Step by step, Korea Tackles the Taboo on Tattoos
Step by step, Korea Tackles the Taboo on Tattoos
  • Leanne Salazar / Lecturer
  • 승인 2012.05.02 19:58
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Last January, many Westerners were panic stricken upon hearing the news that one’s lifelong zodiac sign could change due to the addition of a 13th sign, Ophiuchus.This was particularly deva- stating to those with a zodiac symbol tattoo.  Each zodiac sign represents certain defining characteristics of personalities based upon a system created by ancient Babylonians in relation to constellations (i.e. correlating to the month and day when one was born).  Why would someone get a strange, perhaps mythical, symbol tattooed permanently on his or her body?  The answer reflects the common theme of any tattoo: identity.
From ancestral symbols to quotations to cartoons, people choose their tattoos for as varied reasons as there are graphic possibilities.  Tattoos can be a means of expressing one’s unique individuality or conversely, one’s identity to a group.  Such group association is why tattoos have traditionally been stigmatized as marks of gangsters, mobsters, or criminals in Korea, and a negative perception of tattoos still persists. 
It wasn’t long ago that The Korea Times reported (Aug. 2010) that after a man with large upper body tattoos was turned down for a membership to a local country club, the National Human Rights Commission said “the club’s decision to reject him does not violate his right to equal treatment as the refusal was based on the tattoos that can ‘cause abomination’ to other people.”  Perhaps the influence of Confucian instruction to preserve the body is an additional mark against tattoos in Korean society.  With an emphasis on not abusing but keeping the body whole, Confucian philosophy seemingly rules out the idea of a tattoo in theory.
However, this more conservative outlook is noticeably changing, especially amongst the younger generation of Koreans.  In fact “Ink Bomb 2011,” part of an annual tattoo convention with artists from Japan and the United States, was held last year in Seoul.  Hosting a tattoo convention seems somewhat incongruous for a country whose policy is geared to keep tattoo artists “illegal.”  A 2001 law defines tattooing as a medical procedure and therefore many tattoo parlors are quite discreet.  Essentially, this allows only physicians, not tattooists, to legally perform tattoos and has many arguing that doctors are obviously not trained artists.  If raided by the police, parlor owners could be fined up to 20 million won and have their machines confiscated.
Los Angeles Times reporter John M. Glionna cites Kang Un, executive director of the Korean Tattoo Assn., as estimating about 22,000 illegal tattoo artists nationwide as of Sept. 2010.  Most commonly, tattoo shops are found nearby universities such as Hongik University area in Seoul, as well as Sincheon, Apgujeong-dong, Itaewon and Dongdaemun.  In downtown Pohang, several shops have their signs displayed, such as BR Tattoo where many foreigners frequent.  The owner, Bora Gwak, says that after four years she has almost equal percentages of Korean and foreign customers, about 40 percent Korean, 60 percent foreign.  When asked if she sees many Korean females enter her shop, she quickly confirmed their increased presence as well, though they only want the very small designs.
Tattoo size is perhaps another reason why authorities have tried to regulate the practice.  While all men are required to serve about two years of military service, a large tattoo can be a disqualifier for military service.  Thus in the past some young Korean men have gotten very large tattoos to avoid conscription.  Since “draft dodging” is a criminal offense, obliging tattoo artists have reportedly been arrested for aiding in this loophole.
While tattoos are slowly becoming more accepted in Korea, in part due to the Korean celebrities and sports stars who openly display their tats, the trend has yet to reach most Postechians.  In a survey of 200 Postech students of various majors and ages, only 3 students (1%) reported having a tattoo. 157 students (79%) responded that they did not have a tattoo, nor did they ever desire to get one.  41 students (20%) responded that they did not have a tattoo, but would consider getting one in the future.
Although they are often presently seen as fashion statements, forms of rebellion, or symbolic personal expressions, tattoos have advanced for centuries and amongst numerous cultures.  Many historians have recorded accounts where tattoos signified one’s noble status and were reflected in ancient Britons, Greeks, and Romans for various purposes.  Archeologists and anthropologists have traced tattoos back to ancient Egyptian examples, pre-332 B.C., but many cultures across the globe have traditional tattoo practices that have been evolving for millennia.  Perhaps most recognizable and still seen today is the “moko” used by the Maori in New Zealand to reflect a cultural affirmation.
Expressing one’s culture or personality are positive reasons for getting tattoos, not in any way associated with gangs or mafia.  While it is not likely that people with tattoos will be denied access to saunas or public pools in Korea, as has previously been the case, there is still quite a way to go before tattoos are as publicly accepted as they are in other countries.  Fortunately, until that time comes, there’s always the freedom to accessorize and customize the appearance of one’s smartphone.