Years ago, when Pitta saw a forgery of his tattoos for the first time, he was outraged. His frustration, however, was not directed at the forgers; he understood that they might have needed the money. Instead, he remembers getting upset at those who wore copycat tattoos with pride and especially those who had the audacity to tag him as the artist in their photos.
When Pitta confronted the men and women displaying the fake tattoos on Instagram, everyone gave the same excuse: they loved his art, but he was just too far away. For him however, that was not enough. “I understand that there are a lot of imitation tattoos out there like fake designer bags. But unlike a cheap bag, tattoos last forever. Is it not worth making the trip?” he asks.
As a well-recognized tattoo artist based in Seoul, Pitta must deal daily with the issue every original artist faces: protecting his art against numerous imitators. His tattoos, which draw heavily from Korean Buddhist art, are easily distinguishable by their unique form and color, which in turn, has allowed many to replicate his style.
“Imitation is an important part of learning,” Pitta concedes. He initially learned how to draw by copying other’s works and even still encourages his students to do the same. According to Pitta, however, true learning requires more. “You can’t just copy others’ work and stop there. What matters is understanding why they’ve made certain decisions. Why did the artist paint with red here? Why did the artist fixate on a certain motif?”
Exposed to Korean Buddhist art early on in his life by his family, Pitta decided to focus on the theme because he wanted to get Korean art tattooed on his body. He believed that if he could create the art that he wanted, other tattoo aficionados would eventually want it too. He proved right. Now, he tattoos hundreds of clients each year, most of them flying into Seoul just to visit his shop.
Surprisingly, except for a handful of exceptions, all of his customers are from abroad, including far-flung members of the Korean diaspora who wish to connect with their heritage. “Those who grew up in Korea often find my art a bit too familiar to find it interesting. I think people are generally drawn to art that is a bit unfamiliar. I can understand why foreigners seem to be more interested in my work,” Pitta explains.
This is not to say Pitta’s art is a mere duplication of Korean Buddhist art. Rather, Pitta adapts commonplace elements while introducing new features that are uniquely his own. He centers his designs around clouds, his signature motif, for example, while paying homage to his roots by always incorporating negative spaces as is typical of Korean art. Furthermore, his palette, while borrowing from the shades found in Dancheong, also incorporates unconventional colors such as orange and pink. But in keeping with traditional, Pitta hardly ever uses purple.
Partly in response to so many people forging his art, Pitta now commits to a policy where he only shares his design with the client on the day of appointment. “I stopped sharing my designs beforehand also because I wanted to talk to the customer one-on-one. It is easy to lose sight of what you really want when your friends and families are butting in,” he says. According to Pitta, the policy ultimately leads to a more satisfying outcome both for himself and the client as it allows him to easily tailor the design and the client to take charge.
“What you like most is what you can excel at,” Pitta says. Emphasizing the importance of pursuing what one is truly passionate about, he shares his belief that the only way for an artist to create something that uniquely and accurately represents oneself is to keep learning. “If you like French art enough, for instance, you’ll study its traditions even when you are not told to. You will want to be able to tell different periods and artists apart.”
That is why Pitta believes that copying tattoos must stop. “To an extent, imitation, as in borrowing elements, is inevitable. It’s part of learning. But if you simply copy my art as a whole, you won’t grow as an artist. And as a client, you’ll end up with a shitty tattoo for the rest of your life. No one can tattoo my art better than me because no one loves it more than I.”