It may come as a surprise to anyone who has visited Korea that tattooing is illegal. Especially as many Korean celebrities and young people show off their tattoos everywhere. Furthermore, there are hugely popular tattoo Instagram accounts with 1000s of followers, with some even travelling to Korea just to go under the needle of their favourite artist. And yet, tattooing is illegal here… kind of.
Tattoos are illegal?!
Although the act of getting tattooed is not illegal, it is classed as a medical procedure in South Korea. Therefore, only medical professionals are licensed to perform tattoos by law, under the Medical Service Act. As a result, non-medical tattoo artists mainly operate on an underground basis. The ban on non-medical tattoo artists comes, in part, from the long-standing stigma surrounding tattoos, as well as safety concerns. The negative perception of tattoos originates from their association with criminal groups, both in Korea and abroad. Despite the fact that younger generations are more accepting of tattoos, the law remains unchanged, as well as much of the stigma. For example, many Korean celebrities often cover their tattoos, either with clothes or makeup, when appearing on TV.
Consequences of the Tattoo Ban
Inclusive of semi-permanent treatments such as eyebrow and hairline tattoos, an estimated 13 million people in Korea have tattoos. This equates to almost a quarter of the population — clearly, a significant number! Moreover, 240,000 people work as tattoo artists here. Not dissimilar to illegalisation of marijuana use in many Western countries and states, it is easy to dismiss the Korean ban on tattoos as practically non-existent. Tattoo artists seem to be able to operate and we are seeing tattoos become more common in Korean society.
However, the legal status of tattooing has serious implications for those who work in the industry. Tattoo artists have been known to be blackmailed by their customers, who threaten to report their studio to the police. If reported to the police, tattoo artists can face 2 year prison sentences. Furthermore, artists who experience assault or harassment in the workplace are unable to report the crime like a normal citizen, for fear of exposing their profession. In fact, many of the things we take for granted, like applying for a credit card or loan with ease, are off-limits to tattoo artists in Korea.
Time for a New Law?
Young lawmaker, Ryu Ho Jeong of the Justice Party (pictured above) proposed the Tattoo Industry Law on the 11th June 2021. This bill aims to break the stigma surrounding tattoos and legalise tattooing as a non-medical procedure. If passed, tattoo artists would be able to work without fear and carry out safer, high quality procedures for their customers.
Legalisation of the Tattoo Industry Law would mark a huge progressive change in Korean politics. Interested in reading more about Korean politics? Subscribe to KoreabyMe and visit my personal blog!