If you want to get a tattoo in South Korea, you simply can’t go to a tattoo parlour and make an appointment. Getting a tattoo is considered illegal, unless it is done by a medical doctor, nurse or an Asian medicine practitioner. The Korean government and the Ministry of Health and Welfare are very strict about unlicensed individuals giving tattoos, because of the risk of hepatitis or HIV infection from improperly sterilized needles.
There is also a stigma with having a tattoo because they were used to indicate who were criminals, and the Korean mafia would brand their members with tattoos. Older generations frown upon having one (or more) because they don’t want their children associated with these negative stereotypes.
This doesn’t stop tattoo artists from opening underground parlours and risk getting fined, raided by the police, or placed in jail. The parlours are literally underground with no signs or indication of what or where their business is. To find a parlour, artists have posted their work online with their phone number to get clients. Then clients spread the word by letting other people know, and the business builds from there.
There are an unknown amount of tattoo parlours in South Korea, but the government estimates there are 20,000 artists that work illegally, and more than a million people have tattoos.
What set off the trend was when South Korean soccer player, Ahn Jung-Hwan, took his jersey off after he scored a goal against Japan revealing a tattoo on his shoulder that proclaimed his love for his wife.
“Suddenly there were all these other sportsmen, as well as movie stars and K-pop singers getting tattoos as well,” recalls Jang Jun-Hyuk, the owner of “Tattooism.”
The Ministry of Health and Welfare may allow artists to become licensed professionals, and give them the right to practice legally. Kim Choon-Jin, an opposition lawmaker, submitted a bill that would certify artists through schools accepted by the government. Things are moving in the right direction, however there have not been serious consideration by the National Assembly as of yet.
Irregardless Koreans will still be getting tattoos, such as the younger generation that roam trendy areas like Seoul’s Hongdae district, civil servants, and executives working in the corporate world. They just have to find the hidden tattoo parlour first.