South Korea’s famous tattooist criminalised for his art

He's one of South Korea's most famous tattoo artists and has inked Hollywood celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun. (BBC NEWS 1)

In the past, tattoos were often associated with gangsters or street crimes in South Korea, and those with tattoos risked losing their jobs or being shunned by society.

Even today, tattoos on actors’ bodies are still blurred out on television.

In 1992, the Supreme Court of South Korea defined tattooing as a medical practice due to the risk of infection caused by tattoo ink and needles.

This meant that only licensed medical professionals were allowed to ink tattoos. Only a handful of them exist in South Korea, and they tend to be doctors who pivoted to do tattoo work or semi-permanent eyebrow tattoos, a popular cosmetic treatment for women in the country.

But this has not stopped many from becoming tattoo artists. There are no official numbers but according to 2019 research by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, there are an estimated 200,000 tattooists in Korea.

Those who get caught face at least two years in prison and a fine upwards of 1 million won .

The vast majority of tattoo artists work underground, operating in secret locations, but many still advertise openly on social media.

The authorities don’t actively track down tattoo studios. However, if they are reported, police are compelled to take action against them.

Working in the shadows has also meant tattooists are vulnerable to harassment and exploitation by bad customers. There have been accounts of customers refusing to pay up and threatening to report the tattooist to the police.

Doy, he’s one of South Korea’s most famous tattoo artists and has inked Hollywood celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun, as stated in BBC news.

But last month Doy found himself in a Seoul court – just for doing his job.

After a video of him inking a popular Korean actress went viral, Doy was found guilty of flouting a medical law and fined five million won (£3,090; $4,205).

The high-profile case has once again drawn attention to South Korea over the strict laws on tattoos and the grey area that tattoo artists work in.

“When I am overseas, working with celebrities such as Brad Pitt, people call me ‘artist’,” Doy, whose real name is Do Yoon Kim, tells the BBC.

“However, once I return to Korea, I am a lawbreaker.”

Korean society’s perception of body ink has changed, and increasingly tattoos have become much more common and considered an artistic and creative way to express oneself.

A quarter of South Koreans have undergone tattooing, including semi-permanent eyebrow procedures, according to a June 2021 survey carried out by Gallup Korea.

About 70% of the 1,002 respondents also saw no need to blur tattoos on television.

Riding on this change in attitudes, Doy founded a union for tattoo artists in 2020 in the hopes of making the first step in the legalisation of their profession.

So far it has attracted 650 members, eight of whom have been prosecuted in the past and two were jailed previously.


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