Aside from their seemingly superficial appearance as inky art in the realm of South Korean and Asian pop culture, tattoos form a unique underground and secretive subculture. They also play a prevalent role in establishing self-identity and offer insights surrounding gender and generation that interweave throughout societal groups and structures including family and religion. Face makeup including products embodying K-beauty which heavily promote perfectly clear skin and surgical procedures including botox, nose enhancements, and relocation of fat, typically starting at age 18, epitomize feminine beauty that is not only accepted but also encouraged among South Korean youth.
For instance, plastic surgery frequently serves as a high school graduation gift preceding entry into a workforce that favors and used to require a photo to accompany job applications, further emphasizing the importance and value of uniform looks. The encouragement of this feminine aesthetic modeled by glamorous K-pop stars is additionally demonstrated by the financial backing behind it and its high profitability, creating a billion dollar industry.
When vibrant art on the canvas of women’s bodies manifests itself through the form of tattoos, however, a prevalent taboo and stigma emerges on interpersonal and societal levels. Although both makeup and tattoos are forms of self-expression that enhance beauty, tattoos fall far outside mainstream beauty ideals and bear legal repercussions in addition to their social consequences. Despite the explicit legal discrimination against tattoos, the South Korean government estimates that more than 20,000 tattoo artists work in illegal tattoo studios where young Korean individuals embrace alternative ideas of beauty and body image in a fascinating way.
One way that South Korea’s legal system discourages tattoos through overwhelming obstacles is by requiring tattoo artists to possess medical doctor’s licenses. While this law may initially appear to offer work to tattoo artists and create experienced tattoo artists who are comfortable with working with needles, this law discourages the creative process of legal tattooing by operating on the assumption that individuals who go through the rigorous process of obtaining a prestigious doctor’s license to practice medicine in hospitals do not have an interest in engaging with the resented tattoo scene.
Individuals with visible tattoos in South Korea also find themselves being transported in relative anonymity, relying on taxis and private vehicles rather than public transportation to avoid the uncomfortable, contemptuous stares and comments of other passengers and onlookers. Illustrating the social impact of censorship of the creative art forms tattoo artists practice daily, these interactions increase the intense stigma around body art in the form of tattoos.
While some passengers are able to maneuver around the stigma by covering their tattoos with concealing clothing, other individuals with tattoos on their faces, heads, necks, and other visible areas that are difficult to conceal often face judgment and negative attitudes from others. Juxtaposing the emotional and important aspects of tattooing, this profession that transcends the traditional standards of beauty is viewed in South Korea as a shameful criminal activity as opposed to a respectable occupation.
Furthermore, legal objection of tattoos entails a complex history encompassing the realms of politics and education. When former South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan was in power for most of the 1980s (1980-1988), his actions in office addressed and provided a clear stance on the subject of tattoos, especially among South Korean youth. Under the authority of the Samcheong re-education camp, which served as a South Korean military detainment center. This center sought to detain and cure people deemed as “social ills,” over 60,000 people—many of whom were civilians without any criminal record—were arrested and subjected to immense violence.
Among these individuals were people with tattoos who were taken into captivity by the Samcheong re-education system solely as a consequence of their unaccepted means of self-expression. Following the positioning of the Samcheong case into public debate after the civil government was sworn in during the next decade, these victims were urged to file for compensation in the early 2000s. Today, a mere 11.6 percent of these individuals have completed this request, highlighting the number of victims who had passed away, faced age or financial barriers to accessing a full understanding of the compensation measure, or prioritized erasing their connection to this dark era.
Despite the trauma surrounding it, this era offers an intriguing sense of nostalgia and reminiscence among older generations who generally tend to view tattoos as disrupting otherwise natural beauty, especially regarding women who are perceived as corrupting and staining their purity in a permanent way. In an effort to escape the pressure to conform and evade judgment of much of society, South Korean youth create and join each other in lively niche spaces.
One of these spaces, Mystic, is a club where young people break free from the constraints surrounding them and express themselves freely by revealing their intricate plethora of tattoos in addition to openly discussing their art and experiences surrounding it. In these simultaneous safe havens and energizing nightlife locations, the youth own their own notions of style and beauty despite mainstream society’s rejection of these mesmerizing expressions. These locations additionally exemplify the ways in which this subculture forms their own community and transcends the limits placed upon them in everyday life and in the industry.
Expanding upon the societal, legal, and financial barriers to creating and receiving tattoos in this underground scene, additional gendered and familial aspects add to the complexity of navigating this art form. Female tattoo artists not only face the possibility of getting arrested and losing their livelihood by working in a banned business, but also risk their safety to produce art. In addition to facing the legal obstacles their male counterparts face, female tattoo artists are placed at an extra risk due to double standards surrounding gender.
These double standards include the notion that tattoos make men within this subculture more manly or cool, while women with tattoos within the same group are negatively perceived as impure, which consequently discourages female tattoo artists to feel comfortable and safe to express themselves in their industry. Although South Korea has been recognized for their progressive trends in fashion and pop culture, tattoos are still vastly regarded with ambivalence as a result of generations-old perceptions. Despite avoiding individuals with tattoos on the street, outsiders of the subculture embody a sense of fascination around tattoos. Although female tattoo artists emphasize respecting their worth and self through their self-expression, this act is often interpreted as primarily focusing on disrespecting Korean culture.
Commonly viewed as satanic corruptions of the temple of one’s bodies, tattoos pose additional judgment for women who are desired to keep their skin clear in the mainstream and often are utilized as a reason to ban entry to beauty spas for women out of fear that they will make other clients uncomfortable. Female tattoo artists (and tattoo artists in general) combat these perceptions by contending that tattoos act as tangible manifestations of collections of memories as well as fulfilling extensions of the human body. Moreover, lesbian tattoo artists challenge multiple societal norms in their expression of sexuality and highly misunderstood passion and profession. In many cases, the decision to get a tattoo results in pressure to conceal tattoos in family interactions and instances of ultimate disownment from their families regardless of gender that are not uncommon.
In addition to facing legal discrimination against the art and business of tattoos, South Korean tattoo artists frequently find themselves navigating intense ingroup competition as a result of the high stakes and low acceptance of their business. Resorting to calling the police on each other to shut down each other’s secret tattoo parlors, this competition not only pits fellow tattoo artists who have already been forced underground against one another, but it also introduces another complex layer of gendered competition among women. Several female tattoo artists have called for both the peaceful coexistence of tattoo artists working in this covert market and for an empowering sense of camaraderie among South Korean female tattoo artists and individuals who identify as female in general.
As well as providing meaningful and beautiful art, tattoos serve as a visible and tangible response to societal norms and as symbols of rebellion against older generations’ notions of respectable beauty, mainstream beauty ideals and standards, and men who find the perceived impurity of tattoos. South Korean feminists—who generally must organize discreetly with anonymous identities for their safety—express the progress that has been made and the work that still must be done. Additionally, ongoing progress toward gender equality in South Korea encompasses current feminist pushback. In the endeavor to analyze continuous and reemerging stereotypical and traditional gender roles due to the South Korean government sharing expected domestic tasks for women at home during Covid-19, the overlooked art and industry of tattoos offers a captivating place to look.