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Getting tattooed in Korea – a guide that will actually help you!

So earlier this year, my girlfriend and I went to Korea to explore this beautiful country. There were a lot of things on our bucket list, mostly and places we wanted to see. But one thing seemed to be the most difficult to find information about 슈어맨 and I spent quite some time researching, trying to find quality content… The thing I’m talking about is getting a tattoo in Korea!

 

As you’d not always find the best tattoo artists around the corner of where you live, I look for artists wherever I travel to, to combine my trip with getting inked by someone I look up to because of their artwork. For me, that gives me an emotional connection to my tattoos and makes each of them a story itself.

Koreans, similar to other east Asian culture like the Japanese, still have quite a bad image of tattoos and everything that comes with it. As these cultures are quite conform, it’s rarely seen that individuals want to stand out. That is why, historically, tattoos have always been associated with violating social norms, crime, gangs or other out of the norm or even illegal actions. Especially amongst the older generation of Koreans, tattoos are still being stigmatized with these bad images. A tattooed person would, for example, not be accepted in most public baths, or at least instructed to cover the tattooed parts with skin coloured bandages. It’s also quite common that people would awkwardly stare at you and your tattoos if you displayed them publicly.

 

Nevertheless, there is a huge change of all these stigmas and prejudices amongst Koreas younger generation. I’d say there are few countries I’ve visited so far, where the difference between generations is so enormous as in Korea. As most of the parents and grandparents of young Koreans were more or less directly affected by the war, a lot of them still inherit a very conservative and backwards mindset. Young Koreans, however, grew up in a modern, peaceful and digitalized world which led them to being an incredibly modern, forward looking and educated generation. The perception of tattoos mirrors that social division between the two generations. Walking around Seoul especially in the evenings, you’d see loads and loads of young people openly displaying their tattoos.

If you want to get an impression about the problematic of Tattoos for young Koreans, you must check out this video by i-D:

 

If that got you interested, you can watch the whole i-D documentary about tattoos in Korea here.

The other thing with tattoos in Korea is, that tattooing is actually illegal or at least, there is no law which makes it legal for Korean tattoo artists. Tattooing is viewed as acupuncture and therefore, you need a medical certification in order to be able to ink another person. Getting that certification is more or less the same as getting a doctor license, so you see where the problem is: most doctors probably won’t decide to become a tattoo artist and vice versa, most tattoo artists aren’t willing to study to become a doctor only to do what they love. That gap in Korean legislation results in tattoo artists being seen as “criminals” who have to hide their studios and their art. This backward legislation leads to tattoo artists, not being covered by insurance and there’s also no protection by law.

Change of law is being discussed by Korean officials, but it will probably take some time until things officially change. Until then, tattoo artists are forced to hide their studios as well as their artwork. Unless there is change, the fact that tattooing is still illegal yet strengthens the perspective of the Koreans that see tattooed people as well as tattoo artists as criminals. The result is an even bigger gap between the older and the younger generation.

 

I’m sorry for the long introduction and all the facts about tattooing in Korea, but I think it is necessary to understand the situation and what it means to get a tattoo there.

 

The beautiful thing about getting a tattoo in Korea is that it is a really intimate and private experience. You’re not going to a big studio with bright lights saying “Tattoo”, rather you’d get instructions from your artist on where to go and will mostly end up in an apartment. The atmosphere is really private and you can build up a real connection to the artists.

 

Korean tattoo artist tattoing a soju bottle

 

I’ll share my experience in four parts:

  1. How to find an artist
  2. Contacting the artist
  3. Getting to the studio
  4. Getting the tattoo

 

1. How to find an artist

Finding an artist was the most difficult part for me. I’m quite picky when it comes to finding a tattoo artists and especially abroad, I’d put a lot of time and effort in my research.

First of all I have to say that there are a lot of incredible tattoo artists in Korea. What I think makes them so special compared to Western artists is the fact, that their work is incredibly intricate and fine. You wouldn’t find anyone in Germany with a similar tattoo style or even the skill to make such thin tattoos. The difficulty with thin lines is that they tend to fade away uncontrollably during the healing process. That’s why most artists prefer thicker lines, which gives them a more secure outcome after healing. Nevertheless, Korean artists are extremely great with thin lines and just to give you an example, my tattoo still looks like the day I got it (a lot of it also has to do with aftercare!).

 

Soju tattoo done in Seoul, Korea

 

As I said earlier, Korea has a quite conform culture, that means, while researching for tattoo artists you’d probably stumble upon many who are quite similar in their style and artwork. That’s nothing negative, but be prepared to see a lot of tiny tattoos, thin lines and watercolor. The stigmatization of tattoos in Korea presents itself once again in the tattoos itself. Koreans tend to have smaller, easy to hide tattoos (in front of their family) but which they can display once they’re out with their friends.

Probably the best channel to do your research for artists is Instagram. As there is no actual platform for tattoo artists, they’d display all their work on their instagram profiles – that goes especially for Korean artists as they don’t have any possibilities to advertise their work openly.

 

Minimalistic rose tattoo on the back of an arm

 

You can spend a lot of time, looking through the work of the many artists there are. Take your time and look for something you find outstanding. On the profile of an artist, you’ll find recommendations of other profiles with a similar style that can be really useful. Another way to find more profiles is to dig through the ones the artist you’re currently looking at is following.

To start with, I’d like to show you a few artists I found during my research. Maybe that can serve as a starting point, from which on you can look which artist suits you best.

 

In the end, tattoos are something completely individual so you might not like these artists at all. I just wanted to give you a starting point from which you can do your own research.

 

2. Contacting the artist

When you’ve come to the end of your research and have finally found an artist that appeals to you, you have to take in mind how to get in touch with him or her. Most of the artists have a contact address pinned to their Instagram account. I experienced, that they prefer rather not to be contacted directly through Instagram’s DM and therefore put down another way to contact them.

Most of the time, it’s either an email address, or a Kaao Talk contact. If you’ve never heard of the latter, it’s actually the Whatsapp for South Koreans. So if you’re planning on going to South Korea, it might be a good idea to download the app anyways. If you cannot find a contact address, it might be because the artist has currently closed his bookings. You might reach out to him over Instagram DM but don’t expect a reply. They’ll mostly mention in their bio when they’ll be open for new bookings.

The next obstacle might be a language barrier. To my surprise, the English of East Asians is often quite bad (even people in my age). It’s mostly due to their school system, where they extensively learn the theoretical basics of the English language but when it comes to speaking, most of the English teachers would prefer not to do it themselves. So don’t expect too much when it comes down to communicating with your artist.

Nevertheless, the modern times which we in live come with plenty of benefits (Google Translate ;)). Moreover, a lot of artists who have clients from overseas either speak English, or have someone working with them who can translate from English to Korean. So don’t be too skeptical. I just wanted to make you aware of the situation.

 

3. Getting to the studio

What comes next might sound logical but in Korea, things are a little bit different. As I mentioned earlier, tattooing is illegal in Korea and therefore, you won’t find tattoo studios in public. They’d rather be located in residential areas with nothing from the outside revealing that it might be a tattoo studio. I’ve been to two studios: one of them was in an apartment which you could only enter through a backyard and the other was located in the basement of a small residential building.

 

Entrance to a tattoo studio in a residential area in Seoul, Korea

Entrance to a tattoo studio in a residential area in Seoul, Korea

 

But don’t worry, because now comes the exciting part! After confirming the booking with your artist and discussing the tattoo you want to get, they’ll send you the directions to their studio in the format of something that looks more like a treasure map. I’m talking pictures of street corners with arrows indicating which way to go. This is to avoid revealing the location of their studio publicly.

Believe me when I say: It’s great fun! You’d spend some time, walking around a local neighbourhood and exploring areas that you probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise. You’d always be checking with the images you got on your phone, maybe taking a wrong turn once in a while but once you’re standing in front of the door that resembles the image you hold in your hands, it’s a huge reward and you’ll value it as part of the whole experience.

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