Being a Female Tattooist in Seoul
Many female tattoo artists note that working alone can be tough. Not only do they have to overcome the regular challenges of being a sole proprietor, but they also have to deal with frequent harassments from rude clients including direct messages on Instagram that say things like, “will you tattoo my dick?” followed by the winking face emoji.
The struggle is worse in Korea where many tattoo artists work illegally and cannot expect the law to protect them from being taken advantage of. As a result, most Korean female artists work in bigger shops where they will be able to look out for each other. Even then, however, many of them encounter new challenges that come with being part of a large business organization.
To better understand how female tattoo artists are facing and overcoming such challenges, I recently visited No Name Studio, an all-women tattoo shop in Seoul, Korea. Comprised of five female tattoo artists who also pursue independent artistic careers, the studio was founded with one goal in mind: creating a space where women can access tattoo art safely and comfortably.
The five tattooists of No Name Studio are prominent in their artistic fields, which includes performance, installation, design, and painting, and have decided to also pursue tattoo art for various reasons from trying to make a living, to simply liking tattoos, to finding tattoo as a great artistic medium.
Along with their interest in tattoos, their devotion to address social issues through art brought them together, befitting the reason why the studio was founded in the first place. Although not everyone was available for an interview, I met with the founding members Yvonne and Isle to ask them about their careers as tattoo artists, and what they hope for the studio and ultimately, tattoo culture and its implications for society.
Yvonne: Choosing to be scarred.
A few years ago, when Yvonne felt the need to create a communal space for female artists, she reached out to other artists she knew to see if they would be interested. Soon, a number of artists joined in and thus began No Name Studio.
Yvonne, a performance artist and tattooist, understands tattoo as an artistic medium because while tattoos can be harnessed as a tool of self-expression, it has also been deployed as punishment in certain parts of the world. In exploring the myriad uses of tattoos, she hopes to challenge the negative social perceptions not only of those with tattoos but also all of those who are marginalized.
“I think a tattoo is, foremost, a scar,” she says. Appropriately, she characterizes her job as helping people to scar themselves in ways they can accept and appreciate. “Choosing to get a tattoo is unique because we are choosing to hurt ourselves. It contrasts with how when we are constantly judged and victimized, the harm is done against our will.”
Especially her art focuses on how people can be mistreated in our society because of their identities—something often beyond one’s control. Just last year, she put on a performance of tattooing models inside torture chambers used by the Korean police in the late 20th century, where those with democratic ideals were prosecuted by then military dictatorship. The performance made the news on TV that evening.
“The social perception of various identities including not just political but also being an Asian, or being a woman, or being queer, for example, and the consequent prejudice and discrimination the marginalized have to face is what I am interested in addressing through my art,” she says. “I want to be able to record how the society treats different groups. I also hope my tattoos and art will encourage conversations among people about such identities and social issues.”
It was clear from the beginning that Yvonne was deeply interested in the philosophy of tattoo art and its social context. For her, tattoos were always more than self-expression because people can never be free from how the society perceives them. “We will forever be tied to what the society thinks of us, but I hope that we can work for a society where there is less social stigma to being a certain way or making certain choices. Like if you want to get a tattoo, you should be able to and the others should not judge you negatively for having one.”
Interestingly, her clients seemed to share her artistic philosophy as well. “I recently received a letter from one of my clients who compared getting tattoos to insects’ molting. Humans don’t molt but the client believed that in the process of receiving a tattoo, she molted and became a new person as her tattoo became part of her, shedding her dead skin. It allowed her to grow and define herself better,” Yvonne shares. “It was funny because I felt similarly after my first tattoo.”
As an artist who believes that tattoos allow people to adorn and recreate themselves, Yvonne is often inspired by the decorative patterns and art of the sacred texts. “I’d say William Morris and Gustave Moreau are my current biggest inspirations,” she says. In treating human bodies as something equally sacred as the holy books, Yvonne finds it meaningful to tattoo people with patterns found in religious texts and temples.
“For my next project, I’m working to turn a human body into a holy temple. Typically, religious temples are filled with art to hallow and protect the space. I’m hoping to recreate that by tattooing someone from head to toe. It’ll take years, of course, but I’m excited.
Isle: Nature’s Tranquility
Isle, who learned how to tattoo from the same artist as Yvonne, agreed to join her in founding No Name Studio after meeting other members. “I really liked everyone. I knew I wanted to work with these people,” she says. At the time, the group also called themselves No Name but simply because they had not decided on a name yet. “We decided to keep the name later because we didn’t want our studio to be associated with one specific artist. We’ve seen how having a name on the door can ruin things from other studios,” Isle explains. “We are all very different and work independently. There’s no specific artist representing the studio as a whole.”
When she is not tattooing, Isle paints. She draws what she is comforted by: nature and tranquility. Appropriately, her artistic motifs include dried flowers and stones as she focuses on inanimate objects. “I work mostly with dying flowers, both with my tattoos and other works. Because they were once so full of life but are now withering, I somehow find myself holding them more dearly,” she says. A line from her favorite poem, Prologue by Yun Dong-ju, especially resonates with her, she said: “I will love all dying things”.
As someone who appreciates timeless forms of beauty, she finds that most of her clients have similar tastes. “I have a theory that like-minded people go to the same artist to get tattooed. Birds of a feather really do flock together. For example, my clients tend to be very calm like me. I think people who appreciate dying flowers must have certain things in common. We probably like similar movies too. Yvonne’s clients, on the other hand, tend to think very deeply, philosophically, about what the tattoos mean for them,” she says.
When asked whether she instills any meaning in her tattoos as an artist like some of her colleagues, she takes a moment to gather her thoughts and softly shakes her head. “I don’t think a tattoo has to be necessarily meaningful on its own. But I think the fact that you decided to get one is meaningful. Growing up, I was a goody two shoes. And one day, I just realized that I should explore more. So, I cut my hair short for the first time and got a tattoo. I decided not to care even if my parents didn’t like it. That’s what matters.”
Still, Isle hopes that her tattoos, even without a specific meaning, can make people happy. “Ideally, I’d like for you to be able to feel calm and at peace when you look at my flowers,” she says. “And if you appreciate my art and decide to get a tattoo from me, that’ll make me happy. I am excited to meet more like-minded people.”