News / Asia

More South Koreans Break Away From Tattoo Taboo

A tattoo artist at work during Ink Bomb 2011 in Seoul, South Korea
A tattoo artist at work during Ink Bomb 2011 in Seoul, South Korea

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Tattoos have been a part of Asian culture for hundreds of years. But body ink in Asia traditionally has been the mark of an unsavory character. Thus, until recently, Asians in the mainstream rarely got tattoos. But, that is changing.

More people in South Korea these days are not ashamed to show a little skin - and ink.

The country now has its own annual tattoo convention, which attracts artists from neighboring Japan and the United States.

But anyone using needles to penetrate the skin is supposed to be a licensed medical doctor - credentials in short supply at this event and in the thousands of tattoo parlors across the country.

One of the organizers of Ink Bomb 2011, who goes by the professional name of Sun Rat, acknowledges body artists here maintain a low profile to avoid possible fines of up to $10,000.

"Massage and tattoo parlors are illegal here, but our goal is to have the tattoo industry become something that is viewed a part of legitimate culture," he said.

Visiting tattoo artist Scotty Kelly of the United States says the industry in Northeast Asia is still a long way off from mainstream acceptance.

"The association is that it’s a criminal element or an anti-social element. So - it’s kind of looked-down upon,"  he said. "Whereas in America it’s very accepted: TV shows, clothing, stuff like that. So it’s kind of like night and day as far as the perception."

One reason authorities prefer to keep this practice a taboo is that a large tattoo is a disqualifier for military service. While some Koreans may get tattooed to avoid conscription, the body artists here say most people coming into their parlors are just looking to make their skin a bit more colorful.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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