No Responsibility, No Tattoo
Hong Sammy Editor, Gu Seo-yoon Reporter
Recently, among South Koreans, there has been a debate about whether nurses should be able to have tattoos on their body. Some insisted that it does not matter whether they have tattoos or not. On the other hand, others argued that as health professionals, they should avoid tattooing, which is considered to be taboo in Korea. Yet, for the past few years, people have been asserting freedom of expression and are more open-minded than in past years. Thus, currently many Koreans have considerably different opinions about having tattoos than in the past. What do you think about the concept of tattooing? Some modern ideas as well as a brief history of tattoos in South Korea will be explored further.
My Body, My Own Canvas
In recent years, tattoos in South Korea are being accepted in various forms, primarily in the fashion industry, centering on the young, modern, generation. Tattoos are not only for aesthetics, but for sentimental value, including tattooing family members, lovers, pets, and personal mottos on the body. This trend has started to become known as ‘My Own Canvas’. According to the Korea Tattoo Association in 2019, there are about one million people who have been tattooed in Korea, and there are more than 3,000 officially registered tattooists. According to “The Tattoo Recognition Survey” conducted by EMBRAIN, a Korean survey company, in 2018, 70% of people in Korea responded that tattoos are now commonly seen around us, and that the common perception of tattoos are becoming more generous than in the past. Indeed, a tattooist working in Jeonju, South Korea said, "In recent years, couples or parents and their children have come to get tattoos. Also, when a child gets a tattoo first, they often come with their mother next."
Korea, a Society of ‘Illegal’ Tattoo
However, there are still restrictions in Korea. In 1992, the SUPREME COURT OF KOREA defined tattoos as a medical practice that only medical professionals can administer, and Article 27 of the Medical Service Act states that “non-medical personnel are prohibited from performing medical practices, and even medical personnel shall not perform any medical practice other than those licensed”. In Korea, tattooing performed by non-medical personnel is illegal. The legalization of tattooing differs in every country. Japan, for example, is one of the two countries that consider non-medical tattooing as illegal, along with Korea.
Meanwhile, in America, Tattooing is more freely and commonly practiced. At most tattoo parlors in the United States, the procedure is carried out with regular inspections by local sanitation companies. In addition to the U.S., countries and regions such as the United Kingdom and Australia legalize tattoos simply through tattooist licenses and thorough sanitary education.
Korean Society’s Perception of Tattoos
Having a look at Korean people’s perception of tattoos can help us better understand Korean society. Let's look at the tattoo recognition survey conducted in 2014 by EMBRAIN, a Korean market research organization. When people were asked what they think about ‘tattoos’, the most common answers were “entertainers, gangsters, bad-tempered people, and bullies”. In the survey, people who have tattoos indicated that they hear some pessimistic responses about their tattoo, and often experience having to hide the tattoo with their clothing.
Background: Why Your Ancestors Tabooed Tattoos
Here, it’s time to think about why Korean society regards tattoos in a pessimistic way. First, we should look at the history of Korean tattoos. The first traces of ancient Korean tattoos are not found in Korea but rather can be inferred from historical records from Korea’s nearest neighbors- Japan and China. Ancient Chinese books, such as the ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, show that the Korean maritime people had tattoos for magical purposes, in order to protect their bodies from marine animals. In the Goryeo dynasty, the Chinese ‘punishment tattoo’ was introduced. It was the harshest punishment after the death penalty, leaving permanent stigma on the body. In Confucian society, it was regarded as damaging the sacred body that was inherited from one’s ancestors. In the Korean Joseon Dynasty, a love tattoo called ‘Yeon bi’ was sometimes seen, which was popular in Japanese geisha culture at the time, as it printed a lover's name on each other's arms.
From the statements above, we can likely conclude why Korean society taboos tattoos. It has been shown that most of the Korean ideas about tattoos originate from China and Japan, which means tattoo culture is not native to Korea, nor is it a traditional practice.
Moreover, tattooing is against the spirit of the Confucian beliefs that were traditionally held in China and spread to Korea and Japan. This belief held that tattooing the body was an act of damaging it. Chinese ‘punishment tattoos’ and Japanese love tattoos were also stigmas in these ancient societies, whose ideas reached into Korea.
Tattoo: to Consider
People with tattoos must have put deliberate consideration into having tattoos on their body. If tattoos had no side effects, the choice to tattoo would be much easier. However, there might be some harmful health conditions which tattoos can cause people. To begin with, there are potential infection problems. Some people can be allergic to ink, and the tattooed area can get infected after the surgical procedure. The skin can swell up, and the tattooed area can become intensely hot. Moreover, according to the Australian dermatological expert, Adrian Lim, tattoos can interfere with the detection of skin cancer. Tattoos might disrupt early diagnosis and treatment due to ink shade or its pigment. Lastly, there are some types of noxious ink, which contains carcinogen. The ink producing method needs to be checked carefully by potential consumers. While some countries with legal tattoo procedures produce ink in a strict way, not every product is safe. The WHO(World Health Organization) identified that there are chemicals and carcinogen in most tattoo ink. People should be aware of these side effects and consider whether tattoos are suitable for them.
What kinds of tattoos are there? Below are various types of tattoos that one might consider.
Lettering - These can be tattooed in many national languages, from numbers to letters.
Portrait – This is a tattoo of a high level procedure done by drawing a portrait or a self portrait of a person.
Cover up - A tattoo intended to cover a scar or a mole.
Old School - This kind of tattoo originated from early sailors. It contains a message for crew members who want to return safely to their crew.
Irezumi(いれずみ) - This is a Japanese traditional tattoo. It includes drawings of animals and nature against the backdrop of Japanese legends and folktales.
Line Work - This kind of tattoo includes flowers or animals that are drawn with thin lines.
In addition, there are many temporary tattoo types, such as tattoo stickers that anyone can easily access, and henna that is naturally erased over time.
Having tattoos carries responsibilities along with it. Until recently, Korean society did not fully accept new kinds of expressions, like tattoos. Since tattoos are restricted legally, many Koreans still cannot shake the pessimistic perception attached to them. However, it is said by a local tattooist in Jeonju that “tattoo is an art expressed on the body”. By acknowledging the changing perceptions, Korean people should be aware that those with tattoos consider a lot of things, too. Therefore, now that the facts are laid bare, you can decide if you want to be critical of tattoos or to be encouraged by them.