Getting a tattoo is illegal in South Korea.
Well… Not quite. It’s not illegal to have a tattoo in South Korea and it’s not technically illegal to get one in Korea, but “under criminal and medical law, only licensed doctors can perform tattooing on their ‘patients.‘” There probably isn’t a single person on Earth who would go through medical school to become a tattoo artist. Despite this illegality, Korea has a thriving underground tattoo artist scene.
But there’s also a lot of stigma surrounding tattoos in Korea. Vice magazine published an article (our first encounter with Korean tattoo culture) interviewing several female tattoo artists about some of the difficulties they’ve faced:
How do people react when they see your tattoos?
“People typically avoid me when they see me on the street. Some people are fascinated by my look, but most feel uncomfortable and scared.”
How has having tattoos affected your day-to-day life?
“[…] My parents are also very devout Christians and their church has stopped me from coming to services because they feel like I’m sort of “satanic” being with my tattoos.”
Considering the nation’s rise as a cultural powerhouse (through K-Pop and K-Drama) and how trendy it’s pop culture scenes are, we were shocked that something like tattoos would be illegal and so heavily frowned upon.
So the two of us decided to do some research into South Korea’s tattoo culture. After looking into the history of tattoos in Korea and the perspectives of some Korean natives, we realised that the treatment of tattoos isn’t too different from experiences in our own lives – it’s just more intense in Korea.
We’ve collected highlights from our discussion & perspectives in this podcast:
History – Criminal Stigma
In South Korea tattoos are traditionally associated with criminals and gangs – and there’s a history behind this.
Sometime during Korea’s Goryeo era (918 A.D. – 1392 A.D.) the practice of tattooing criminals with their crime’s was adopted from Japan. This continued into the Joseon era (1392 A.D. – 1910 A.D.) before falling out of practice (Park, 2016). In South Korea tattoos still carry this criminalized stigma. Some people feel uncomfortable around tattoos, people with tattoos (or visible tattoos) are not allowed in most Korean bathhouses, and they can impact your chances of employment.
In our experience as Australians, we’ve noticed that this same stigma can be found (although it’s much less common). There are plenty of people who will be uncomfortable around or avoid people with particular types of tattoos, due to concerns about criminal connections. Neither of us really carry this perception, but we’ve definitely heard it expressed.
Ideology – It Disrespects Your Parents
What most surprised us about Korean views on tattoos, (as expressed in the recorded interviews below) was the idea that tattoos are damaging the pure body that was gifted to you by your parents.
In our experiences as Australians, individuality and independence from one’s parents is encouraged. The idea of not getting a tattoo because you owed your entire body to your parents seemed almost absurd.
How does your family feel about your tattoos?
“My parents are both preachers and they believe that your body should be a temple of God. Needless to say, they were shocked.”
What is it like being female with tattoos in Korea?
“There’s an expectation for girls to be modest and demure, but I think it’s such a double standard.”
How does your family feel about your tattoos?
“My dad still doesn’t know that I have tattoos. I only visit home during the winters or when it’s raining so I can wear a sweater or jacket and cover up. I wear a lot of long dresses too.”
Do you think the perception towards tattoos in Korea is changing?
“Tattoo culture is like fashion; it’s always changing, and changing quite rapidly. I just hope it changes for the better.”
But such devotion to one’s parents is deeply embedded within Korean culture, via the ideologies of Confucianism.
“Today, Confucianism is not a formal religious institution in Korea but rather a code of latent ethics and values that has profoundly influenced the society for nearly two millennia.” – Park & Cho, 1995, p.118
Confucianism promotes a strong hierarchical relationship structure in society – including the relationship between parents and children, also known as filial piety. This concept of filial piety (or hyo in Korean) encourages the reverence of one’s family and ancestors.
“Parents are revered because they are the source of your life. They have sacrificed much for you. One should do well and make the family name known and respected: bring honor to your family” (src)
So while this idea of getting tattoos as being incredibly disrespectful to your parents and family is still pretty foreign to us, we’re now able to understand that thought process. It would make a lot of sense to a society that’s been influenced by such an ideology for two thousand years – the criminal stigma surrounding tattoos probably exacerbate this perception of disrespect.
Conclusion & a Disclaimer
It’s important to note that neither of us speak Korean, and the vast majority of our sources have been mediated; they are largely created by outsiders (non-Koreans) or authentic Korean accounts have been presented to construct a particular narrative (as all media presentations do). While we’ve done our best to accurately research and present our findings, there is the possibility that we’ve misrepresented or misinterpreted things. But, well that comes with the territory of looking into a foreign country’s illegal underground subculture.
Either way, this experience has been enlightening. With the illegality and stigma in South Korea towards tattoos, but with their history and the longstanding moral virtues of the nation in mind we can understand it, even if we still disagree with it. If it were up to us we’d abolish the law outlawing tattoos artists’ work, but then, we’re outsiders to this culture. It’s hardly our place to make demands of the nation, is it?
Park, IH & Cho, LJ 1995, ‘Confucianism and the Korean family’ Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 117-134.
Park, J 2016, ‘Signs of social change on the bodies of youth: tattoos in Korea’, Visual Communication, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 71-92.