“I just googled Seoul and Tattoo and found this place,” I overheard a young traveler from France say as I entered Seoul Ink. The manager Veronica, who spoke English fluently, welcomed me and explained that the artists should soon be ready for their interviews.
While waiting on a maroon chesterfield sofa, I noticed how the shop’s walls were completely filled with the artists’ works, from old sailor tattoos to geometric patterns to new school designs. The shop’s old English gentlemen’s club furniture and exposed brick walls created an unexpected yet pleasant harmony of tradition and modernism as well.
With its bold name, Seoul Ink, the studio is located in Apgujeong, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Seoul. Continuously running since 2011 and frequented by celebrities including Jay Park, Tablo, and LeeSsang, this studio has been home to many great artists including its founder Kiljun and those who have since left but are exploring their possibilities in other great studios around the world.
I met with Kiljun and five other members of Seoul Ink, Suno, Monkey Bob, Arang, Camoz, and Jin Q, to have an honest conversation not only about themselves but also about tattoo culture in Korea. Averaging more than ten years of experience, it was clear that each artist was a seasoned veteran capable of running their own studio if desired.
Kiljun, the owner and founder of Seoul Ink, first walked me through the history of the shop. “We’ve been through both when tattoos were popular and when they were despised,” Killjun begins. “Now, people are more accepting and even strangers will compliment your tattoos. But just ten years ago, tattoos were immediately associated with gang culture. And even now, it’s not always viewed positively.”
Camoz, who specializes in color tattoos, agrees. “My parents still tell their friends that I am a designer, not a tattoo artist,” he adds. “Unlike the parents of the younger tattoo artists, my parents are still quite conservative, even if they are just a few years older.”
Killjun went on, “Honestly, I first started Seoul Ink in 2007 out of frustration. Frustration against the tattoo culture back then, the government regulations, and the lack of social understanding. I wanted to start a landmark where tattoo culture in Seoul can be represented. Hence the name.”
With such a lofty goal, one has to apprentice for two years without pay before being recognized as an artist at Seoul Ink. Killjun explained, “It’s a much longer process than other studios but I just can’t imagine how we would pass on what we know about tattoos in just a few months. Many drop out before sticking around for two years. The artists here are those who have endured those long two years and whom I can confidently vouch for their skills.”
But it is clear that during those two years, apprentices are not just learning the basic skills needed for a tattoo artist. They are also learning what it means to be an artist, specifically, a tattoo artist. Monkey Bob, who also spoke English fluently, offered an interesting analogy.
“Getting a tattoo, I think, is somewhere between getting a haircut and going to a gallery and buying a painting,” Monkey Bob explained. “Say, you know how you want your hair to be cut and go to the hair stylist with the best skills to get what you want done. On the other hand, at a gallery, all the work has been completed and you choose what’s already there.”
“As a tattoo artist, you constantly have to think about what kind of artist you would like to be. Do you want to be more of a hair stylist OR a gallery artist? You are free to choose either and even at Seoul Ink, people are spread along the spectrum but even just thinking about it allows you to grow as an artist,” Monkey Bob says.
After the apprenticeship during which the artist gets to explore all styles of tattoo, the artist would work on building a specialty. “My focus on geometric work came naturally from my love of henna as a child. My mother used to run a hair salon and drawing on customers’ hands as a kid was really fun for me,” Arang, the only female artist at the studio, says, “I like how my tattoos flow naturally with the person’s body and becomes a part of it.”
Unlike tattoo shops in Hongdae and other parts of Seoul, Seoul Ink still attracts mostly men, focusing on traditional styles including Black and Grey, Japanese/American Traditional, and Blackwork. “Because I incorporate geometric patterns into my tattoos, my works tend to be pretty big. I think that’s why most of my customers are tattoo collectors, who happen to be usually men. People rarely come to me for their first tattoo. I mean, it takes a lot of commitment,” Arang adds. “The gender ratio I would say is about 7:3.”
“Right now, fine tattoos are really popular in Korea and especially among women. We just prefer to work with traditional genres and the energy these styles provide. It’s just that the artists came together sharing similar interests and founded this studio. We never really meant it to be a “traditional” tattoo shop,” Jin Q explains further as he shows me some of his Japanese traditional designs.
But even as the artists explained why more men frequent the shop than women, a woman walked in, asking for a consultation with Arang. Before leaving, Arang added, “I’m very grateful for being able to make a living doing what I love. I just want to be able to keep doing this.”
As I spoke with the shop’s six artists, I was able to realize that they were very different from each other, from their personalities to their artistic styles to their backgrounds. But they all seemed to have one thing in common: their commitment to their art. And as Arang said, it was clear that they all loved what they were doing.
“I think we all secretly desire to become more like someone who we look up to when we were young. For me, a cartoon character I liked as a child had tattoos and I remember wanting to get tattoos because I wanted to be more like him,” Jin Q answered when asked how he got into tattoos.
Suno, who tattoos realistic faces in black and grey, seemed to agree with the sentiment. “I tattoo mostly with faces because I think it’s cool to be able to reminisce about your role models. Like how if you really liked the movie Taxi Driver growing up, seeing Robert De Niro’s face on your body would bring back that excitement.”
Now that the shop has been around for more than ten years, Killjun hopes to interact more with other tattoo artists both in Korea and around the world, to grow more as an artist and as a studio. “I think our studio has provided a good standard for how to run a studio in Korea. Now that people can refer to us on how to maintain hygiene and train apprentices, for example, I hope to continue working on changing the culture here. A lot has changed over the last decade but I think there is so much more room for growth, especially in the next 30 to 40 years,” Killjun says.
“We are hoping that we can grow as a community if we get to know each other better and develop a communal understanding of how the tattoo culture should be. For example, if we don’t act properly as tattoo artists, people will keep associating tattoos with misdeeds; it’s small things like how you treat your clients OR how you present yourselves that will result in the culture changing.”
And before wrapping up the interview, I asked what made Seoul Ink so special. More than just incredibly skilled and passionate artists and state-of-the-art equipment, there was something so deep and resounding about their commitment expressed in all of their answers...I had to know why. The artists answered without hesitation. “Because people will associate Seoul Ink with the general tattoo culture in Korea. We understand the weight our name carries.”