Police raided the Inkbomb tattoo convention on June 28, suspecting that none of the tattoo artists present had a six-year medical degree. The closing down of the convention outraged tattoo artists and added fuel to the debate over the legality of tattoo parlors in Korea.
The yearly convention gathered artists from Korea and around the world. It planned to showcase and award the best designs in a two day event, with tickets pre-selling for 25,000 won ($25) a day. However the police arrived 30 minutes into the event, demanding that no tattooing take place.
“Getting tattoos is illegal in Korea, according to a special law related to public health, and that’s why we had to crack down on them,” said an official from Sinsa police station. Korea law dictates that “only doctors can practice the act of penetrating someone’s skin with a needle.” If caught the owners face a fine of between 500,000 won ($500) and 10 million won ($10,000).
However the law has not halted business at an estimated 20,000 parlors in South Korea while only a few medical doctors and dermatologists tend to conduct cosmetic tattooing on the eyes and lips, charging triple the rates of tattoo artists. Kim Tae-nam, the organiser of the Inkbomb event, says the police know about the huge number of tattoo shops and only sporadically enforce the law.
“Current law doesn’t make sense even to the general public. It shames Korea that the art of tattooing was taken over by medical doctors. It sounds ridiculous in other parts of the world and Korean law does not reflect reality,” says Kim.
Doctors in Korea continue to warn over the safety of tattooing. They highlight the risks of infection through needles and problems that may arise due to the ink causing a reaction in the skin or lumping underneath. The United States FDA also lists allergies, scarring and MRI complications as other possible health risks.
“I personally think that the act of tattooing itself is negative. Since putting in foreign objects inside the body can induce hypersensitive reaction,” says Huh Chang-Hun from Seoul National University Hospital. “Some countries might allow people who are not doctors to give tattoos, but the fact is that there are few pigments used in tattoos that are medically certified to be safe.”
Despite concerns, statistics in countries where tattoos are legal suggest that risks are low. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States found no incidents of viral hepatitis B and C or HIV/AIDS from tattoo parlors between 2008 and 2013. The National Health Service in the United Kingdom placed the risks of catching hepatitis from tattoo parlors at the same level as body piercing studios and hairdressers.
“Maybe there are more medical accidents in hospitals than tattoo accidents,” says Inkbomb organiser Kim. “There are professionals who studied tattooing. It is the same with doctors too, they just know what they major in and have their own fields.”
Saem is a certified tattoo artist in the United States who came to South Korea a year and a half ago. He wants to see the industry move above board and be regulated in a way similar to most Western countries. Saem at Sunrat Tattoo uses brand new needles, brand new tubes and brand new ink for each customer. He asserted that if a change in the law comes through, it will move the industry above ground and force the unsafe parlors out of business.
However he is not only facing issues with the law. “People’s views on tattoos are way different here than in the States. They see me with all these tattoos and they just expect me to be this gangmember or something. It’s not that at all. Whereas in the states it’s just accepted. Oh it’s just a guy with tattoos,” says Saem.
Sunrat Tattoo advise customers to think of the potential social implications of getting a tattoo in Korea before they make their final decision. Tattoos have been gaining popularity, in part due to the increasing number of celebrities with tattoos such as members of K-Pop group Big Bang and sports stars like Cha Du-Ri, yet attitudes remain negative. The link between tattoos and criminality continues to be prevalent in East Asia, especially in Japan.
Lawmaker Kim Chun-jin of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) has campaigned for changes to the law, including licensing and regulating the industry. Although his bill was defeated in 2010, a second law is currently being debated.