Getting An Illegal Tattoo in Korea

By in Asia, Dorian Gray, how to, Kim Junsu, musical theater, Secret Seoul, Seoul, South Korea, tattoo, tattoos, Travel Tips
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The first thing to know about getting a tattoo in Korea is that it’s most likely illegal.

How’s that for an opening line? See, tattooing is only legal in Korea if the tattoo artist is a licensed doctor, as they’re the only ones allowed to legally handle needles of any kind. Now, there are PLENTY of tattooists in Korea. Some are legit doctors who decided to use their medical degree for tattooing (hey, we all make choices), but the vast majority are not. They’re tattoo artists. And they’re illegal.

But no one really cares all that much.

Sometimes the police may crack down on it, and many artists will even take your phone away from you when you arrive so you can’t take photos of them, their studio, or anything that may lead the police to them. But more often than not, it’s one of the many things that’s swept under the rug here in Korea. That’s not to say these artist operate wholly out in the open (some do, fearlessly because of connections, be it with KPOP idols or Japan’s Yakuza). Many of the “tattoo parlors” in Korea are hidden away. They’re in basements, behind fake walls, in seemingly abandoned buildings, or part of clubs or bars.

Getting there is just the beginning of the adventure.

So when Nicky and I (Kristina) booked our tattoo appointment over Kakao Talk (Korea’s version of What’s App and Line), we were given no details about where to go beyond leaving a certain exit of a certain station, taking a few rights and lefts, and then knocking on a door next to a certain poster, of which she’d send us a photo of.

Most artists you can book through their Instagrams, or perhaps on the off chance they have a Facebook page. There’s also groups like Inked Korea that can link you up to artists if you don’t speak Korean and they can’t communicate in English. Though honestly just searching through the 타투 (tattoo) hashtag on Instagram will open you open to a plethora of talent.

Anywho…

tattookorea_studio2

It took us awhile, but we found where we needed to be. At least we thought we did. We sent her a photo of our location and she texted back “please come in.”

Well, here goes nothing.

Pushing open the door we found ourselves looking down a stone staircase, at the bottom of which was a lovely Korean lady cheerfully greeting us. So far, so good. Upon walking in it was immediately apparent to me that this was going to be an experience and a half. I’m fairly certain we were in her home, judging by the stocked kitchen. However, I can’t be sure. What I did know was that this was unlike any tattoo parlor I’ve ever been in. Shabby chic? could describe the place, with its half painted walls and minimalist decor.

After taking our shoes off, we wandered into the studio where she sits us down to go over what we wanted and to pick out fonts and colors. This specific tattooist is known for her watercolor work, a type of tattoo I’ve wanted for a very long time. In fact, when Nicky first brought up the idea of getting a tattoo in Korea, I already had her in mind as I had been following her work for quite awhile and it was a pipe dream of mine to get something done by her. The fact I was actually about to made me a bit giddy.

Fonts and colors picked out, she made up a sample, we tried it on to get the right position, and then it was time. Each tattoo would take around an hour, and I elected to go first. Because I’m a masochist.

tattookoreapain

Btw. Getting a tattoo on your ribs HURTS.

There’s no frills here. It’s basic. Far far away are the fancy tattoo tables and chairs with their magnifying glasses and extendable lights. It’s all about keeping things simple in this business; you never know when you may have to pack up after all. All this being said, at no point did I feel unsafe or think things were unsanitary. Everything was packaged and clean and she took great care to make us comfortable.

Laying down on the bed, I got myself situated, idly wondering what I had gotten myself into. Our artist used puppy training pads to catch wayward ink and blood, stuffing them under and around the tattoo area. Thinking back on it, pretty smart use of  And then the tell-tale bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt starts.

Getting a #tattoo in Korea is a grand adventure. Can't wait to write about it.

A post shared by Kristina 크리스티나 (@curlyfoureyes) on

Color hurts a lot more than just black ink, something I learned first hand during this experience. While  I have multiple tattoos, they’re all simple black. Color has to go deeper, a lot deeper. I didn’t cry though. I’m very proud of myself. She said to just let her know if I needed a break or felt light headed, but I powered through and an hour later I had my very own illicit watercolor tattoo.

Once I was done, I breathed a sigh of immense relief and then went about teasing Nicky as it was her turn. On the bed, new pads, and a lot of hand holding. More than anything I want to reiterate that everything was clean and sanitary. Tattoo artists in Korea have to operate beneath the law, but they take their craft very seriously. There’s no studios for them to work in, so they don’t have the swank equipment and ambiance that most Western parlors do. They have to make do with what is viable and smart.

tattookorea_studio

After all was finished she took photos of the tattoos for her Instagram and collection and we were both ointmented up (yes, that’s a word now) and bandaged with the instructions to take them off after two hours. It’s been two weeks since the tattoo and it’s fully healed and looks amazing. We’re both very happy with them and it was overall a great and exciting experience.

I strongly debated about whether or not to out who our tattooist was. The last thing I wanted to do was to get her in trouble. However, she did allow us to film (though I omitted her face out of privacy),  and bookings are mainly made because of her Instagram page, which has been featured far and wide (that’s how I found out about her actually!). So, if you’re interested in her work (which is GORGEOUS), you can find her at @tatooist_silo.

She specializes in water color tattoos and flowers. She also does a lot of cover-up work, so if there is a tattoo you’d rather not be there, she can help with that as well. Tattoos in Korea will run you more than what you’re probably used to, but remember, the climate is different here and to get a tattoo in a place where they’re not wholly legal, you’ll have to pay a touch more. Each of ours ran ₩400,000/$350.

You can find my and Nicky’s reasons for getting our tattoos from our Instagrams below.

"하늘 위로 날아 다니단 우리의 꿈들은…" – #도리안그레이 "Our dreams fly into the sky…" – Dorian Gray I always knew I wanted to get a #tattoo in #Korea. I even knew the artist I wanted. I hadn't nailed down the specifics of the design however, and suddenly a tattoo of a different sort was offered, and I went for it. @nikassoh and I met through a food tour my second week in Seoul. During dinner it was discovered she had seen Kim Junsu in Dracula, the same artist I was a fan of. Later on I would invite her to his comeback concert, as I had an extra ticket, and a rather special friendship was born, especially so when we went to see the Dorian Gray musical, which he was also starring in. The show really resonated with us both, completely reignited my love of theater, and truly cemented our friendship. I got through a lot of stuff because of her, that show, and that damn singer. My first few months in Seoul were very difficult, but I had things to look forward to, someone to fangirl with, and my creativity was reborn. So when she suggested we get Dorian Gray tattoos, there wasn't much hesitation. Probably the first question I'll be asked is why on earth would I get a tattoo in a language I'm not fluent in? Cause. I thought about getting the English lyrics actually. I was concerned it'd look stupid for some white girl to have Korean on her body, but then I realized this wasn't really for other people. Moreover, I wanted to stay true to the lyrics, keep them in their original language. I know what it says, I know when it appears in the show, and I could sing it really badly for you. All my tattoos are indicative of important landmarks in my life or important relationships. Regardless of what happens, those people and moments shaped me. That'll never change. The line is also important. I am a dreamer. So very much. My dreams and aspirations have been both my strength and a great hindrance. The language of my tattoo inspires me to let my dreams breathe; to let my dreams become bigger or to fly away to new heights. Maybe they will. Maybe they'll disappear into the sky, never to return. Who knows. But let them fly. Don't keep them grounded. Thank you Nicky, for all the things ♡

A post shared by Kristina 크리스티나 (@curlyfoureyes) on

"Our dreams that flew in the sky…" Never in a million years did I want to put a picture of my belly on the internet. 4 years and 1 day ago I moved to Korea. It was hard. I was lonely. I had no family or friends. But somehow I figured out the Dracula musical was running in Seoul. With little Korean ability I got a ticket and saw the show, #kimjunsu starring as Dracula. For the first time I didn't feel like an alien. I knew the story amd in the dark theatre I looked just like everyone else. I put Junsu away until @curlyfoureyes came to Korea 4 years later and dragged me kicking and screaming back into his world. With much more Korean I was able to do more and soon found myself at his #doriangray performance three times AND even front row for his winter concert. This line tattooed on my body is the only hopeful line of the entire song that ends the Dorian production. Because that's what I wanted to take from the show. No matter what happens in my life, no matter what bad days I have, I am here because it was my dream. If I soar or fall I don't know but I'm definitely flying…

A post shared by New York -》? (@nikassoh) on

Would you ever get a tattoo in another country? What would you get? Let us know in the comments below!

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Getting An Illegal Tattoo in Korea - The Nerdventurists - www.nerdventurists.com

  1. Reply

    Gosh you are braver than I am! There is no way I could do it – let alone on my ribs.

    1. Reply

      Hahaha, not brave, just crazy.

  2. Reply

    Your tattoo definitely looks painful but the outcome is so beautiful! I’m so impressed by the artwork and detailing. The meaning is so beautiful too.

    1. Reply

      ^^ thank you so much Gina!

  3. Reply

    Woahhhh! What an experience to have had. How interesting that you booked your tattoo appointment via SMS! Colour tattoo sounds painful – I never knew it was more painful than plain black ink. But the outcome is beautiful!

    1. Reply

      Thank you so much! Yeah I didn’t know if was more painful either until Nicky told me as I was on the table x’D.

  4. I got mine in Busan! It wasn’t quite as much of an adventure though… more like a few emails back and fourth and then an address to a “Green Tea House.” Good thing he *actually* had tea because I was a basket case lol. I want to get more added on (I got a small turtle because I lived in Yeosu and that was the symbol that was everywhere because of the famous turtle ships) and I want to go back to the same guy, but now I’m so tempted to try to find one a little less public! Really love the watercolor background~ congrats!

    1. Reply

      Ahahaha, awww a tea house! That’s so lovely, and sounds like an adorable tattoo too! I def want to get another here… or maybe two… or three. God they’re so addictive, haha.

    • Dee
    • March 12, 2017
    Reply

    Beautiful work! I love the reference too. 😀

    1. Reply

      Thank you so much! ^^

    • littleslifeandlaughter
    • March 12, 2017
    Reply

    I was so nervous about getting a tattoo in Korea that I ended up chickening out when we lived there. I wish I had seen this! Your tattoo is beautiful but yes the ribcage is definitely painful!

    1. Reply

      Awww, well there’s still plenty of time in the world to come back and get one, hehe. Thank you so much 🙂

    • keza
    • March 12, 2017
    Reply

    Wow, this is so interesting to know! I love the watercolor look of the tattoo and I have no clue the artist realised that, it’s impressive. Moreover, the story behind the tattoo is so cute. Go for it girls 🙂

    • ablizzard1397
    • March 13, 2017
    Reply

    Wow, quite the experience! I’d be so nervous walking through that door beside the poster! Your tattoos are beautiful. They turned out great!! That price makes we wince, though, haha!

    • travellingslacker
    • March 15, 2017
    Reply

    Illegal tattoo! That sounds scandalous. Hope you came out of the country before posting this. You don’t want Korean authorities to stumble on this blogpost. He he 😉

  5. Reply

    Even from just seeing a title I was already like :O!!!!! You guys, little rebels!! haha. I can’t believe it is illegal in Korea…. nor can I believe doctors can become tattooists… at least your tattoos looked good.

    • haveagoodjourney5
    • March 15, 2017
    Reply

    Whoaaa that’s brave!!! Before I read that luckily you have already followed her work, I thought that it’s absolutely insane to just go somewhere underground to get the tattoo 😀 but at least you knew her job! I don’t have tattoos but if I will ever do one, it’ll be a palm tree on my ankle!

    • Tony (tonyandkimoutdooradventures)
    • March 15, 2017
    Reply

    What a experience. I really don’t know why you would a tattoo in a country where it can be illegal. Nice of you to share your experience, but I don’t find excitement in branding my body. Hope all went okay.

  6. Reply

    I myself have 2 small tattoos, out of which one is on my ribs and inwas so scared having it dome, i would imagine not having it in me to go through al the trouble to have it done, illegally. But it sure makes up a cool story to remember and by reading your blog i’ve learned something new about Korea. Are the legal one more expensive?

  7. Reply

    I’ve never seen tattoos like this before, they’re definitely very elegant. Sounds like a good idea on the whole though that only doctors can tattoo people. Have you ever seen Tattoo Disasters – there are some funny stories and some very moving ones? Luckily yours turned out really well though

  8. Reply

    Didn’t know that only licensed doctors are allowed to make a tattoos there. Had a great laugh reading your tattoo adventures, it reminded me of my first tattoo. Hoping to get inked in Korea as well soon. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  9. I never knew tattoos were illegal in Korea! What a wild experience to have an gorgeous tattoo to remember it by. I’ve never really been about the watercolor tattoos, but both of yours are absolutely gorgeous and have me thinking otherwise now haha. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Jess
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    Quite the adventure! I got a tattoo in Brazil – I spoke in broken Spanish and the artist in Portuguese. What could go wrong? I lived to tell the tale but I’m not sure I’d do it again!

    • fleurdelilah
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    Really cool firsthand account of the tattoo scene in SK. The watercolor is very beautiful and the hangul is very dainty! Personally, I have a few tattoos and would like to get more, but I’ll probably wait until I move out of Japan. I like using the onsen.

  10. Reply

    Now I wanna get a tattoo in Korea as well!! Your tattoos are gorgeous btw

    • Kiara
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    Woah, I had no idea that you’d have to be a medical doctor to do tattoo art in Korea! But wow, I commend you for your bravery! I don’t think I’d be able to get one for myself.

  11. Reply

    Wow I had no idea that was the case with the tattoo industry in Korea, I’m in Bali at the moment and just booked in my 5th tattoo for Saturday. Yay!

    • hannamarikristiina
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    I seriously didn’t know that tattooing is illegal in Korea. I’m also pretty suprised that in Asia (Hong Kong) people don’t really seem to have any tattoos. I thought that it would be much more popular. Your tattoos look beautiful!

    • kellybarcus
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    Ah! That looks painful! But I love the watercolor effect. So cool!

  12. Reply

    What a story! Also the tats look gorgeous. I’m not a tat lover myself, but I find the whole new trend of tiny tattoos really nice.

    • I Love Paars by: Lee
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    Never thought that getting an ink is illegal in Korea, is it in South Korea?
    But you still got one? Lol

    • finaciofotografia
    • March 16, 2017
    Reply

    Is that really? ahaha looks like you are in the movies doing something wrong that you have to go through labyrinths and hide from everyone. 😀
    A doctor changed to a tattoo artist it is amazing, I have some tattoos and if I made it to Korea for sure I will do a new one there!
    By the way, love your tattoo and the meaning 😉

    • Dee
    • March 17, 2017
    Reply

    I know I already commented on this post but I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog award! https://stuffinapowderpuff.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/one-lovely-blog-award/ <3

  13. Reply

    I have to say, when I first read the title I thought, “that’s a little silly”. As someone with a shitload of tattoos (combined about 75 hours of ink!) I’ve always been suuuuuuper cautious about where I get tattooed and the level of cleanliness. After reading (and seeing!) about how they go about it – you’ve totally changed my mind (and added a tick on my bucket list LOL). The artists work is soooo beautiful and I love the tattoos you and your friend got, so dainty and pretty. <3

    • Marlene Marques
    • March 19, 2017
    Reply

    Perfect title!! Caught right away my attention 😉 It sounds like a great adventure. How did you know you were choosing a serious place, with all the necessary conditions? By the way, the tattoos are beautiful. Congratulations?

      • Marlene Marques
      • March 19, 2017
      Reply

      Congratulations!! 😉

  14. Reply

    Wow! I had no idea that you had to be a doctor to perform legal tattoos. As a huge tattoo lover, I would most likely find myself here getting a tattoo. Looks like you had a wonderful time and very cool tattoo. I’ve not had one on my ribs yet but I will consider it to be painful. The knee was pretty painful!

    • neha
    • March 21, 2017
    Reply

    wow..looks like getting a tatoo is such an adventure filled journey in Korea. It’s not just about the tatoo but how you get it on mysteriously 🙂 I am glad it’s all hygienic and properly sanitized.

  15. Reply

    That is some really cool stuff there. Getting a tattoo is indeed painful but getting it illegally is too much adventurous. Korea always seems to be a mysterical place to us

  16. Reply

    Oh, this watercolor tattoo looks really awesome but the illegal tattooing in Korea, it is scary too. I am confused on their concept, Are doctors really those big artists to make tattoos. They are good with needles but tattooing is more of art. I am myself a doctor and this has held me with so many questions.

  17. Reply

    This is totally a unique and brave experience! I am a fan of Korean culture, but didn’t know getting a tattoo there is illegal. You were such brave and curious souls! Happy to see that it is all worth it. I would assume that the ones on your ribs would really hurt, but that watercolor tattoo looks so awesome!

  18. Reply

    Going for a tattoo in Korea is like going on secret mission. What a experience it must have been for you. Its quite insightful article how tatoo artists are working in korea.

  19. Reply

    I love your story and the courage you had to go through the unknown for a tattoo. The final work is very beautiful, it does look so feminine! The watercolor is so impressive, it looks like a proper work of art, not just a tattoo.

  20. Reply

    I never knew that tattooing was illegal in Korea. After reading your post I realize why it is governed by law. It takes a lot of grit and determination of to endure what you did. But in the end if the final result is something that you are happy with, then it is really worth it.

    • becksplore
    • April 9, 2017
    Reply

    Beautiful tattoo and great post! I’m going Korea this year but I will probably just get a tattoo before or after, I don’t think I would be brave enough to do it there 🙂

  21. Reply

    I am quite intrigued when I read the title of your post. I do not have a tattoo but I am curious how others got them. Tattoos are works of art. If I were to get one, I would diligently research the tattoo artists who I like.
    I think this was a very bold move for you. There must be some kind of maintenance and regulations too even though this is illegal. I like the design of the tattoo that you got. The color looks vibrant and beautiful.

  22. Reply

    Your tattoo looks absolutely amazing and I was wondering about the nitty gritty. It seems like a speakeasy but in modern times. I also had no idea some medical doctors just decided to become tattoo artists. Gotta pay off those student loans, right? Lol

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