SEOUL – When Suh Hyun-woong showed his mother his first tattoo, she burst into tears.
“She couldn’t understand why I would want to do that to myself,” Suh laughed. “But now she’s pretty much accepted it.”
Which is probably just as well given that the 19-year-old student’s body is a growing, monochrome canvas of fantasy designs.
Once associated almost exclusively with organized crime members, tattoos are going mainstream in South Korea, championed by sporting heroes, K-pop stars and other celebrities with passionate fan bases.
But the law has failed to keep pace, leaving the growing number of Korean tattoo artists vulnerable to prosecution on the whim of local authorities.
Tattooing itself is not illegal in South Korea, but the law states that it can only be carried out by a licensed medical doctor.
“So if you want to get a tattoo, you’re supposed to go to a hospital? It’s just absurd,” said Jang Jun-hyuk, the owner of Tattooism, a tattoo parlor in central Seoul.
Officials say the law as it stands is justified by health considerations, including the risk of hepatitis or HIV infection from improperly sterilized needles.
“It’s invasive. The skin is punctured and it bleeds. That’s why we look at it as a medical procedure,” said Korea Medical Association spokeswoman Ahn So-young.
Nevertheless, the government does appear to be considering change and commissioned a study in October on the possibility of permitting legal tattoo parlors.
In the meantime, tattoo artists continue to inhabit a professional world not dissimilar to sex workers; technically illegal but largely ignored by the authorities as long as they stay under the radar.
Most Korean parlors, like Jang’s Tattooism, are literally “underground” — basement studios with unmarked doors whose locations are spread by word-of-mouth.
Jang, 42, was a 20-year-old student at a fashion college in Seoul when he saw his first tattoo sported by a friend and decided then and there where his future lay.
The friend had got his tattoo in Mexico and, given the lack of options at home, that’s where Jang went to train.
“In Korea at that time, nobody was using a tattoo machine. It was really just criminals using needles on themselves, and the results were pretty ugly,” he said.
The organized crime stigma was so great that, until recently, having a large tattoo would result in a rare exemption from South Korea’s mandatory military service.
After several years in Mexico, Jang returned and set up his first illicit tattoo studio in a nondescript office building in Seoul.
There was no sign, and with advertising not an option, he tried to drum up customers by posting pictures of his work on the Internet, along with a mobile phone number.
“In the first three months, I probably got about 10 customers,” he recalled.
“But it was a good time. There were only about 10 parlors in Seoul, and we all knew each other and encouraged each other,” he said. “It’s all a bit competitive now.”
There’s no real consensus on when attitudes began to change, but a pivotal moment in 2003 involved soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan, a national hero following the South Korean team’s heroics at the World Cup a year before.
After scoring in a match against Japan, Ahn peeled off his shirt to reveal a shoulder tattoo declaring his love for his wife.
“He was a big name and that started things off,” Jung said. “Suddenly there were all these other sportsmen, as well as movie stars and K-pop singers getting tattoos as well.”
Business picked up, and the number of tattoo parlors mushroomed, but the legal issue remained.
Five years ago, Jung’s parlor was targeted in a random raid and he ended up in court, where he was fined $3,000 and given a one-year suspended sentence for violating public health codes.
Despite sporadic crackdowns, the number of studios has continued to grow and some, like Maverick in the expat-friendly district of Itaewon, have grown bold enough to put up neon signs.
“It’s a form of passive resistance,” said Maverick owner Lee Sung-je. “It’s my way of saying ‘I’m here, doing my work.’ “
Lee claims customers across the social spectrum, including a smattering of civil servants, and executives working at straight-laced conglomerates like Samsung.
“Though they do tend to go for tattoos that can be covered up easily,” he said.
Francis Kim, a 31-year-old chef, said his tattoos still draw a mixed response.
“I get a lot of compliments from younger people, but the older crowd tend to look at me as if I must be a gangster, or just a loser who doesn’t fit in,” Kim said.
Suh Hyun-woong, meanwhile, appears intent on pushing his mother’s tolerance to its limits, with an eclectic choice of tattoos that includes the baffling acronym WGUMCD emblazoned in large gothic script on his stomach.
“What Goes Up Must Come Down,” he explained. “It’s my life motto.”