South Korea’s tattoo taboo is being challenged by young people, a controversial politician and boy band BTS

In South Korea, tattoos used to be associated with criminal gangs, but they’re being embraced more by younger generations. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

For centuries in South Korea, tattoos exclusively adorned the bodies of those on the fringes of society.

Criminals and slaves were inked by authorities with a permanent emblem of shame they could never hide.

And then, in the 20th century, gangsters started decorating themselves with images inspired by traditional Korean art to flaunt their affiliation.

The Seven Star Mob requires a pattern of stars across the chest of its members, while the Double Dragons have two mythical beasts intertwined on their arms.

These days, tattoos are relatively easy to spot on the bodies of Seoul’s younger residents.

Younger South Koreans are embracing tattoos despite their historical stigma. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

But they remain a major social taboo within the country.

South Korea remains the only developed country where the act of tattooing is outlawed unless you’re a medical doctor.

Pop stars are forced to cover up their body art while on television, with BTS singer Jeon Jung-kook regularly covering his hands in bandages.

Until recently, “excessive tattoos” could get you kicked out of the South Korean military.

Regardless, a flourishing, underground tattoo community exists, with their artists considered to be among the best in the world.

Now one controversial politician is leading the charge to finally change the nation’s laws.

South Korea’s answer to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

South Korean politician Ryu Ho-jeong doesn’t need to do much to stand out.

But a sartorial decision last year made her even harder to miss.

Ryu Ho-jeon caused a stir for wearing a red wrap dress with black sneakers to Korea’s National Assembly. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

The then 28-year-old, first-term politician wore a short red wrap dress to the National Assembly.

In a country where nearly 85 per cent of national assembly members are male and 97 per cent are more than 40 years of age, a bright mini dress stands out against a bland background of navy and grey suits.

Her choice of outfit sparked a heated social media backlash, including accusations she wasn’t showing respect to the chamber and was dressed like a “sex worker”.

However, instead of being defeated by the attacks, she appears emboldened.

Ms Ryu is now choosing to take on what she sees as an outdated relic of Korea’s past: its tattoo laws.

When she launched her campaign to legalise tattooing earlier this year, Ms Ryu once again used fashion to make a splash.

In a purple gown, she turned away from the media so they could take photos of her bare back covered in fake tattoos.

Ryu Ho-jeong says it’s time for South Korea to change its laws as currently, only medical doctors can give people tattoos. (Supplied: Ryu Ho-jeong)

“Tattoos are so deeply entrenched in our daily lives that people may not even know they are illegal,” she said.

“There are 13 million people who have tattoos, including cosmetic eyebrow tattoos.”

“BTS members have tattoos but they often cover them up,” she said.

“I believe there should be no restriction of limit on an artist’s expression.”

Ms Ryu said the current laws don’t even stop non-licenced tattoo artists from operating. The laws just force them underground, where they’re not regulated.

“Keeping tattooing in the shadows is a public health issue and I’m also worried about labour rights of tattooists,” she said.

Why Korea’s underground artists are some of the world’s best

Despite the vast majority of the estimated 20,000 tattoo artists in South Korea operating outside the law, it is still a destination for many seeking some new ink.

Among the most sought-after is tattoo artist Doy. He has a reputation for precise, fine ink work and has left his mark on a variety of celebrities, including Brad Pitt.

Doy is one of the world’s most sought-after tattoo artists, decorating celebrities including Brad Pitt. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

Despite his reputation, he is due to face court next month for his work.

A customer posted a video of one of his tattoos on social media and it was reported to police.

He has been charged with a medical offence and faces a fine if he is convicted.

Doy says the media treat tattoos “as if they are something to be embarrassed by and force people to cover up”. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

However, the punishment could have been much worse if he had been charged under public health laws, which carry prison sentences.

Doy was instrumental in setting up a tattoo union last year to help protect artists.

He says that, although he has not had any conflict with clients in his 15 years of tattooing, the illegal nature of the work means that artists are vulnerable to blackmail.

“When a customer is not satisfied with the result or process of the tattoo, it can’t be resolved by civil negotiation or compensation like in other service business,” he said.

“Customers can blackmail artists, threatening to report them.”

Artists, politicians want to free the tatt

Although there seems to be much greater acceptance among young people today, artist Doy says tattoos can still lead to discrimination.

Doy says Korea’s tattoo laws leave artists vulnerable to blackmail. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

“The media treat tattoos as if they are something to be embarrassed by and force people to cover up,” he said.

“This is infringement on individual basic rights and instils a prejudice against tattoos.”

However, Ms Ryu says that she has public support on her side.

“According to a recent survey, more than half of the respondents agreed to legalisation of tattoo,” she said.

However, there remains a clear, generational divide.

“[Of the survey respondents], 80 per cent of people in their 20s support changing the law, but older age groups tend to be more negative [towards] the tattoo,” she said.

Still, she’s pushing forward with her legislation and says that, if the law is changed, she’ll swap the fake tattoos she sported recently for the real thing.

One poll showed more than 50 per cent of Koreans would support a change in the tattoo legislation. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

By South Korea correspondent Carrington Clarke, Sookyoung Lee and Mitch Denman Woolnough in Seoul
According to ABC News
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