During one of my interviews last year, a tattoo artist said his profession existed somewhere between selling art at a gallery and styling clients’ hair. Some sell their creations over which they have complete authority; some simply meet their clients’ needs. In this interview, Seoul-based artist Ati explains that tattoo art straddles both modes and shares his thoughts on what it would take for tattoo culture to expand and fully reach all corners of the community.
“I always believed that an artist’s style is determined by his clients,” Ati begins. As an aspiring automotive designer in his youth, Ati embraced the commercial nature of art early on. It was important for him to create what people wanted. In fact, he confesses this attitude made his transition to tattoo art easy. “I studied automotive design in college, but I was pressured to financially support my family as soon as possible. A friend suggested that I try out tattoos.”
Initially, Ati began working with all tattoo genres. Ranging from traditional blackwork to Chicano to Irezumi, he was ready to meet all demands in the tattoo scene. While he was financially motivated, Ati never took the artistic endeavor lightly. “When I decided to become a tattoo artist, I decided to commit to it by getting a tattoo where everyone could see it. I got my first tattoo on my fingers. Getting a 9-to-5 job with such a visible tattoo is quite difficult so it was a way for me to remind myself of the career that I’ve signed up for,” Ati explains.
Later, when he was able to make ends meet, Ati began to question whether he could achieve more through tattoo art. While he had initially treated the profession as a way to make a living, he had remembered that after all, he wanted to pursue art because he loved it. “My father was very conservative and didn’t want me to pursue art as a guy. But I ended up going to college for design because I knew that when I draw, I stop worrying about things. It put me in the zone,” Ati says. “I realized that I wanted to be something more. Not just an artist, and not just someone who tattoos, but a tattoo artist.”
Ati wondered how he could create art that reflected a bigger part of him. His solution? As expected—learning from his clients. “I was experimenting with different designs and people really appreciated when I took elements from Hanok. I think it was because it’s a form of art—Korean architecture—that is already deeply ingrained in clients’ lives. It motivated me to delve into my heritage, to learn more about the art of the culture that I grew up in,” he says.
So began his study of traditional Korean art. Ati notes that general art education in Korea has been Westernized—it took more effort to be exposed to and to learn about Korean art more than he had expected. “Although I had studied art all my life, I was shocked to realize that I was not really familiar with Korean art. I think the standard of beauty has very much been Westernized; it has impacted public education too.”
Instead of wallowing in regret or disappointment, however, Ati realized that this meant that there was room to create something new. “Well-recognized genres like Chicano and Irezumi have their roots in other cultures. I figured that I might be able to perhaps contribute to establishing a unique Korean tattoo genre,” he says. Ati admits that this idea is not his alone; he has been inspired by many other artists who incorporate elements from Korean art into their tattoos. “Hongdam is definitely the tattoo artist I admire most. Although I am trying my best, it really is about becoming a part of a bigger movement that many Korean tattoo artists are involved in,” he notes.
After months, Ati was finally able to come up with his artistic signature: a tattoo within a single stroke of brush. “I like to describe in detail. My art teachers used to always tell me that I would focus too much on the details and forget to see the big picture,” Ati explains. “But the traditional Korean art is very much about being succinct and utilizing negative spaces—I thought about how to incorporate both my interest and my cultural background and this is what I ended up with,” he says. By limiting the space he can fill, Ati believes that he is able to bring out the best in both him and his culture: a distinctive canvas full of incredible details.
Now, with other artists, Ati is trying to change the law in Korea, where currently only medical professionals are allowed to tattoo. “The legal complication of the industry makes it harder for tattoo artists to take out loans for business or even to advertise our services. Of course, the artists support the legalization because it benefits them, but I think it can only be achieved when people want it, not just the tattoo artists,” he says.
While many young artists in Korea comment that the culture is growing increasingly popular with all ages and social identities, the older generations still remember how gangs have used tattoos to identify themselves. Ati, after his studies of the culture and history, admits the importance of embracing what had happened in the past. “Everyone with tattoos all must be aware of the historical context and how we may be perceived. We can’t simply call some people old-fashioned. We can instead show people that getting tattoos does not have to mean anything bad—a change happens over time,” he says.
Ati is careful in predicting what the tattoo culture will look like in 5 to 10 years. “It is changing for sure. But when the general public supports the legalization movement, I think that’s when I’ll know that the culture has truly changed,” he answers. He is certain, however, that the change he works for is not too far out. Ultimately, Ati envisions his communities to be full of tattoos, free of negative connotations. “I think art ultimately has to be part of our lives, like Hanok. Art should be reflected in how houses are built, how people dress, and how tattoos are worn. When it’s simply understood as what we choose—like what we wear for the day—that’s when it would have truly become a part of our society.”