Contrary to popular belief, getting a tattoo is not illegal in Korea. Giving one without a medical license, however, is. Under Korean law, tattoo artists are required to obtain a medical license, similar to those held by doctors or nurses, as the puncturing of the skin with needles is considered a medical procedure. Currently, there are only a handful of licensed medical professionals who are tattooists. Most tattoo artists are, instead, working in the extra-legal sphere, unable to put up store signage to avoid drawing too much attention to themselves.
Because of the social stigma in Korea that associates tattoos with gang membership and other misdeeds, tattoos have been shunned from the Korean mainstream until recently, when a group of new tattooists have begun to redefine the Korean tattoo culture. Just about a decade ago, most Korean tattooists were working with the Irezumi or Old School tattoos and were serving mostly men. Since then, however, many women have also become interested in obtaining tattoos. The younger generation no longer associate it with violence. For them, it is now a form of self-expression; often personally meaningful or simply something decorative.
While there are many Korean tattooists who have led such a movement including Doy, Zihee, and Banul, a few of the younger artists of Studio by Sol, currently the biggest tattoo shop in Seoul, have generously agreed to, for the first time, share their thoughts on what it means to become a tattooist in Korea and what tattoos mean for them.
These three young artists—Lit, SooSoo, and Pauline—work in a shop with more than 30 tattoo artists, who are mostly women and whose customers are also mostly women. Currently, along with inspiring and supporting each other, they are spearheading the cultural change in the Korean tattoo scene.
With many piercings and tattoos, one can clearly recognize Lit from a mile away—he’s someone you’d typically imagine what a tattoo artist would look like. When he starts talking, however, the preconceived stereotypes dissolve as it is clear that you are talking to someone who’s warm and rather shy, perhaps suggested by the characteristic colors of blue and yellow in his signature pieces.
“Blue and yellow are my favorite colors, obviously. I like them because I like the moon. I like to sit back and watch the sky at night. It relaxes me. The night sky and the moon. That’s what I like.” Lit says.
Lit joined Studio by Sol just a few months ago because he wanted to gain experience from the apprenticeship the shop offers. When asked how he got into art, he tells a story of his older sister. “My sister’s always been into art. She’s not an artist but it’s something she’s always loved, and as a younger brother, I learned so much from her.”
Lit was initially interested in Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. “I can’t remember how I came to like it but one day I realized that I loved it. I would study it on my own and try to imitate the style. I learned later that the Irezumi tattoos were inspired by Ukiyo-e. So, I started studying the Irezumi. That’s how I got interested in tattoos and then was later motivated to tattoo my own art.”
Naming Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Franz Marc as his inspirations, Lit hopes to express a complicated idea in the simplest way possible through his art. “Magritte’s La Clairvoyance is a great example. There, an artist sees an egg but draws a bird instead. He’s able to see something beyond what is seen; I hope to be an artist like that someday.”
For Lit, tattoos are not something to be taken lightly. “You should think about it a lot before getting one. But there is no need to stress over it too much. Everything in moderation, you know?” Instead, it is both a great way to express his art and to connect with people. “I like how it’s a few hours of work for me but it’s something that lasts forever for my clients. I think that’s really meaningful.”
When she doesn’t have a tattoo machine in her hand, one may easily take SooSoo for a typical college student. As her name suggests, meaning “without pretense”, SooSoo is reserved in the way she carries herself. Yet, to her clients, she is a passionate artist whose vibrant colors and unique texture attract many to trust her with their first tattoos.
SooSoo joined the studio about a year ago while she was majoring in visual design. Taking from her mother who used to teach art locally, SooSoo recalls that she’s always enjoyed art. “I loved visual art, especially movies. I still love Disney and Mad Max. Their composition and vibrant colors are inspirational.”
But, unlike Lit, SooSoo’s introduction to tattoos was more of a coincidence. “My friend’s brother happened to be a tattooist, so my friend was getting a lot of tattoos. I followed her to the shop and got my first tattoo just like that—and no, my parents were not angry. Tattoos are about make something uniquely your own. No two tattoos are the same. It’s like finding your own identity.”
Thanks to her supportive parents, perhaps uncommon for the older generation, SooSoo’s concern with tattoos was not with the social stigma but with whether she could express herself fully through this form of art. “I was first worried about whether my drawing could be tattooed but I was really encouraged to pursue my own art during my apprenticeship. I learned that tattoos should not be limited to specific styles or forms as no art should be.”
When asked about a memorable client, SooSoo recalls, “A lot of people ask me to tattoo a specific scene from a movie or a photo. I had this foreign client who came to Korea to get a tattoo of a scene from BTS music video. It was amazing to me how art can connect people everywhere. It also motivated me to go abroad; I enjoy working in Korea, but I also want to branch out; maybe Europe, if possible.”
“People often mistake me for a woman based on my name and art.” Pauline says with a smile, with tattoos all over his body up to his neck. Pauline’s tattoos are characterized by their fine lines, capturing deep emotions between its delicate contours. “But I’m one of the few male artists here and most of my clients are women,” he adds.
“There are many aspects to art like color, composition, and lines but I’m most drawn to lines because I think that’s something you can’t imitate. I think you can color like other artists but drawing sketches like Klimt is just impossible,” Pauline explains. “Everyone has their own unique lines; I’m just trying to figure out mine. I like Klimt, but I’m not trying to be like him. I’m still exploring.”
Like SooSoo, Pauline joined Studio by Sol about a year ago. He also comes from a family of artists. “Both of my parents are artists. In fact, my dad used to teach out of our house. I basically grew up in an arts studio. Maybe it’s my upbringing but It just feels natural doing art. It’s the only thing I’ve been serious about my whole life.”
When asked about what he hopes to achieve through his art, he takes a moment to pick the right words. “I want to express human imperfections. There’s something imperfect about being human. Like how most people find pigs as something we eat but think of dogs as something adorable. The world is deeply flawed because we view and judge everything only from our perspectives; I think there’s something wrong about that.”
And while it is clear that he thinks about the world deeply and seriously, his demeanor is pleasant and refreshing because he always maintains an open mind in his conversations. “I’m not a vegetarian and I’m not trying to tell anybody not to eat meat. But I want my art, to give an analogy, to make people think about why we think differently about pigs and dogs.”
For Pauline, tattoos are just another form of art, like most of the younger generation of Korea. “Tattoos can be anything. It can be meaningful. It doesn’t have to be. If it’s meaningful to you, then it is. If it’s not, it’s not. If it’s just for self-satisfaction, it can be that too. It’s like putting on clothes. You can do whatever you want with your clothes. It just depends on you. There’s no right and wrong in art.”