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The world of underground tattooing

South Koreans are starting to embrace tattoos — but they have to go to underground parlors to get them.

SEOUL — Wandering Seoul's streets in hopes of finding a tattoo parlor, even in the hippest neighborhood known to shelter hundreds of tattoo artists, is mostly a waste of time. You need to know the “proper” steps: first you run a search on the web, then you hook up with a tattooist who will guide you to a nondescript space, and finally you sit down for the illegal procedure.

Sitting in an underground tattoo parlor with his arms folded across his chest, 37-year-old tattooist Kang Un explains why things are so. There are no laws specifically about tattooing in South Korea, but medical laws state that only doctors can practice the act of penetrating someone’s skin with a needle.

In other words, to be a tattooist in Korea, you must hold a doctor’s license.

Tattoos have long been considered in the country a mark of violence, membership to a gang, or at the least, defiance of mainstream culture. There wasn’t much demand for a long time and getting a tattoo at an illegal parlor somehow suited the rebellious nature of it.

However, in recent years, many South Koreans have started to embrace tattoos as a work of art and a fashion statement. Tattooists are starting to call for regulation and legalization of the industry, but for now, most parlors remain illegal.

“There’s this huge gap between the laws and reality,” said Kang, a frontrunner in the field who started practicing tattooing as a profession eight years ago. He is known as a master of his craft and has almost 500 active artists whom he groomed in his underground parlors.

Despite the dark tunnel-like entrance with graffiti covered walls, Kang’s studio is fully equipped with worktables and tattoo stations. The artist, who boasts a long-sleeve David Beckham-inspired tattoo, says he is the only tattooist who has two parlors and a studio where staff teachers hold classes.

“When I first started learning, I hid it even from my family,” Kang recalled. He said sentiments toward tattoos have changed drastically since then. Kang pinpoints 2002, when South Korea hosted the soccer World Cup, as one of the moments that brought about a wave of change. Seeing many famous soccer players with tattoos, he said, made people realize that there’s nothing wrong with getting one.

The customers have diversified greatly over the years to now include doctors, business consultants, celebrities and even soldiers. Recently the Korean military started to allow men with tattoos to carry out their mandatory service, but the military's acceptance of the practice still has its boundaries.

Those with tattoos that cover two-thirds of their bodies are not allowed to serve as regular combatant troops and are sent to alternative services.

“People with that many (tattoos) tend to have high accident rates, and since they deal with weapons that have the capability of killing, we tend to exclude them, kind of like what we do with criminals,” said Kwak Yu-suk, an official at the Military Manpower Administration.