Seoul's best tattoo artists
Inside "illegal" tattoo culture in South Korea
Words— Cynthia Chou
There is a modern myth that tattoos are illegal in South Korea. Combined with the rising popularity of Korean tattoo artists on Instagram, this apparent fact has seemed to capture the Western world's curiosity. In the past few years, countless online forums have risen to discuss the finer details of Seoul’s underground tattoo scene and with that, an increasing number of tourists are seeking out local artists for an ink job.
But all mystique aside, the truth is that while the practice of tattooing has had its challenges and a long and storied path to social acceptance in the country, they are far from banned. In the country's past, they were a way to label criminals with their crimes; today they’re more of eyebrow-raising aesthetic choice, but one that still holds very real social consequences.
Korean beauty standards pass strong judgement on skin that is not ‘pure’ and pale; take a walk down the streets of Seoul, and you will see walls and walls of advertisements for surgeries and potions that promise whiter skin, bigger eyes, narrower jaws, and even longer legs for men and women alike. The ideal beauty standard is so homogenized and ingrained in the Korean cultural consciousness, that any deviation from this norm is almost impossible to find. Having visible tattoos makes you near unemployable, and also bars you from entering military service (a legal obligation for all South Korean men).
Despite all this, the presence of a tattoo culture in Seoul has been growing, with an estimated one to two million Koreans now getting inked per year. Whereas the mainstream acceptance of tattoos in the West can be attributed to the biker and hippie countercultures of the 1960s, the social acceptance of tattooing in Korea has been emerging over the past two to three years thanks to the popularity of a flourishing hip-hop scene that has many K-idols flaunting their ink in the public eye.
If anything, the restrictions placed on the practice has given the art more of an underground appeal; parlours in South Korea won't advertise their practice with any signage, and artists and locations can only be found in the same way as a speakeasy – through prior online research and contact.
Often synonymous with fine, intricate line work that evokes the illustrative style of manga, Seoul’s scene possesses an unofficial but recognizable style. Many of the most influential tattoo artists found on Instagram today are calling this city home. If you’re looking to get inked, we have a collection of some of the best of the best names in the game.
The combination of science fiction fantasy and haunting feminine characters is becoming more and more of a common motif in the tattoo world, but no one quite does it like @oozy_tattoo. Drawing stylistic inspiration from his background in traditional animation, and from artists such as Ren Hang and Hayao Miyazaki, the fine black lines and etching-like pointillism of his work hit the perfect balance between Japanese gore art and romantic illustration.
In the same vein of manga and femme fatales, @_suzani bases her haunting black and red imagery on her own fictional character, created from a fusion of the horror manga Tomie and the Manbi mask from Japanese Noh theatre. A vengeful heroine who rises again and again from the dead after suffering at the hands of men for her beauty, Suzani’s pieces make a subtle statement on gender inequality in a society that is still very traditional in its views on gender roles.
For the same fine-line, single-needle work but with a softer edge, look to the work of Mio, aka @cochlea1313. Inspired by botanicals, animals and anatomy, her illustrative style is a little more delicate, the outlines a little finer, the illustrations a little more evocative of nature, of florals, of faceless and demure girls seeking solace from graceful and majestic creatures.
Another major name is @soltattoo, who deals in feminine pastels that are stunningly akin to watercolours. Her layering technique and complimenting of colours is phenomenally skilled, whether it’s the reflective blues of a single snowflake or a whole recreation of a Klimt painting.
Doha & Kiljun
For the more abstract, minimalist, and experimental, @doha_tattooer is paving the way for a new style emerging in the Seoul tattoo scene – while those looking for high-contrast realism and slightly more traditional blackwork should book sessions with @kiljun.
If you find yourself in Korea and want to get a bit of ink, whatever you decide on, just bear in mind that while it's quite easy to find tattoo specialists and artists in Seoul, only registered medical professionals are legally allowed to work as tattoo artists. Consequently, there is a huge gap in safety regulations around the practice as most tattooists are not doctors. Make sure you do your due diligence and thoroughly research any artist you plan to visit.