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Dropping an Ink Bomb in Sinsa—Tattoo Culture in Modern Korea

Dropping an Ink Bomb in Sinsa—Tattoo Culture in Modern Korea

June 7, 20111742Views

By Andrew Morris

Everyone has fears.  For some, it is heights.  For others, it is something more unusual, like the fear of numbers.  My own phobia is needles.  I have always been deathly afraid of them.  Which made getting travel vaccinations a humiliating and hilarious (for the doctor) experience.  So I may not have been an ideal candidate to write about and shoot a tattoo convention in Seoul.  However, I figured that being around experience tattoo artists would help me get over that particular bugbear.

The Ink Bomb tattoo convention regards itself as not only a calendar highlight for tattoo aficionados, but also as a general focal point for Korea’s small but noticeable counter culture.  For the past three years the event, the largest (only?) tattoo convention in Korea, has0 attracted tattoo artists, fashion designers and skateboard makers from Japan, the US and across the peninsula.  As someone who doesn’t know all that much about tattoo culture, I was more than slightly curious as to how big this event would be.  The large amount of people in attendance at this convention was somewhat surprising to me, given the attitude towards tattoos and tattooing that I have seen in Korea.

There is a large amount of confusion surrounding the legality of tattoos in Korea.  According to the law, only licensed doctors are allowed to perform tattooing in Korea, because it involves a needle penetrating the skin.  However, the law on which this is based is not against tattoos per se, rather the giving of any medical procedure without a doctor’s license.  Seeing as the strict enforcement of this law would mean that anyone who gives a Tylenol or a band aid could be arrested, tattoo parlors, much like prostitution, are generally tolerated by the authorities in Korea.  The stigma surrounding tattoos, however, is still strong.

As with most traditional schools of thought in Korea, the negative attitude towards tattooing comes from Confucianism. Good ol’ Confucius would have you believe that your bodies are gifts from your ancestors, and it is your job to preserve them.  So what is the difference between tattoos and say, smoking? Or doing Soju drinking games with coworkers? Or eating that third “chicken” wrap from Taco Bell at 1 a.m.?  The answer is crime.  Tattoos, particularly full back pieces featuring tigers or dragons, have long been associated with organized crime syndicates from China and Japan.  Jimjilbang would often ban people with these tattoos out of fear of organized crime.  This fear of gangsters could be the reason that the Korean military declared that any recruit with such tattoos should be sent to a non-military department for their mandatory two years’ service.  However, body art is gradually moving closer towards acceptance, as Korean celebrities such as K-Pop poster boy G-Dragon, who has two.  Fans of international football teams such as Manchester United and Barcelona can’t help but notice that many of their sporting icons also have tattoos.  The Korean Tattoo Association has been set up to help regulate the industry and to counter any negative perceptions of tattoos cultivated in the media.

This growing acceptance of tattoo culture means that there were a wide range of people descending upon the Platoon Kunsthalle in Sinsa this past weekend, with those in attendance running the gamut from respectable business type (shiny suits and all) to the hippest of the hipsters.  That said, the people in attendance could easily be partitioned into three groups:

Firstly, we have the curious.  People who wanted to come along, see what this tattooing tomfoolery was all about and generally be a little ignorant of the meaning or artistry behind tattoo culture.  I can confidently put myself in this category.  Secondly, the quiet appreciators.  These are people who consider tattoos a personal thing and who will happily observe an artist do his magic before picking up a business card to arrange an appointment.  Then, we have the exhibitionist.  Those people who can be spotted a mile off because that’s what they want.  They want a crowd of people staring at them as they undergo tattooing because they get a kick from being the center of attention. Regardless of their reasons, it was refreshing to see so many people, Korean and foreigner, who relished in going against the mainstream, picture-perfect-idol-group mentality that afflicts so many in Korea and beyond.

The general ambiance of rebellion was supplemented by various traders and stalls, although I am currently at a loss as to how selling spangly purple bowling pins fits into the image that they were projecting.  Finally, completing the celebration of the alternative was Kingston Rudieska, a pretty awesome Korean ska band complete with full horn sections and a man on guitar who wanted to be Elvis so badly it hurt.

So, did ink bomb cure my crippling needle phobia? It most certainly didn’t.  If anything, I feel more afraid of the prospect of being jabbed repeatedly with needles for hours on end.  But in bomb did give me a deeper appreciation to tattoo artistry, as well as an insight into a Korean culture that gets precious few opportunities to celebrate itself.

Byung Sung-Jan of 淸湖 Tattoo, hard at work.

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Picture 1:  The crew from YM tattoos of Korea.

Picture 2:  Dae-San from Wizard Tattoos of Korea.

Picture 3:  Chris Barnett of Good Faith Tattooing, Boston.

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Andrew Morris is a freelance writer and photographer, which means he had to come back to Korea a second time to pay the bills.  He’s currently based in Bundang and can be reached at andrewwmorris1@gmail.com.

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