South Korean tattoo artist Ilwol Hongdam has inked close to 4,000 people in the last 10 years, many of whom flew into Seoul just to see him.
With more than 371,000 followers on Instagram, he is one of the most well-known names in the South Korean industry. He’s drawn in fans around the world with his intricate creations, which are influenced by traditional Korean art.
There’s just one problem: What he’s doing is illegal.
In South Korea, tattooing itself is not against the law, but it’s defined as a medical procedure that may only be carried out by licensed medical professionals. Hongdam, like the 3,000 other tattoo artists registered with the Korea Tattoo Association, is not a doctor. If caught, they face a minimum two-year prison sentence or a fine upwards of one million won ($822).
“Some artists draw on canvas or even rocks, I happen to draw on skin. Why is that illegal? It’s not justified,” the 35-year-old told Insider.
He is, however, hopeful that change is on its way, especially given the attention that some politicians have bestowed to the issue of late. In the run-up to the presidential elections on Wednesday, ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung has promised to back bills, now pending in parliament, to legalize tattooing. And in June, lawmaker Ryu Ho-jeong proposed a bill to allow trained tattoo artists to be legally certified. Pictures of her promoting the bill at the National Assembly instantly went viral when she showed up with erasable tattoos on her back.
—Park Susan 레즈비언 🇰🇷💚🐥 (@ParkHaJin12) October 24, 2021
Some artists draw on canvas or even rocks, I happen to draw on skin. Why is that illegal?
Insider spoke to seven South Korean tattoo artists about the paradox at the core of their profession, as they build up social-media presences to attract customers but hide their workshops in basements to avoid drawing the scrutiny of the law. Among those Insider spoke to, the female tattoo artists described an extra layer of challenges, in which they’re unable to report instances of sexual misconduct by customers.
“People have tried to lobby for tattoo legalization for a long time, but it’s never been in the spotlight as much as it has in the past year,” Hongdam said.
“I hope they’re very serious and not just doing all this to appeal to young voters,” Hongdam said.
Neither Lee nor Ryu immediately responded to Insider’s request for comment.
Once a stigma, now a trend
While tattoos have long carried a stigma in South Korea, the younger generation has come to embrace them.
“Having a permanent mark engraved on one’s body was a source of social shame and lower status, because they were associated with criminal gangs or slaves,” said Jo Elfving-Hwang, director of the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia.
“But now tattoos are quite popular in Korea, and it’s not unusual to see younger people sporting them,” Elfving-Hwang continued. “Tattoos are becoming fashionable, and perhaps even a signifier of individuality.”
According to the Korea Tattoo Association, at least one million people in the country currently have tattoos. The tattooing industry is worth about 200 billion won ($164 million) a year.
Top celebrities such as Jungkook of superstar boy band BTS, heart-throb actors So Ji-sub and Ji Chang-wook, as well as K-pop singer Lee Hyori, are all known to have tattoos.
Lee has multiple tattoos on her body, including a flower pattern on her shoulder, the word “love” on the back of her neck, script on the back of her right arm, and small motifs on her hands and wrists. She has done multiple cover photo shoots with Cosmopolitan Korea showing off her tattoos, including in 2017, which was warmly received by fans on Instagram.
“They’re seen as trendsetters,” Elfving-Hwang said.
Even so, celebrities are still often required to cover up their tattoos on mainstream TV. Jungkook, for example, wore long sleeves and bandages to cover up his hand tattoos on a talk show aired by public broadcaster KBS.
Despite the changing social attitudes, South Korea’s law means tattoo artists have to work underground — sometimes literally.
Hongdam’s studio is in an office building with no visible signage. He only shares the address with customers the day before their appointment. Occasionally, he said, he provides clients with the address of another spot nearby and picks them up from there.
Meanwhile, Sol, another popular tattoo artist with more than 572,000 Instagram followers, runs a nondescript studio in the trendy Hongdae neighborhood. The area is littered with hip cafes and clothing stores, but from looking at the bare white walls outside of Sol’s store, passersby would never be able to guess what’s inside.
“You cannot proudly hang a signboard outside your tattoo shop. All tattoo shops in Korea have to be operated in private,” said Sol, who is known for his detailed designs of animals and flowers.
While the police do not tend to actively go after tattoo artists, the authorities will take action if any of them get reported, Sol and Hongdam said. Both artists said they have avoided trouble so far, but they know of others in the industry who have not been as lucky.
You cannot proudly hang a signboard outside your tattoo shop. All tattoo shops in Korea have to be operated in private.
In 2019, a tattoo artist with the last name Kim was given three years’ probation and fined three million won ($2,450) for tattooing without a medical license, per Yonhap news agency.
And two months ago, another artist was given three years’ probation and fined six million won for the same reason, per Korean economic magazine Money S. The penalty wiped out the artist’s estimated takings of five million won earned over a year and a half, the outlet said.
Top tattoo artists can charge more than $400 an hour, but younger artists would earn much less, Hongdam said.
Even more difficult to be a female tattoo artist
It’s perhaps even more challenging for female tattoo artists, who are vulnerable to sexual harassment by customers — but who, because they’re operating under the table, cannot report them.
In this business, I am always afraid of getting in trouble.
A female tattoo artist, who only wishes to go by her artist name Ragyeom, told Insider: “Tattooing is an illegal business, so revealing ourselves to the police puts us at risk, even if we become victims of abuse.”
For this reason, it’s not uncommon for some female tattoo artists to choose to work solely with female customers, said the artist, who is known for her bold use of colors.
Fellow female tattoo artist Youngbinn Sohn, 30, said several of her female colleagues in the industry have been sent unsolicited sexual images from male clients. Again, the women feel like they can only keep quiet in such instances.
“In this business, I am always afraid of getting in trouble,” said Sohn, whose tattoo designs involve clean, simple lines.
There’s a stark contrast between how some Korean tattoo artists do their work, and how they advertise their work. While they work in the shadows, some of these artists have become outright famous on social media, particularly on Instagram.
The biggest names in the South Korean industry have hundreds of thousands of followers on the platform, with some, like oozy_tattoo, amassing one million fans.
“For us, social media is everything since we can’t openly advertise otherwise,” said Hongdam. “I’m grateful for it because it has helped many of us to get our names out there and meet clients from all over the world.”
All of their studios were in quiet residential areas and they weren’t easy to find, but I just assumed the artists rented those places because they’re cheaper than regular shops.
Singaporean beauty marketing manager Teresa Chan, 33, told Insider she has flown to Seoul on three separate occasions to get inked by three different artists. She discovered their work on Instagram.
Her first tattoo, in 2015, was a triangle with the word “forward,” done by Hongdam. The second, in 2017, was of a flying dandelion inked by Doy, and the third, a year later, a rose and lily hybrid done by Nando.
“Korean tattoos are so different from the styles available elsewhere. Artists there are really good with fine line drawings, which I really admire,” Chan said. “Ever since I saw their work on Instagram, I knew I wanted to get tattoos only from them.”
Before this interview, however, she said she had no idea they were working illicitly.
“All of their studios were in quiet residential areas and they weren’t easy to find, but I just assumed the artists rented those places because they’re cheaper than regular shops,” she said.
“But all of the artists were very meticulous and professional, and so patient in going through what I wanted with me. I never got the feeling that they were doing any of it secretly,” she continued.
Tattoo artist Sol believes that being forced to work illegally may have inadvertently made Korean tattoo artists even better at what they do.
“We must avoid any friction with guests because our work is illegal. Therefore, Korean tattooists pay even more attention to hygiene, spend a lot of time in design and treatment, and really work hard to be as professional as possible,” he said.
With so many Korean tattoo artists achieving international fame, they told Insider it’s ironic they are treated like outcasts on home ground.
“We may be known worldwide thanks to social media, but the reality is that our businesses cannot be proudly open,” Sol said.
“We shouldn’t have to be seen as doctors to give people tattoos. We are designers and artists,” he added.