Tattooing in Korea

Tattooing in Korea

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.

Tattooing appointment

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.

tattoo blog 2

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.

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trap city Pyeongchang

trap city Pyeongchang

It’s not just Americans who are obsessed with the Olympics. Olympic fervor had been heating up in Korea since at least the beginning of fall 2017, so by solar new year the advertisements and merch, including full-on curling-themed wraps covering the entire inside of subway carriages in line 2 trains, were in full swing.

That being said, I’m not a Winter Olympics person. All the sports I love, swimming, water polo, volleyball, track and field, are all summer sports. I’m living during summer Olympics time when, for a few short weeks, everybody pretends to care about swimming for a hot minute before it fades into obscurity again. (I’m sure that professional curlers feel the same way about the winter Olympics.)  Basically, I was salty it was a winter Olympics in Korea and not a summer one.

I didn’t plan to buy tickets, but a few things changed my mind: first, my dad politely ridiculed me for thinking of not going, saying that it’ll never be this “easy” to go again, nor will the Games be this close to my backyard. Second, one of the friends in the squad acquired an insane amount of tickets and offered to sell them off to us. Finally, when Aidan came to visit he was also hell-bent on going to see the Games. In this way, I somehow ended up with tickets to events on two subsequent weekends.

My dad wasn’t wrong. The tickets for Pyeongchang were chronically undersold, so it was not difficult to get into any event you wanted as long as it wasn’t figure skating. The trouble, it turned out, was getting transport to the games. After spending billions of dollars on the venues and infrastructure leading up to the Games, there should be more ways than just the KTX to get to the events. Instead, the KTX trains to the Pyeongchang mountains in the east and Gangneung on the coast were booked up for months and months. I’d thought it would be okay to just buy bus tickets there. After all, we had taken the bus to Gangneung and Sokcho last year with no hitches, so I figured it’d be okay.

Haha… nope.

I still followed the proceedings on social media eagerly. There seemed to be lots of controversy beforehand over the expense and extra trouble of the two Koreas going to the Games under one flag. Lots of South Korean athletes were angry about their places on the team being given to, in their opinion, less-accomplished North Korean athletes. In hindsight, that may have started us off on the road to peace that we’re currently navigating.

The first week, I had tickets to go see snowboarding slopestyle. As the event started at 10 or 11, and it was functionally impossible to get tickets to stay in Gangneung or Pyeongchang on short notice, that meant taking the first subway to get the first bus out of the city. I took squadmate Rachael, who was an unexpected boon in my stressed planning of this event. Her eternal calm, positive unflappability, and good humor helped when we were late to the bus station, running across the street, and arriving to be the last ones on the bus.

It’s not any great leap of logic to assume that a bus to Pyeongchang would take you to Pyeongchang, right? And that you’d be able to see the Olympic venues from there? Instead, we disembarked in a still-asleep town in front of the bus station, where there was no sign of the Olympics being held there other than an advertising standee telling about the shuttles to the events. We ended up taking a 50-minute taxi to another town, Jangpyeong; from there we would be able to take a shuttle to the slopes. I was salty AF but Rachael managed to talk me down.

The shuttle was easy, and as we already had the tickets, it was easy to get through the lines and climb up to the slopes. It was wicked cold, but at least the huge crowd standing helped to block the biting winds a bit. At snowboarding slopestyle, the spectator area is at the bottom, after the last jump, so most of the event is watched on a Jumbotron screen. Being short, I struggled to be able to see both the screen and the jump, but the energy of being at the games was infectious. We were a bit annoyed with the overly loud and enthusiastic Americans in the crowd, so we were cheering for the Canadians, saying who we thought would win. It turns out that Canadian Mark McMorris’s parents were next to us, so our cheering for him was a nice coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t miss Red Gerard’s legendary last run, despite being so short I had to stand on my toes the whole time.

We returned to Jangpyeong, and knowing that I’d be starving to death if we waited all the way until back in Seoul to eat, we found a beef BBQ place which was super delicious. It was a sit-on-the-floor kind of place with nice windows that had views of the mountains. After lunch, we were able to buy tickets and walk directly onto the bus back. It turned out later that the tickets were also good for women’s slopestyle, but because of the cold weather, that event was postponed anyway. So, no harm done in leaving early.

The next weekend with Aidan went similarly. We had tickets to men’s hockey and skeleton luge. Planning-wise I was already nervous that at the end of the skeleton event, it would be nearly midnight, and we might not be able to get back to Seoul. Once we got off in Gangneung, it was easy enough to follow the crowds of people going to the hockey match. The match was Canada versus Czech Republic, and nearly everyone assembled was cheering for Canada, with the exception of the little boy next to us, who kept yelling in Korean “Czech! Czech!” (It sounded more like “재거!재거!” Mine! Mine!) I never stopped telling Aidan about how nice it was to sit down, to not be freezing our butts off in the wind, to be able to see everything. I sounded like an old lady, but never overlook the nice privilege of having your own seat at a sporting event. Canada was pretty soundly beaten, and after we searched for food.

There’s a big events tent near the venues where you’re supposed to get food (a.k.a food-court-style dining in a big, white, noisy tent), but we bypassed that in favor of something better. Keep in mind that this was also Seollal, Lunar New Year, weekend, so many actual restaurants were closed. But after walking around for a while we managed to find a good spot, ordering up some budaejjigae and watching Yuzuru Hanyu’s stunning gold-medal figure skating performance on TV. A Korean boy, Cha Junhwan, had also skated that day, but his routine didn’t go off as hoped and he didn’t medal. His performance played over and over in the background wherever we went. Near the end of the meal, we managed to help out an Aussie family, perhaps one of the athletes’ family, with their ordering in Korean. Over coffee and bingsu afterward, we somehow both agreed that we didn’t want to have to stay for skeleton and  stand outside in the cold, so we left after that, taking a taxi and a bus back to Seoul.

The takeaways, of course, were that I was glad I went to the Olympics, winter or otherwise. I just wish they had been more user-friendly. It certainly gives perspective to all future Olympic Games that I’ll watch on TV, and of course I’ll still hope to watch a Summer Games in person one day. I’ll forever refer to Pyeongchang as a “trap city,” as will Aidan.