Tattoo Culture in South Korea: Interview with Tattoo Shy and TK

South Koreans are known for being self-aware of their physical appearance and for a long time, having tattoos was not considered a “good thing”. Oftentimes, one would be thought of as a gangster or someone up to no good if they received a tattoo. This negative perception of tattoos in Korea hasn’t completely changed: for instance, before going on a variety TV show, some artists and rappers have to cover up their tattoos so as not to offend viewers. Lately, however, tattoo art has somewhat normalized and are seen as cool accessories for making a personal statement.

To understand Korea’s current tattoo culture, I interviewed two artists who go by the names Tattoo Shy and TK (respectively). Both are owners of their own tattoo shops in Seoul, Korea. The following are questions about their tattoo-related journey as well as Korea’s modernized tattoo culture.

Owner of Tattoo Shy Studio-Shy Young Kim

Owner of Tattoo Shy Studio-Shy Young Kim

Please introduce yourself.
Tattoo Shy “I am Shy Young and am from Seoul, Korea. I liked to draw since I was young and graduated from art school. I went to a designing company and several art academies. Around this time, I got some tattoos which got me interested in tattoo art. I started my business 5 years ago.”
TK “My nickname is TK and I am a tattoo artist. I started tattooing 8 years ago and I became interested first because I liked to draw. In university I majored in sports but later on realized that I actually love to draw.”

What are you inspired by? What keeps you in the tattoo business?
Tattoo Shy “I am inspired by a person’s aura—something that will suit another person. I draw according to the inspiration I receive at that specific time. I design according to my own style (Shy style). I do many different types of genres but I am mainly inspired by my own thoughts at the time. Most customers come to me for my own drawings not a particular picture they want.”
TK “I usually discuss with clients who come with a specific drawing they want but I personally prefer realistic art—portraits etc.”

What is it like being a tattoo artist in Korea?
Tattoo Shy “It’s very hard to be a female tattoo artist in Korea. It is still illegal in Korea and is in the process of becoming legalized. During Park Geun-hye’s administration, several laws were being examined to be passed to the main court but because of all the scandals and the events of the past months, everything has been put off.
It’s also hard because of the physical aspect. When we are tattooing, we have to stretch out the skin and use all of our muscles to create the art. My wrist was injured for a while but it’s alright now. I need a lot of energy to tattoo.”
TK “Of course, it is much more difficult in Korea. It is complicated with issues with law. Even a year ago, it was illegal for nail artists to clean a person’s nail cuticles without a medical license.
With the previous Park administration, lawmakers talked about legalizing tattooing and not making it so complicated with medical degrees but progress is pretty slow. We even tried to help the policymaking process, but it hasn’t really helped. The main thing in Korea is the fact of tattooing being a sanitation issue so laws are strict and lawmakers aren’t prone to making tattoo an open business.”

Currently, Korean law demands those giving tattoos to be licensed medical practitioners. Still, the number of tattoo artists without a medical degree has been growing and there is little enforcement of the law.

Oddly enough, although official advertisement of one’s tattoo business is illegal, personal management of blogs or Instagram pages regarding tattoo work is left untouched. Perhaps it is because checking social networking platforms would be time-consuming and a breach of personal privacy.

There is also a growing movement of advocates for amendments to the law that would allow these tattoo artists to practice their craft legally. As of now, if anyone were to be charged, the artist alone would be penalized, not the client. A few years ago, lawmakers were on their way to legalizing free practicing, but with former President Park’s scandal, all policymaking efforts were put on hold.

Neither Tattoo Shy nor TK have a medical license for tattooing, but they see the significance in legalization procedures and hope that their work will not go on being misunderstood as unsanitary or dangerous practices.

What does your family think of your job?
Tattoo Shy “My mom was worried at first that I would be able to make a living off of tattooing, but now, seeing how well I have been doing, she has become one of my biggest supporters.”
TK “They’re very supportive. At first they were worried that I wouldn’t be able to make much money but now they’re fine with it.”

Are you doing well financially?
Tattoo Shy “I am very fortunate to have many customers. Many have a difficult time as tattooists but my shop is doing very well.”
TK “Sometimes we get no customers for like two weeks, other times we have around 3 customers a day. Every day is different. Our shop is doing financially well right now. We’ve been getting a lot of customers.”

Do you have more female or male customers?
Tattoo Shy “More male customers because of current societal perceptions.”
TK “Similar male to female ration.”

Before this tattoo shop, were you working in other tattoo shops?
Tattoo Shy “I worked for a friend who taught me how to become a tattoo artist. I quit after our relationship became a little difficult and began running my own business.
I am glad to have learned from my friend; it was a good way to really see women power in the tattoo field.”
TK “Yes, this is actually my third shop but I had always been running my own business. (I work with my fellow artists but it’s like we run our own business).”

Co-owner of TK INK Studio - TK

Co-owner of TK INK Studio – TK

Have you tattooed any celebrities/notable people readers would know?
Tattoo Shy “Kim Jae-joong (dong bang shin ki), body painting for You Know Yoon-ho, Jessie, Micro dot, and members of the boy band, Infinite.”
TK “Not anyone famous but I tattooed an actor for the Korean movie Prison (Shin Seon Rok). But the tattoo was only caught for a slight moment on screen. It was supposed to be shot before the action scene but it was shot after the action scene (it got a little erased).”

What are you hoping for regarding your business?
Tattoo Shy “First I would like tattooing to become legalized. For people’s negative perceptions of tattoos to change. People in Korea are against tattoos because they think it is unsanitary but that is also a misconception. Tattoo done safely causes no problems. Perceptions has gotten better in Korea but it can get better.”
TK “I don’t really care for my business becoming bigger, I just want to be able to work freely and for my customers to remember me; for people to recognize my name and who want me for my art.”

Do you have any tattoos on your own body?
Tattoo Shy
“6 self-tattoos, and two from other artists.”
TK “None on myself because it was always hard for me to decide what I wanted. But I realized that not having a tattoo can also be a merit. I do plan on getting tattoos later on but I’m not sure when or what I would want.”

Could you tell us about the cost of getting a tattoo in your shop?
Tattoo Shy
“The minimum cost for any tattoo is 100,000 KRW. So even a dot on the nose is 100,000. KRW. And then the price goes up with the size of the art. All of my tattoo supplies are imported and I have to change them each time (needles etc.). Other shops use standard needles but I use more expensive ones.”
TK “Typically a drawing the size of one’s palm costs around 450,000 KRW. But it always depends on the design and the level of intricacy; how long it took us to draw the picture and actually tattoo.”

Tattoo Shy
“I have a website for my clothing line which is called “Upper Shy” as well as my Instagram, which is @tattooshy.”
TK “I also have a Naver blog and Instagram page (@tattooist_tk) for advertising but formal advertisements on websites are not allowed.”

The tattoo industry in Korea is changing quickly for the better. I believe that social media has had the biggest impact on tattooing and having tattoos—making it into a more “normal” phenomenon.

Still, South Korea needs to continue the process for legalizing the business since it is already a growing industry, not to mention it would be beneficial for the government to collect taxes from this industry and let the artists have a respectful and legal job.

In addition, when the legalization of tattooing will come to force, we will probably be seeing an expanded tattoo culture. Check out both talented tattoo artists Instagram pages (@tattooshy and @tattooist_tk) for more information and their web pages as well. Photo by Kim You-jin

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