As a tattoo lover who’s planning a trip to Korea or is already living there, you’re probably wondering what’s up with the legal status of this type of body art. Some people say tattoos are illegal, others say they’re not, and you take a stroll through busy streets and see tattoo studios. So, is it legal to get a tattoo in Korea or not? You’re going to find answers in this post.
Is it illegal to get a tattoo in Korea?
In South Korea getting a tattoo is not illegal, but it is illegal if you get a tattoo by an artist who is without a medical license. So in short illegal is to be a tattoo artist itself without proper licensing. For many people, this information comes as a surprise because we are now in the modern age. The 21st century is the era where all sorts of artists are welcome. Nowadays there is a lot of activists that fight to change this law, as they say, that this is outdated and does not fit today’s acceptance of attitude and appearance.
On September 27, 2021, tattooists from South Korea filed a petition with Constitutional Court. The petition is against Article 27 of medical law which outlaws tattooing by people who do not have a medical license. A total of 153 tattooists linked to the Korea Tattoo Federation and the Korea Fashion Tattoo Association agree this particular law violates their constitutional rights. In their statement, tattoo artists indicate Korea is the only country that punishes tattooing performed by a non-medical professional.
These efforts are new. In July 2021, about 12 lawmakers proposed a bill to modify the definition of tattooing in Korean law. According to the bill they proposed, tattoo artists would have to undergo hygiene- and safety-related courses in order to obtain certification. But the most important thing here is that they would be able to do the job they love, even if they don’t have a medical license.
Tattooing without a license comes with hefty fines
In 1992 Supreme Court in Korea ruled that only licensed medical professionals can do a tattoo. The judicial branch at that time sorted tattooing in the category of medical service due to the dangers of infection from ink under human skin. Penalty for those who provide a medical service without a proper medical license can be a sentence of at least two years in prison and also a fine of more than one million South Korean Won, which is between $850 and $900. With this high penalty set, many parlors in Korea work outside the legal framework.
Today in the modern age, you can see more and more young people on the streets rocking tattoos. In Korea, according to the local medical device manufacturer The Standard, about 13 million people have permanent or semipermanent tattoos. There are about 350,000 tattoo services and at the same time, only 10 have a legal medical license. Tattoo artists often do their jobs from their homes or in underground tattoo parlors.
Activists say that getting a tattoo is a basic right and it needs to be protected under the Constitution and the freedom of expressions like makeup, nails, fashion, hair, etc.
Tattoos are largely frowned upon
The main problem with tattoos in Korea is people’s views of them and their opinions about the persons wearing them. In Korea, tattoos are largely frowned upon. Public opinion about this type of body art is primarily negative.
Old-school people with the old way of thinking see tattooed persons as bad kids, someone with bad influence, or someone who does bad things like drugs, criminals, etc. In the past, people with visible tattoos often were publicly discriminated against. Tattoos are also prohibited on television so many K-pop stars cover their ink while performing.
But as time passes by, more and more people have tattoos and the number of tattoo artists is growing, people are slowly but surely changing their attitude toward body ink. For that reason, activists are sure this law will change as well.
Against activists and their efforts are doctors. Doctors are vocal about the current laws. They say that allowing tattooing will risk people’s health and fail to protect those with symptoms after getting their tattoos.
Tattoo Stigma in South Korea
Just like in neighboring countries China and Japan, Korea is also home to social stigma regarding tattoos. As we previously said people with tattoos are believed to be linked with the mafia, criminal activities, in short, bad people with bad pasts.
In this country, many schools forbid tattoos on their students. Also, young men with large tattoos cannot be accepted in the mandatory military. People with tattoos in some saunas will be asked to leave. When artists on the stage show their new tattoo art, the public’s opinions are always divided.
Some fans will give them love and support, some will have a negative opinion. Artists often get their tattoo art to communicate with their fans; with fans who support them and those who love this kind of art and aren’t afraid to show that. For the many youngsters, this gives them courage and the feeling they are not alone.
People’s negative opinion of tattoo art is more extreme for women who choose to ink their skin.
But nowadays more and more people are accepting this art. Studies show one in five people in Korea has at least one tattoo. If we include semipermanent tattoos such as eyebrow and hairline tattoos, then it is estimated that over 13 million people in Korea have a tattoo. This means that almost a quarter of the population has a tattoo. And that is a big number.
How to get a tattoo in Korea?
Today getting a tattoo in South Korea is cheap and fast. People usually find tattoo artists on social media apps such as Instagram. But they tend to keep their art for themselves and avoid posting a lot on the platform because the authorities have a smaller chance of catching them.
The quality of the tattoos in South Korea is really good. But you need to know if you decide to go to a tattoo artist who doesn’t have a medical license there are no guarantees regarding tattoo aftercare. Be wise where and who you chose to do your tattoo.
How much do tattoos cost in Korea?
Tattoo studios in Korea tend to have a base price and charge for their time, regardless of how big or small the tattoo really is. You can expect your tattoo to cost anywhere from 20,000 krw ($16.95) for small designs to over 1,000,000 krw ($850) for large images.
Being a tattoo artist isn’t all fun and games
The tattooing business in Korea for many artists is not an easy task. They risk everything. There are cases where customers tend to blackmail the artist, they threaten to report their studio to the authorities. That is big deal as we know the penalties for breaking the law. This is very scary information because a tattoo artist can’t contact the police to report this kind of criminal act.
Tattoo artists do not have privileges as we do, they even can’t have a credit card and are constantly in danger from the police to the customers. Something that we take for granted they don’t have. Art is supposed to be free, to be loved, to inspire, and to be inspired.
Popular tattoo artists in Korea
Despite legislation-related problems, Korea is home to incredible tattoo artists. Here are some of them.
Sol is the owner of one of the most popular tattoo studios in Seoul. Detailed miniature designs are Sol’s specialty. The popularity of Sol’s tattoos crossed the Korean borders. This tattoo artist is known worldwide and has thousands of Instagram followers.
The Soeul-based tattoo artist is well-known for bold and colorful tattoos. Besides color-blocking, they also specialize in other types of tattoos such as realistic designs, dotwork, among others.
Banul creates colorful, bright, and in some cases quite complex tattoos that require a great deal of imagination. Designs by this tattoo artist usually include a combination of watercolor and linework.
If you’re looking for an excellent tattoo artist for a minimalist tattoo, Handitrip is the right choice. This tattoo artist creates small, subtle, and minimalist tattoos that bear great significance to the wearer.
Woojin Choi, also known as Oozy, works primarily with black and grey tattoos. This talented tattoo artist created some amazingly detailed and intricate pieces. Oozy is not afraid to add a pop of color to tattoos as well.
Tattoos are not illegal in Korea per se, but providing these services is only possible with a medical license. Activists and some lawmakers are working hard to change the current situation and create more favorable conditions for talented tattoo artists in this country.