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.
How To Book
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.
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.
Getting the Tattoo
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.
Sometimes we all do crazy things. And sometimes that means going into a basement through a dummy door to get illegal tattoos in #Seoul. 😅 Yup. We did that today. Tattooing is illegal in Korea unless you're a doctor. Spoiler: most tattoo artists aren't doctors. So you have to go underground, sometimes literally. A lot of artists are fairly candid and promote their work; the government turns a blind eye to it a lot, but there's always the risk of a crackdown. Tattoo culture in #SouthKorea is really fascinating. Vice ID did a great documentary on it. Def look it up!
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.
Btw. Getting a tattoo on your ribs HURTS.
Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe
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.
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.
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.
한글타투와 수채화 feat.우정타투 Korean lettering with watercolor means the our dream flying in the sky #한글타투 #한글레터링 #한글캘리 #수채화타투 #우정타투 #타투 #레터링 #레터링타투 #이태원타투 #아로새기다타투 #koreanlettering #watercolortattoo #letteringtattoo #lettering #tattoo #tattooed #tattoogirl #tattooworkers #tattoowork #tattooart #tattooarist #tattooer #inked #tattooing
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. Hint, it has to do with Dorian Gray.
"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 ♡
Would you ever get a tattoo in another country? What would you get? Let us know in the comments below!