television, as they can cause repulsion among viewers." She further added that it eventually became a stigma "...as it was perceived as a marginal culture."
In 1992, a law was implemented in South Korea which stated that getting a tattoo is a medical procedure. Meaning, only qualified doctors are allowed to engrave in your skin, and no one else can. Since the process requires needles, Korean doctors view it as risky, and one wrong move can lead to various diseases like HIV or hepatitis. Yes, you can get a tattoo in Korea and not be fined, but your tattoo artist *might* be sent behind the bars, with two-year imprisonment according to the law. This puts tattoo artists in grave danger.
In an article by AFP published by The Jakarta Post, South Korean tattooist Doy has a number of top celebrity clients under his belt, including Hollywood actor Brad Pitt and some members of the K-pop boy group EXO. Even with his credentials, his tattoo shop is far from the usual that dons bright neon signs—Doy’s studio in Seoul bears no signage at all. There is the pride in serving top-tier clients, but his fear of getting caught is always there, in the form of blackmails and random raids.
Korean tattoo artist Sion Kwak started her career in the industry when she was 20 years old. Her mom is also a tattoo artist, which allowed her to learn more about body ink. According to her, "The Korean culture, being more conservative than the west, tends to view tattoos as affiliation to 'violence' — especially the older generation."
DKDKTV, a YouTube channel by South Korean influencers Danny Kim and David Kim, posted an interview video where they asked South Koreans from three generations about their views on tattoos. A 15-year-old girl mentioned how the older ones are against it, saying that “They have prejudices against tattoos. People with tattoos don't study." An older South Korean guy also explained that TV shows blur the tatts of K-pop idols because younger viewers might copy them at an early age.
On the other hand, a middle-aged woman said that people from her generation view tattoos negatively, although eyeliner tattoos are okay. “I understand them tattooing, but my emotions are a bit different from my thoughts.” Danny Kim even got himself a tattoo, and the reaction of his mom was priceless.
The current situation of tattoos in South Korea
Since most Asian families are still on the conservative side, the youth still has that fear when it comes to designing their skin with ink. Sion explained that in her country, there's a saying to "Get a tattoo FIRST and then worry about getting beaten by your mom". But these days, with the many societal developments, Asian moms are more tolerant: "So with these kinds of changes, more people from different classes, ages, and career fields are getting tattoos."
Even with the situation, a lot of Korean entertainers are breaking the norm, including Jay Park, BTS’ Jungkook, EXO’s Chanyeol, BIGBANG’s G-Dragon, Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon, (G)-IDLE’s Soojin, Jessi, and Gong Hyo Jin to name a few. They flaunt their body art like normal, and even Jay Park showed in a hilarious video how his tattoos were censored before.
Today, South Koreans are slowly becoming more open about tattoos, thanks to the efforts of those who speak up for it. Sun Jung Woo credits Korean celebs for the progress: "Celebrities express their principles and personalities in tattoos. They get tattoos to show patriotism, love for parents, and life mottos as a way of expressing themselves. Such practice improves tattoos' reputation among people. Therefore, the number of people interested in tattoos or getting a tattoo is increasing among the younger generation, and consider it as a fashion that expresses themselves."
Coupled with the power of social media, tattoos are now seen differently. Sion discussed how SNS platforms, including YouTube, play a big role in this change: "In the past, when a famous figure in the entertainment industry is spotted with a tattoo, it brought a lot of controversies, even making headlines. But things have changed today—especially under the powerful influence of social media."
The South Korean youth are now into sentimental tatts, which signify their love for their families and friends, or a departed pet. In an insightful video by VICE Asia, you can even see how an entire family supported a young woman in getting a tattoo, with her dad even getting one for himself after dreaming about it for 30 years.
And you know what they say—no matter how slow the progress is, it's still progress.
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