Just look at the body art worn by Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, and yes, even Beyoncé — tattooing has never been more popular in the U.S. But as a recent i-D video shows, the trend has a very different reputation in South Korea. There, the art form is not only frowned upon, it’s essentially illegal. As the above video reveals, in order to legally give someone a tattoo, one must acquire a doctor’s license. But that doesn’t mean the kids are booking appointments with their general practitioners in order to get inked. Instead, the South Korean government estimates that there are more than 20,000 tattooists working in illegal studios across the country. And as Apro Lee, a tattooist in Seoul who happens to be one of the 20K, points out, “Who’s going to be a tattooer when they have a doctor’s license? It’s ridiculous, right?” What’s more, i-D host and fellow tattooist Grace Neutral notes that even if one does acquire an MD license, it takes artistic — not just technical — skills to produce good work. Because South Korean culture has never embraced tattooing, those who defy the beauty norms by wearing ink get major side-eye. “When [adults or older people] see someone with tattoos, like myself, they look at us with contempt as if we’ve done something bad,” Lee says. As a result, Lee avoids scrutiny by forgoing public transportation and traveling by taxi or car instead.
She’s got a pretty face and a nice body, but because of the tattoos, she’s ruined.
Sure enough, one senior citizen in the video says, “Even back when president Chun was in power [1980 to 1988], people who had tattoos were taken away by the Samcheong [re]education system. Old people particularly dislike it. I’m just being honest.” And Neutral experiences this attitude firsthand, when a man disdainfully looks her over before saying, “She’s got a pretty face and a nice body, but because of the tattoos, she’s ruined.” There was once a time in many cultures — the U.S. included — when similar stigmas rang true. Before tattooing broke into the mainstream, alternative-beauty pioneers rebelled against the norms by getting inked anyway. And as the number of body-art aficionados has grown, the judgment, in many places, has all but disappeared.
If stateside pop culture sweethearts can collect tats without marring their reputations or commercial viability, then it's clear that the conventional beauty standard around body art has shifted toward the inked. And as the i-D report shows, pioneering citizens of underground art are doing the same for South Korean beauty culture, one tattoo at a time.