Did you know that only a person with a medical license can make tattoos in South Korea? Most of the Korean people with whom I had the opportunity to converse responded negatively. The reason for their illegality are the methods of safety and hygiene, which are a poor cover for not accepting their bad reputation in society. Tattoo studios maintain the safety guidelines to follow. In 1990, the Ministry of Health decreed that only people who had a medical license to back it up when using needles could make tattoos. It is said that determination is made for the prevention of infections and safety measures in the treated skin. Do you know why Korea has such a control?
The young people of today live conditioned by social pressure, studies, excessive consumption, the internet and the constant influences of the West. The tattoos on the young South Koreans are an expression of the social changes that the country has had to assimilate during the last decades. This movement of “rebellion” cause by such clandestinely of tattoos is closely linked to the globalization in where we live; Tattoos have become a fashion. Tattoos are a sample of the aesthetics and personal identity of each individual as well as the strength that today's new generations have against traditionalisms and restrictions. It is a way to feel happy and fulfilled with your body using the body as a tool and art as a statement.
My Korean friends, whom I met in Spain before coming to South Korea, have tattoos but did not dare to do it until they went to Spain. What is the turning point? Currently, tattoos are normalizing especially among the early generations either by the evolution of Korean society. Young people, under the pressure of their culture and traditions, are changing their way of life and tattoos, in a certain way, are a fight vindication. Korean culture maintains today a certain importance of Neo-Confucian values: family and filial piety, the external image (more importance to society than the individual in concrete), the pressure in the educational field, etc. For reasons of social evolution, nowadays, individualism and gender equality are some changes that are taking place. The old generations are reluctant to the munshins (‘letters recorded on the body’) because they are associated with the Korean mafia. The word munshin is in disuse even for young people, who prefer to call them tattoos even speaking in their own language.
To give an example of a wellknown Korean underground tattoo artist, I would like to tell you about Apro Lee. For many, he is one of the best tattooists in the world. One of his most representative tattoos is the rope that he has surrounding his neck, for him, it means the illegality of his work in the country where he lives. His specialty is the Minhwa art tigers, very representative of the underground Korean people at the end of Joseon Dynasty; this kind of art is well-known for pursued popular art.
In my case, I have three tattoos: two of them are Korean calligraphy. I love Korean writing and with them I try to capture the ideas that represent me and also decorate my body. The remaining tattoo, I share with my sister and my father and that’s the way we represent the unconditional union of my family. Since 1960, tattoos are recognized as art and this is when we question ourselves, does Korea also consider it as art? Young people and illegal tattooists are fighting to change the bad reputation of tattoos. In the near future, in my opinion, tattoos will be legalized and society will gradually accept the normality of body language; it is only a matter of time.