Brutal Sophisticate: Interview with Haku

Brutal Sophisticate: Interview with Haku

In this interview with the artist Haku, he talks about what it's like to be a tattooist in Seoul.

Haku's work often reminds me of intricate and gilded relics. His linework is often like lace spotted with pearls, or gold filigree treasures. And although the depictions can be brutal, namakubi's with splattered blood spots or demonic deities, there is a grace to their presence. Haku's portfolio is absolutely breathtaking, and despite Korea's nonsensical laws he continues to produce tattoos that are as sacred and poetic as ancient Tibetan scrolls. If anyones work can stem the tide again societal prejudice, and outright prove the validity of this art form, it is Haku. 

What is your artistic background? Did you always want to be a tattooer and how did you get into tattooing?

My father was a gangster in Korea until I was 8 years old. Through his influence, I was exposed to tattoos ever since I can remember. From an early age, I’ve always wanted to get tattoos, and my interest grew ever since my very first tattoo.

My career as a tattooist began much later. At first, I was attracted to tattoos because it seemed rebellious, but not anymore. A tattoo is a work of art. My artistic background includes everything related to classical, oriental culture. My inspirations come from paintings, as well as classical films, traditional clothing, relics, architecture, and ancient murals.

Who are your artistic heroes, tattooists or not? Are there any films, books, visuals, that inspire you?

At first when I started my career as a tattooist, there wasn't much reference material given that social networking was not as developed as today. At that time, I took inspiration from several books including Filip Leu, Shige, Ichibay, and Horiyoshi3, and later, I was touched by the works of Ukiyo-e and the artists from Edo period, and so reflected them in my work.

Many artists have a philosophy or motivation behind their work...what would you say is yours? How do you define success?


I was interested in Asian ancient history, not just Korean but also Chinese and Japanese, among others. The philosophy of my craft is ‘old but sophisticated, crude but extravagant, simple but detailed’. Although not perfect yet, people have begun to take notice and identify with my work. I am not sure whether I will ultimately be successful, but I am simply excited because of the many ideas that I have in my mind which I have not yet expressed.

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What is the tattoo community like in Seoul? What is it like to be heavily tattooed there?

Living in Korea as a tattooist is very difficult. Many Korean tattooists, however, are acknowledged for their skill. Unfortunately, engaging in a tattoo business is illegal and only doctors are authorized to use a needle, which means only doctors are able to legally engage in a tattoo business—a ridiculous proposition. Although many tattooists are lobbying for a change in the law, tattoo culture is not popular enough and is viewed by the public as an illegitimate business. Although I have a broad portfolio, there are not many that actually appreciate it as art.
 
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What is the best advice you feel you can give?

In the past, I spent much time and energy thinking about the kinds of tattoos people will like. What kind of art should I focus on to get more customers? What kind of art will improve public perception? But all that time spent on such questions led to nothing. I realized that I need to make the art I love and the kind of art I would want on my body rather than work for somebody else. I regret focusing too much on the opinions of others. If I could go back, I would tell myself to focus more on myself.

Beyond tattooing/creating art, what is most important to you? What do you wish you had more time for?

The most important person in my life is me. Tattoos and creative arts is just one way to express myself but it is not all of who I am.

Do you have any plans for 2019 that you’d like to share? Travel plans, collabs, projects, merch releases, etc?

I travel overseas at least once every month. Until now, I was only involved in guest work in Asia, but this year I, and my team, plan to do guest work in the US, Europe, and other countries that are unfamiliar with oriental culture. Our tattoos for the most part are not small so it may be somewhat burdensome or difficult for the general client. So we are incorporating my designs in various goods and not just in tattoos to display the sophistication of oriental culture.

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