Seoul has not always been a dream destination of mine, but after seeing the insane amount of talent surface from that area in particular over that past year, I knew I had to arrange a visit. Jump to a few months later and I'm dropping down into Incheon International Airport filled with anticipation for all the experiences that lay before me.
I wasn't sure what being heavily tattooed in Korea would be like, but it turned out that it wasn't at all what I had expected. I get stared at more in New York than I ever did in Asia. The customs agent even gave me a thumbs up on my artwork, which is far better than having my septum ring pulled on like the agent did in Cambodia. Leaving the airport, I headed to my hostel hoping my subway savvy would come to my aid. And to help ease the jet leg looming over my head, I picked up some Soju, Korean rice liquor, on the way...drinking is street legal here, and that's only the beginning of why Seoul is such a sweet spot!
Quick tip: tattooing continues to be illegal in Korea, and all of the studios I visited were slightly difficult to find, but I used the app Maps.me, as well as Google Maps, to find my way. And if you're ever in doubt, or just straight up lost, don't fret! Ask around...you're sure to find a helping hand. However, try to be aware, discreet, and respectful of these artists and shops. Their work is sacred and important.
When I met with Sion at Robin Egg Studio I was blown away by the experience. Sion is an incredibly talented artist who carefully and thoughtfully has curated her work and style, as well as the shop, so that her clients are extremely well cared for. Traveling can sometimes be alienating, but Sion was so kind and sweet that I truly felt as ease. The studio was fun, upbeat, and in a neighborhood with seriously cool architecture. The red leather couch, the robin blue record player, and all the neat gifts made the shop feel relaxed but highly creative.
Sion was really lovely and sat down for an interview where she spoke more about how important her clients are. She also spoke about her hopes to be a positive influence in the way that tattooists and tattoos are seen in Korean culture. Her pieces often include traditional Korean folk arts such as knots or Norigae. The efforts she makes to preserve culture, while also pushing it to contemporary and progressive levels, makes her work vital within the Seoul tattoo community. For anyone wishing to commemorate their stay here, I would recommend this studio in a heart beat. Sion, Pitta, and Sangjin are all marvelous artists.
My next stop was with Zzizzi, resident at Nerd Club Tattoo. From the outside the studio was indiscernible from any of the other doors lining the narrow street. Once I stepped inside however, the beautiful bright blue of the walls, the checkered floor, the artwork and old school action figures lining the room totally made me feel instantly at home.
Zzizzi, as with the rest of the crew, is not only extremely talented, but has a truly unique aesthetic and style. He was super kind, and I could tell that part of the reason why people come here is the laidback atmosphere. It isn't exclusive, it's a bunch of artists creating what feels fun and natural to them. Like most American shops, the lay out of the studio was open...everyone was working with each other and the camaraderie was immediately apparent.
It's also always really cool to see how different artists work. Many non-electric hand poke tattoo artists will use a holder for the needle, but Zzizzi just straight up holds the needle with nothing else. His style may be ultra modern, but he's continuing an ancient tradition, which is really neat.
My visit with Youyeon of Studio by Sol was to get a tattoo...her work is like a painterly realism, and as with many of the Studio by Sol artists, she's intensely talented. The studio itself felt very similar to the set up I had in art school: personal cubicles separate the artists so that they each have a private place to create, but replacing the sea of tattoo flash and posters, everything is stark white. The minimalist exterior has a bit of an austere clinical feel, but it eluded to how serious the artists here are about their work.
Obviously the language barrier can be difficult, but I used some translator apps and got along fine. Youyeon's English was also obviously far better than my Korean! She was really sweet, understanding, and welcoming. My piece took two days, and I could tell she was really intent on accurately depicting the image I had chosen: a photograph by the Buddhist artist Zhang Huan. I walked away wishing I spoke Korean so could ask her about a million different questions about what her life is like, and how the hell she's so good at what she does...but in the end, I was just super grateful for the tattoo I was given and delighted by the experience.
And although I wasn't able to catch up with them in their hometown, we were able to spend some time with Ssun and Woo while they stopped by Blindreason Tattoo in Soho, NYC. Known for their positive and colorful work, Ssun and Woo talk about working and traveling the world together in this out this awesome video highlighting their uber-cute work!!
There are so many reasons why you should visit Seoul...the vibrant night life, the delicious food, and the incredible artists made for a trip I will not never forget. And already, I look forward to the moment when I can return!