You might hear people say, “Nobody in Korea has tattoos,” perhaps mistaking it for Japan, where being heavily tattooed was traditionally the mark of a yakuza gang member. That might have been true in previous decades, but the tides are changing now. If you take a walk through the university student-filled neighborhood of Hongdae, it’s actually harder to find somebody who’s not tattooed.
All this is strange, of course, because tattooing is technically illegal in Korea. By law, you’re not supposed to be able to operate anything needle-like unless you have a medical license. Can all these tattooed youths seriously be going abroad to Japan and the United States to be getting their tattoos? Of course not!
The tattoo culture of Korea is really fascinating, and the doubly-underground nature of the business only adds to the appeal, in my opinion. Despite that seemingly-seedy underground nature, tattooing is just as safe in Korea as in the US, with many artists having training, apprenticeships, and going to conventions in the US and Japan.
Finding out which artist to use
With the practice of tattooing being illegal, naturally, artists and studios aren’t allowed to advertise their business in the traditional sense. They can’t (or don’t usually) have a sign that says “tattoo” outside the shop, so they have to rely on more modern ways to get the word out. (I would personally be wary of the places that do advertise outside, because that might mean that they’re targeted solely to unsuspecting drunk tourists, or that the studio doesn’t care about the government’s fines.) For my first tattoo in Korea, I asked my friend who in the area she recommended. Word of mouth, among Koreans and expats alike, is really powerful for spreading the word about reputable artists. That and Instagram are some of the best ways to find out about which artists are best. Instagram especially is a really powerful tool because you can see the artists’ work without ever going into the shop in person. (I’ve personally found a lot of artists on Instagram when they follow me after I post some illustrations or Hongdae-location-tagged pictures, but the suggestions take a few actions and give you hundreds more artists to follow over time.) Facebook is also useful in this way. Some newer artists use other methods, like advertising their services on Tinder! “Swipe right if you need a tattoo,” they say as if they’re advertising new flooring or housepainting instead of tattooing..
Organizing an appointment
Once you’ve chosen an artist you like, you contact them via Facebook, Instagram message, text, or KakaoTalk to set up an appointment. Some artists’ English is perfect, others you might be scheduling entirely in Korean, but that’s part of the fun. As with all artists, you can give them an illustration or an idea beforehand if you need them to prepare something. If it’s a big piece or very detailed, you might need to come in for a consult first before the actual tattooing can begin.
The artist will give you a time and place to meet, which is sometimes more or less secretive. They might give you a subway station exit to meet at, or give you an address to a building, which of course will have no sign outside to tell you that you’re in the right place. It all feels very cool and like you’re some kind of spy making a super-secret handoff. Inside the shop is invariably clean, with nice concrete floors, black leather couches, art hanging on the walls, and they usually make you a coffee or tea while you wait. The Korean tattoo parlor aesthetic is something I wish to emulate in any future house or art studio I might have. Some studios are small, perhaps just a room in a rented apartment that’s outfitted with all the tattoo accoutrements, some studios have 3 or more artists.
The rest of the actual appointment goes the same as any other, the only departure being the crazy number of photos the artist will take for their Instagram afterward. There’s no difference in aftercare advice as from American shops, insofar as that each shop has their own specific recommendations as to the timing and stuff you apply to the fresh tattoo. But everything else is basically the same: as we all know, don’t go in the pool or ocean for one month or more after the tattoo, or risk getting infection. One small Korea-specific caution is to be careful when you go to the jjimjilbang bath-house; the old ladies hired to scrub your skin off will diligently try to scrub off your tattoos, even though it’s technically impossible.
There’s as many tattooing styles found in Korea as there are art styles in the world, so narrowing it down can be tricky. I think the most common is an understated illustration kind of style with delicate lines, often in a smaller tattoo format. The most popular ones seem to be forearm and triceps tattoos, but of course everyone has tattoos everywhere. The Korean style tends to be a little more understated, but that’s not to say that you don’t see a great many face, neck, and hand tattoos, on women and men alike.
Now that I’m back in the States, I can’t get any new tattoos from the artists I follow on Instagram, but the following are some of my favorites:
Gem Tattoo artist and namesake of Gem Tattoo Studio, specializes in bold designs with vivid gradients and strong, thick lines. (It’s worth mentioning that she is the only one on this list that I’ve actually gotten tattooed by, the others are just speculations on style. The other artists I got tattoos from don’t necessarily warrant recommendation, but she does!) Also at her studio are artists Kay and Dasom, who both do fantastic work and attend lots of international conventions. (although not part of Gem Tattoo studio, Cho tattooer also has a similar style, but with a flair for space and pokemon designs.)
Nerd Club Tattoo is another studio I admire, specializing in the more street-style-savvy kind of small graphic tattoos. In this cohort are zzizziboy, who does fantastic black-and-neon work, and goodmorning Tattoo, who does the charming illustration-style linework tattoos.
It takes a special kind of person to do a striking realism piece, and while most people go to Inkholic tattoo in Gangnam (arguably the most famous tattoo place in Seoul, if not Korea), I think that Aran Tattooer does a great job, too. Plus, I’m sure the waiting list isn’t as long as at Inkholic.
Tattooer Nana does the most stunning bright florals I’ve ever seen, and I recommended her to a friend who liked her work, as well. Tattooist Hyungmin specializes in tiny linework tattoos and illustrations, but can do big pieces, too. Siren Ink does fantastic watercolor tattoos as well as the most mesmerizing waterscape designs. Hwangdoh tattoo does super detailed small tattoos and can do almost any style you can think of.
In Hapjeong area, there’s this graffiti near my former house that just says “Do you know vandal…?” I know it’s not referring to Vandal Tattoo, but I like to think it is. She does great designs in many different styles, from delicate to realism, but also does some of the most skillful coverups I’ve ever seen.
In the United States, I feel like tattooing is still a more male-dominated profession, but it’s more egalitarian in Korea. You find that some waifish-looking girl is out here doing the heavy lifting of designing and giving tattoos same as the “big, strong” men are. All this to say that in South Korea, tattoo culture is alive and well, and growing by the day. The process is An Experience, and not one to miss. And know that once you sit down in that chair under the needle, that you’re in good hands.