Inside The Underground Subculture of Female Korean Tattoo Artists

It’s not illegal to have tattoos in South Korea, but it is illegal to be a Korean tattoo artist. For a country that is highly progressive when it comes to fashion and pop culture, this generations-old edict poses a challenge for young Koreans looking to express themselves beyond clothing and accessories. Unless they leave the country, they can’t legally get a tattoo. If they visit an underground parlour, they run the risk of getting arrested – and taking the shop down with them.

Body mods are most problematic for females: tattoos destroy both the physical and symbolic purity that is traditionally revered in Korean women. And anything beyond a classic ear piercing draws a stigma of criminal activity and dark undertones. So what happens when you’re a Korean girl with tattoos and you also happen to be a tattoo artist? Well, for these eight rebels, tattoo culture is less about disrespecting Korean culture, and more about respecting yourself.

“It’s not easy,” says Jiran, who left her job as a veterinarian’s assistant to pursue her dream of opening up a tattoo shop. “But at the end of the day, it’s better to be doing something you love than to spend your whole life scared and wondering.”

Name: Lyuhwa
INSTAGRAM@holy_night_girl
Age: 27
Number of tattoos: More than 100
First tattoo: Image of grass on stomach

What inspired you to start tattooing?
When I was in high school, I was bullied a lot by a girl with a big tattoo. I actually didn’t go to school for two years because I was bullied so badly by her. I eventually got into university for fashion design, but I decided to pursue my passion for art and get into tattooing instead. My goal is to have more tattoos than the girl who bullied me.

How do people react when they see your tattoos?
People typically avoid me when they see me on the street. Some people are fascinated by my look, but most feel uncomfortable and scared.

How does your family feel about your tattoos?
At this point, I have so many tattoos that they’ve stopped caring. But when I first revealed my tattoos to them, they thought it was temporary and that it would erase or wash off in 30 days.

How has having tattoos affected your day-to-day life?
Bathhouses and spas are incredibly popular here in Korea but there’s only one spa that I’m allowed to go to because that’s the one foreigners go to and many of them have tattoos as well. My parents are also very devout Christians and their church has stopped me from coming to services because they feel like I’m some sort of “satanic” being with my tattoos.

 Have you heard from your bully since high school?

Actually, I got a message from her recently asking if I could do a couple tattoos for her. I didn’t reply.

Name: Mirae
INSTAGRAM@tattooist_mirae
Age: 25
Number of tattoos: 13
First tattoo: Hand holding a flower, on the top of foot

What inspired you to start tattooing?
I’ve always loved to doodle and I’ve also always loved fashion design. Tattooing was a way to combine my sketches with a sense of fashion and personal style. You’re wearing your tattoos like you would wear clothing.

How does your family feel about your tattoos?
My dad still doesn’t know that I have tattoos. I only visit home during the winters or when it’s raining so I can wear a sweater or jacket and cover up. I wear a lot of long dresses too.

What’s the worst story you’ve heard about the tattoo industry here?
I’ve heard of tattoo artists calling the police on their competitors to try and get their shops shut down. It can get pretty competitive here.

Do you think the perception towards tattoos in Korea is changing?
Tattoo culture is like fashion; it’s always changing, and changing quite rapidly. I just hope it changes for the better.

Name: Nini
INSTAGRAM@tattooist_nini
Age: 22
Number of tattoos: “A lot.”
First tattoo: Rose across chest

What inspired you to start tattooing?
I like collecting memories. I can share a memory with every person I tattoo, and every tattoo on me also reminds me of a particular moment in my own life. For example, I got my ex-boyfriend’s initials tattooed on my arm after he passed away.

How does your family feel about your tattoos?
My parents don’t like it and they’ve begged me not to get more. Still, compared to other families, my parents are fairly open-minded; they’re just concerned with what others will think. It’s less about me having tattoos and more to do with how people will treat me in society.

Do you think the perception towards tattoos in Korea is changing?
I want to establish more of a camaraderie between female tattooists in Korea, and females in general. We need to be supporting each other instead of tearing each other down.

Name: Ellie
INSTAGRAM@elliegreenlee
Age: 23
Number of tattoos: 11
First tattoo: Apple behind ear (“I was in San Francisco four years ago and it was my first time in America. I wanted to get something to commemorate the trip”).

What inspired you to start tattooing?
I’m actually pretty new to tattooing. I did a lot of piercings and I’m just now getting into tattoos. I did get the entire side of my head tattooed so I guess you can say I went all in.

How does your family feel about your tattoos?
My parents are both preachers and they believe that your body should be a temple of God. Needless to say, they were shocked.

What about your piercings? How did your family react to that?
I got my septum pierced at 21. I also have a magnet inserted in my hand. I have a whole bunch of piercings and body modifications and my parents have never seen any of it.

What is it like being a female with tattoos in Korea?
There’s an expectation for girls to be modest and demure, but I think it’s such a double standard. Guys can get tatted up or get their nipples pierced and it’s considered “cool,” but when a girl does it, she’s automatically “bad.” I don’t get it.

Do you think the perception is changing?
The culture won’t change but the people can. We can change how we perceive tattoos and how we react to people who have them. I’ve had people come up to my face and tell me how “gross” I am, but I’ve also had young girls come up to me and say, “You’re cool” and “I want to be like you.” At the end of the day, I’m just expressing myself and that’s really the best message we can convey.

Name: Ellie
INSTAGRAM@elliegreenlee
Age: 23
Number of tattoos: 11
First tattoo: Apple behind ear (“I was in San Francisco four years ago and it was my first time in America. I wanted to get something to commemorate the trip”).

What inspired you to start tattooing?
I’m actually pretty new to tattooing. I did a lot of piercings and I’m just now getting into tattoos. I did get the entire side of my head tattooed so I guess you can say I went all in.

How does your family feel about your tattoos?
My parents are both preachers and they believe that your body should be a temple of God. Needless to say, they were shocked.

What about your piercings? How did your family react to that?
I got my septum pierced at 21. I also have a magnet inserted in my hand. I have a whole bunch of piercings and body modifications and my parents have never seen any of it.

What is it like being a female with tattoos in Korea?

There’s an expectation for girls to be modest and demure, but I think it’s such a double standard. Guys can get tatted up or get their nipples pierced and it’s considered “cool,” but when a girl does it, she’s automatically “bad.” I don’t get it.

Do you think the perception is changing?
The culture won’t change but the people can. We can change how we perceive tattoos and how we react to people who have them. I’ve had people come up to my face and tell me how “gross” I am, but I’ve also had young girls come up to me and say, “You’re cool” and “I want to be like you.” At the end of the day, I’m just expressing myself and that’s really the best message we can convey.

Name: Kim Kyung Eun and Hana
INSTAGRAM: @dan__tattoo / @21lee21
Age: 23 / 25
Number of tattoos: more than 30 (on both)
First tattoos: matching tattoos that say “We are one” in Latin

How long have the two of you been together?
Hana: Five years. We’ve been dating since we were teenagers.

What got you into tattooing?
Kyung Eun (artist name, Kimdan): I’ve wanted to be a tattoo artist ever since middle school. I was watching TV and saw a big American guy with a tattoo. I thought it was so cool that you could draw on your body and keep these images on you forever.
Kimdan: Because tattoo culture is so frowned upon here, I spent a lot of time on social media, looking at what other people were doing. There were a few guys whose work I admired and I started teaching myself how to draw and tattoo based on what they were doing.

What was your family’s reaction to your tattoos?
Kimdan: They weren’t shocked, but they wanted me to make sure I could handle the reactions that would come with me having tattoos.

What has the reaction been to your tattoos?
Kimdan: One time, a woman came up to me and asked me why I love “leaving scars” on people’s bodies. It’s not all bad though. I met a girl who had scars on her arms from cutting herself. I helped her cover the scars with a tattoo and she told me I was simultaneously helping her move on from her bad memories. She was so thankful and appreciative.

Name: Mighi
INSTAGRAM: @hi_mig_hi
Age: 30
Number of tattoos: More than 50
First tattoo: Star on wrist

Describe your tattooing style.
My style is mostly about celebrating the human body and seeing everyday objects as extensions of the human body.

How does your family feel about your tattoos?
My parents thought my tattoos were stickers at first. They know I have tattoos on my arms and legs but they still don’t know about the tattoos on the rest of my body. It’s hard keeping this secret from them.

What is the worst thing that has happened to you as a tattoo artist here?
I’ve been brought down to the police station three times. The first time, someone reported me and the police came to my studio. I lied and said I just liked to draw and that I was an artist, but not a tattoo artist. They didn’t believe me and took me to the police station and made me sit there for four hours. Eventually, I paid a fine and they let me leave.

Why continue with tattooing if it’s caused you so many problems?
I used to bounce around a bunch of part-time jobs because I didn’t know what I wanted to do for work or with my life. I taught myself how to tattoo and now I feel more fulfilled, like I’ve finally found my calling.