South Korea remains one of the few countries to require a medical degree for tattooing. In a recent congressional hearing, the law was challenged but voted in favor of maintenance. Despite walking on the path of social progress, it seems South Korea is determined in its rejection of the art form.
Ironically, South Korea is regarded as the capital of beauty, renowned for its strides in plastic surgery, a procedure similar to tattooing in its permanence, but more unreceptive in other cultures. The general acceptance of plastic surgery as a natural social norm in Korea, therefore, raises questions about its closed borders on tattooing.
According to the New York Times, South Korea’s rejection of the practice stems from the century-long association between gangs and tattoos. Inspired by Japanese customs, in the early 20th-century Korean gang members embellished their bodies with traditional Japanese tattoos to indicate their affiliations.
This practice among Korean gang members is among other factors that rendered it difficult to convert the public’s perception of tattoos as more than a signpost of illicit involvement but as an art form. The generational stigma has diffused into modern-day society, fostering a similar perception of tattoos even in the younger generation.
As a result, to avoid social and legal prosecution that extends to two years in prison, tattoo artists live under the radar to pursue their careers. Persisting through such perils, is Ji Han, a Korean tattoo artist who operates in a remote workspace in Hongdae, South Korea.
“Making a living in South Korea as a tattoo artist is tough. You have to be wary of which clients you accept, and how you advertise your work. Because if you don’t, you may run into troubles with the police,” Han said.
In fear of prosecution, Han claims that most tattoo artists in Korea advertise their work and attract new customers through social media, and shy away from the official documentation of their work offices to prevent any dealings with the police.
As most, if not all tattoo artists, do not have a medical degree that cements their credentials under the law, they hide from the spotlight and operate mostly in their homes, or underground garages.
Han was clear regarding his thoughts on the law that recently passed, re-affirming the social stigma on tattooing,
“The law is in place because Korean officials don’t want to see their citizens covered with tattoos, not because they are so concerned for their safety that they require a medical degree from tattoo artists,” he said.
Because mandating a medical degree to tattoo rids all artists from pursuing their careers, the regulation appears to be an instrument to eradicate the practice of tattooing in Korea instead of ensuring its safety.
In fact, when concerned with the safety of tattooing, immediate attention must be directed to revising the current laws. Requiring a medical degree results in less surveillance of the underground tattooing scene, which may expose individuals to a greater risk of infection and malpractice. It may also erode the quality of work, as aspiring tattoo artists struggle to find mentors to guide them through the process.
Tattooing is a burgeoning practice in South Korea. Although it remains a culturally taboo form of expression, it seems that tattooing will survive even through the harshest political weather among Korean artists like Ji Han who dedicates his life to his pursuit of art.
Despite its many drawbacks, the tattoo regulations appear to withstand too, against the harshest storms of social change.