As a foreigner traversing the great cultural divide between East and West, it was at the work space of Tattooist Sion where I immediately felt at ease. Her kindness, her devotion to the happiness of her clients, and the overwhelming warmth, and talent, of the Seoul-based Robin Egg Studio crew create an atmosphere where anyone will feel as if they are suddenly at home.
In this interview Tattooist Sion speaks about how important it is for her to cultivate understanding and empathy through culturally significant folk art forms, including tattooing. Sion shows care not only through her artwork, which is beautifully and thoughtfully curated, but also through the intrinsic love she shows to everyone who steps into her life. It is artists of this nature that create change and inspire others to embrace the magic of life.
How did you get into tattooing and why were you drawn to the art form?
I received strong inspiration of the tattoo culture under the influence of my tattooist mother. Since childhood, I was very fond of seeing my mother absorbed in something specific. Also, the moment I realized how powerful the messages on the skin could be exhibited to individuals, I was so fascinated by it and decided that this was going to be my lifework. This is because the act of leaving a mark on one’s body, even at the cost of having to endure the pain, is a noble spirit that can represent memory, friendship, love or oneself, which are desired to be kept forever in one’s mind. The mark can also act as a sign that encroaches and ultimately takes away the fear and therefore is itself a strong message given to oneself.
What inspires your artwork? What are your favorite artists, books, or films?
There are so many things that inspire me. But I am especially very affectionate towards the Korean traditional beauty. Out of this, the emotional beauty of daenggi (a ribbon), norigae, an ornamental silver knife, knots and plum blossom is what I would like to continuously express. Also, about books, I usually get inspired from the poetry. For example:
The fragrance is in fact grass’ wound
Humans cry out the moment they are cut
But instead, grasses cry out fragrance
This is an excerpt from the poetry Grass of Moonlight Poverty by the poet Kim Jae Jin. It embodies the deep insight of the grass that responds to wounds by fragrance rather than pain. Just like this, although I inevitably give wounds to people due to work, I wish to return fragrance at the end of the day.
What are your favorite tattoos to do? What is your process in creating a piece for a client?
Lately I’ve been most interested in the works that can express Korean traditional beauty. I am especially fond of the works that utilize the traditional knots. Korean traditional knot symbolizes Korea’s native spirit of tying and cutting of the relationship between individuals. Specifically, it is densely woven, so that the beautiful relationships do not spill out. Here, just like how the knots get more tangled once hastily untied by force, relationship between individuals is something that cannot be broken by force. Yet, if necessary, it should be untied one by one slowly, so that the remaining affection between individuals is not harmed.
Because I even like the meaning that the native spirit carries, I am so fond of Korean traditional knots.
What do you do when you’re not working, or when you’re on vacation?
When I am off work, I like to read books and learn new things. Other than tattooing, I like photo-related works. So on the day off, I like to props for photograph. Also, I like to share ideas with the close photographer and do collaborations. Sometimes we do tattoo-related shoots, and even if it is not I still get a lot of good ideas and learn a lot. I became interested in photography in that it has similar appeal to tattoos in a way it stays forever. Also, I got into it because the beautiful subject in the photograph really excites me, which is the feeling that I get from seeing tattoo works.
What is the tattoo community like in Seoul? Are most tattoo artists part of a tight knit family? How are tattooed people seen by the majority of society?
I believe Korean tattoo community is forming and developing more and more through people interacting and cheering up with each other. There were more opposing views than favorable views toward tattoos up until my mother’s time. However, I am relieved to see the Korean tattoo culture settling down and developing today.
You’re one of the most incredible and in demand artists in Seoul, but tattoos continue to be illegal. How do artists like yourself deal with the legality of creating your artwork?
I do not have the ability to legalize the “illegal act” whatsoever, because I am also a Korean citizen. However, because the awareness itself is changing positively, I am looking forward for the cases to turn more open-minded with the flow of time.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to share like collaborations, travel, or new materials you hope to work with?
Other than the knots or norigae, I hope to conserve and develop our tradition that my mother, grandmother and ancestors has cherished and tried to keep. Even by having to be in a harsh atmosphere for tattoos due to its illegality, it is my hope and pride to show the world Korea’s traditional aspects that I really cherish through tattoos. I especially want to spread awareness of tattoo’s value and Korean traditional culture by going abroad often. So I am going to continue with the good works and also study in various aspects so that I can communicate well. I am envisioning my life intertwined with people from various nations, where I live thankfully, engraving the beautiful knots of relationship with them. Lastly, thank you for showing affection to my works.