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Legal tattoos, illegal tattooists
  • By Constance Williams
  • Published 2017.08.07 21:38
  • Updated 2017.08.07 21:38
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In the edgy streets of Hongdae and Itaewon, Seoul, more and more Koreans are casually revealing their tattoos inked in parts of their bodies. These are the signs of youthfulness and progression toward a more laid-back approach in a rigid society.

An accident happened on July 17, however, dashing cold water on the growing tattoo craze, as police arrested a woman for tattooing more than 120 people – without a medical license. Her clients had contacted the tattooist through her website since January, paying between 100,000 won and 1.9 million won ($89-$1,590).

Being inked in Korea has been stuck in a loophole since 1990. While it’s legal to have tattoos in Korea, it is illegal to be a tattoo artist without having a medical license.

Going back further, since as early as Goryeo Kingdom (A.D. 918-1392), Koreans have regarded people with tattoos as an anti-social group who violate social norms and compared them to criminals and gangsters.

Although the public perception of tattoos has improved, the government still finds it hard to legalize the profession of tattooing.

But as body image has increasingly become a form of expression, the perception of tattoos shifted from disgust to a degree of reluctance as art. More and more Koreans have to come to realize their attitudes have to change to keep up with the time.

According to Wikipedia, many Koreans, knowingly or not, have different perceptions of “traditional” munsin and “modern” tattoo, although the two are the same. In a survey conducted in Busan in 2009, 83.1 percent of people linked munsin to antisocial acts and the violation of social morality while linking tattoos to fashionable or attractive accessories on their bodies.

Throughout the early 2000s, tattoos became a familiar sight on TV due to singers, actors and sports stars embracing the trend for body art. G-dragon, the leader of nation’s top boy-band “Big Bang,” reportedly has 20 tattoos that he regularly flaunts in his music videos and Ahn Jung-hwan, a former football star, showed his tattooed arm for his wife while celebrating a goal.

Those who are not celebrities can ill afford to act like them, however.

“I have three small tattoos on my forearms, and since my job requires teaching young children, their parents voiced out their opinions saying they were ugly and told me to hide them,” said Kim Mi-ok, a private English tutor in her mid-20s. “I have since removed them for everyone’s sake, but I hope people will be more open-minded and stop judging people by their appearances.”

According to an article in Laser Clinic, South Korea is one of the eight countries least friendly to tattoo – along with Denmark, Turkey, Iran, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and North Korea. Most of the countries in the list banned tattoos for religious reasons, while Denmark is reconsidering their 1966 bans on tattooing on the face, head, neck or hands.

While Japan does not outlaw tattoos, the traditional stigmas linking organized crime rings sporting large tattoos make it a virtual taboo. According to the Japan Times, a 2001 notice issued by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry lists tattooing, laser hair removal and chemical peel treatments as procedures that can be carried out by licensed medical doctors, as they “could cause danger from the standpoint of public health and sanitation."

That is almost identical to what the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare deems tattooing belongs to the acupuncture, regulating it should be done by only medical professionals.

In December 2015, Tattooist Taiki Masuda, a 27-year-old designer in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, appealed an order by a summary court to pay a fine of 300,000 yen (3 million won) for violating the Medical Practitioner’s Law, which prohibits anyone other than licensed doctors from tattooing. The situations are little different in Korea where a growing amount of Korean tattoo artists are vulnerable to prosecution.

There have been many attempts to legitimize tattoos in the past with the health-welfare ministry proposing to legalize the profession of tattooing in the mid- to long-term perspective. Kim Chun-jin, a former three-term lawmaker, sponsored the tattoo-legalizing bill in the 17th (2004), 18th (2008), and 19th (2012) National Assembly but to little avail in the face of strong opposition from the medical community.

Korean doctors justified the current law banning tattoos by non-medical workers, citing the risk of hepatitis and HIV infection from unsanitary needles.

"Tattooing is a medical act that can pose a danger to the human body if it’s allowed for non-medical personnel,” an official from the Korean Medical Association (KMA) said.

Professor Kim Won-seok of the Sungkyunkwan University School of Dermatology agreed. “In particular, the paints currently used in tattoos are not scientifically proven to be safe,” he said. "As the number of lung cancer surgeries increases, doctors don’t recommend their patients to smoke tobacco. We should apply the same caution to tattooing.”

It seems as if the practicing tattooists could hardly disagree more, however.

Ever since he established the Korea Tattoo Association (KTA) in 2003, founder Song Kang-suk has been campaigning for the legal rights of tattoo artists in Korea, along with his 3,000 members.

Last month, he held a meeting in front of the National Assembly to call for permitting semi-permanent tattoos and participated in the "Tattoo, beauty and art, and legalization" symposium organized by the International Federation of Health Implement in the parliament building. He has recently made a proposal to the government on “social justice of tattoo and the need to legalize semi-permanent make-ups.”

“To emphasize the necessity for legalization, we need to stage a campaign to improve human rights, the rights and duties of citizens simultaneously,” Song said. “By legalizing tattoos, the nation also can create 220,000 jobs, spread the Korean culture boom of Hallyu further, and create the economic effect of up to 1 trillion won while maintaining the public health and hygiene.”

The KTA founder said that doctors’ reason for opposing its legalization is an allegation in theory only that ignores reality as well as representing vocational selfishness to preserve doctor’s vested interests. On the contrary, legalization can reduce the damage to the public health and safety caused by tattoos, he added.

“It is only natural that a tattooist should be able to draw tattoos. To make tattoos, an artist has only to follow a sanitary system according to global guidelines and trends,” Song said.

Given the strong lobbying power of doctors and slowly improving public awareness of tattoo, however, few can tell for now how much longer Song and his colleagues should wait before they can go out of their underground shops and parlors, and proudly display their arts in an unfettered atmosphere.


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