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Ink artist pushes the boundaries of tattooing

South Korean-born tatoo artist Khan takes his craft globally

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

The skin as canvas, inks and needles replacing the palette: tattoos by Khan transcend mere decorations. Whether he is depicting eye crinkles in a portrait of the Dalai Lama or the leer of a supernatural ghoul, his rich color and technical realism redefines the boundaries of art and pop culture.

Born Park Sung Gyun in South Korea, Khan, 40, gave up a promising career as an architect 10 years ago to learn traditional Japanese tattooing.

He explains about the professional name he uses as a tattoo artist: “I am Korean, but I started this art in Japan, so I wanted to mix both together.” The kanji he uses is pronounced “kan” in Japanese and means “Korea.” In the Korean language, it is read as “han.” Khan’s work has been featured in tattoo magazines and venues all over the world, but for Khan, it’s about the challenge to create beauty, whatever the form.

Khan’s initiation into the world of tattooing was part artistic experimentation, part teenage rebellion. In South Korea, tattoos are even more taboo than in Japan. “When I was growing up, there was no one or no way to even be a professional tattoo artist.”

Khan and his boyhood friends toyed with the art, tattooing themselves with makeshift needles and ink from broken pens. But Khan himself never considered tattoos as anything other than boyhood subversiveness: his artistic dreams clearly formed a future in architecture. “My favorite architect is (Antonio) Gaudi, since he is a master in the way he put his own original ideas into beautiful art. I dreamed of creating something of beauty. The only way I thought of tattoo was a personal interest, to some day cover up the ones my friends had given me.”

Khan was also interested in the function of design, and when he graduated with a university degree in architecture, he decided to further his expertise in Asian design by studying in Japan. “Japanese houses are small and everything is compact. In South Korea, we also do not have enough land for housing, yet we typically design much bigger houses than in Japan. I was fascinated how Japanese design makes such good use of limited space, and I wanted to bring some of those ideas back to South Korea.”

Coming first to attend Japanese language school in 1998, the then 25-year-old did not realize Japan would change his artistic vocation.

“My plan was to next attend Japanese university for architecture, and I was headed home after my language course ended. It was June or July, and very hot in Tokyo. On the street, I noticed a man, rather scary, with a full sleeve, traditional Japanese tattoo. It was my first time to see such a tattoo, because, of course, Japan is careful about showing tattoos, especially the yakuza. His tattoo visually impacted me strongly, I thought it was so beautiful. So I stopped and talked with him, and from that point on, I just kept thinking about tattoo all the time.”

Khan began researching the long history of Japanese tattoos while back in South Korea, but it was a difficult decision to throw away his six years of studying architecture.

Khan had no one to confide in. Although his mother is an artist herself and his father supportive of artistic ventures, Khan felt becoming a tattoo artist was too unstable with its many prohibitions in South Korea. He did not dare tell his parents of his new dream.

On the practical side, there were several obstacles to making a career in South Korea: no information readily available on tattoos, no tattoo supply shops, no system of training. Khan realized he had to return to Japan if he wanted to study tattooing. After two years of deliberating, he did.

After a tough decision, his difficulties really started. For a South Korean, the strictly traditional world of Japanese tattoos as of 2000 was still difficult to enter. Khan settled in the Tokyo area and used his language skills to scour the streets and bookstores for information on tattoos. Luckily, he discovered a book by a tattoo artist in Osaka.

Khan contacted the author, who willingly gave him the name and address of a shop dedicated to tattoo supplies in Tokyo. He realized he had to move on from the original idea of finding a tattoo master to work under as an apprentice, and went alone to buy the recommended inks, needles and power-packs: “I came back home after shopping and I immediately started to practice — on my own arm. My body became my master.”

Khan used virtually his entire body for practice as he self-taught himself the art. Now he laughs at the physical testimony to those early days, with 90 percent of his body covered in his own designs and original tattoos: “My customers can trace my history on my body, from my first attempt at tattoo to my latest work.”

Opening his own shop in Tokyo after only a few months of practicing to gain confidence, Khan opened a second shop in Chiba in 2002, working alone and dividing time between the two small shops. The early days were difficult, but Khan’s artistic talent and perseverance triumphed, and he quickly built up a following.

His parents learned of his true life in Japan when a South Korean newspaper featured his success in Japan. “My parents accepted my work, especially my mother, who loves my tattoo. It seems a simple story, but in South Korea, it is very difficult for the older generation to accept tattoos, so I feel very lucky my parents accepted me.”

Khan opened a shop in South Korea in 2007 as international demand for his tattoos rose. He also found himself attracted and challenged by other styles of tattoo. “I love traditional Japanese tattoo, but once I mastered the style, I decided to move on to other styles. Although I did not have formal artistic training, I painted and drew often, growing up with my mother, so I wanted to challenge myself and change my style. That’s why I started to travel all over the world, to learn other skills and art within the tattoo world.”

Khan’s travels take him all over Europe, to the United States, and to Australia. He became interested in realistic tattoos, and gained even more recognition worldwide for his designs, being featured in dozens of tattoo publications. Welcoming the chance to improve his skills, Khan forged connections within the small, close-knit community of international tattoo design. “It is a very small world, international tattoo — you meet the same people at conventions, you keep in touch through Internet. I visit their shops as guest artist, and I am lucky to have built up my own clients in many countries.”

Returning to the same shops each year, Khan feels a creative energy and challenge he no longer feels as strongly in Japan. He won Best of Show at a recent convention in New York, and the Artists Choice award at the Massachusetts Tattoo and Art Festival in 2010.

Khan feels that Japan has become even more strict about tattoos since he came here 12 years ago. “When I started, there was a definite line between yakuza with tattoo and people who just love tattoo, but lately that is not the case,” he says. He thinks the Japanese manner and convention make it even more difficult to stay in the country — especially in the summertime — as people judge you by the tattoos and he always needs to wear long sleeves and pants. “It is interesting, because the history of tattoo in Japan is very long and beautiful.”

Khan moved his Japan base to Sapporo three years ago, to be closer to his wife’s family, but is considering a more permanent move overseas. “I think many Japanese tattoo artists want to try a different style but they can’t change their style because the Japanese people love tradition, so I want to encourage Japanese people to look outside tradition as well, just try something new.”

Khan himself relishes the chance to spread beauty around the world, and has not entirely given up his dream of architecture: “For now, I am challenged and happy with every tattoo, but some day I may want to go back to architecture. Practice makes perfect with any art, so to do great tattoos is a lot of practicing and many hours of drawing, but the real key is loving what you create. I love every tattoo I do and I give my best every time I put a needle into skin.”