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Tattoos in Korea

Tattoos in Korea

Historically, Body Art or Tattooing were not common practice in Korea.

A very long time ago, it is said that fisherman used tattoos as protection against evil spirits that might attack out at sea. During the long Joseon Dynasty period that ended in 1910, criminals and even slaves might be branded – a visible sign that they were outcasts since Confucian philosophy emphasized the important of keeping the body whole, of not abusing the body inherited from one’s ancestors.

During the course of the 20th century, members of crime ‘families’ began to sport tattoos that identified the gang to which they belonged – a practiced learned from organized crime groups in Japan. So for a long time, the general impression was that people with tattoos were, at worse, dangerous criminals and, at best, untrustworthy. Although these attitudes persist in members of the older generations in society and among certain other groups, the perception of tattoos and of those who have them is changing in Korean society.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when people with tattoos were not allowed in public baths or swimming pools, and might even find it difficult getting a job. Foreigners with visible tattoos might find themselves the focus of a lot of staring and muttering, women especially. Generally that is no longer the case. While tattoos are not necessarily seen as totally respectable and are far from being part of mainstream fashion, the stereotypes have been diluted somewhat and rarely are foreign nationals refused entry to baths or pools. An Asian with a tattoo, especially an ethnic Korean, may still have some problems in public places, etc.

As in the West for a long time, women with tattoos have been viewed as being somewhat disreputable and unladylike. That attitude is gradually changing as more and more young women accessorize with small or ‘discreet’ tats.

Whatever you may hear/read, it is not illegal to have a tattoo in Korea or to have one done. However, since the military does not accept men with large tattoos (for a number of complex reasons of their own), young men who get very large tattoos prior to performing their military duty (all men are required to serve about two years of military service) may be accused of ‘draft dodging’, a criminal offense.

Currently, Korean law requires those giving tattoos to be licensed medical doctors. However, although illegal, the number of non-medical tattooist is growing and there is little enforcement of the law. There is also a growing movement of advocates for amendments to the law that would allow these artists to practice their craft legally and openly. If anyone is charged, at the moment, it’s the one giving the tattoo and not the one receiving it. Tattoo shops can be found in many areas around the country, especially nearby universities. In Seoul, the Hongik University area, Sincheon, Apgujeong-dong, Itaewon and Dongdaemun are just some of the districts where tattoo specialists can be found.

The days when people with tattoos had to keep them hidden by always wearing long-sleeve shirts, for example, has passed in Seoul, and gradually, elsewhere in the country as well.

K4E Editor: We try to make the information on Korea4Expats.com as complete and accurate as possible, so if you notice any errors or omissions in the content above, please let us know at info@korea4expats.com.

Photo from www.chinadaily.com re draft dodging tats

Last Updated on 2012-12-11

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