South Korea: tattoo artists demand legalization of their profession

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Renowned for the delicacy and thoroughness of his designs, South Korean tattoo artist Doy counts stars like Brad Pitt and members of the K-pop group EXO among his clients. But in his country, the exercise of his art remains illegal.

Deciding to no longer work in the shadows, he launched a campaign for the abolition of a law dating from the time when tattoos were associated with organized crime.

While tattooing itself is not illegal in South Korea, it can only be done by a qualified doctor.

Anyone who violates this is liable to a minimum of two years in prison, but the actual sentences are often lower.

Like everywhere in the world, tattoos are all the rage in South Korea, popularized by K-pop stars, sportsmen and other celebrities, but that doesn’t mean that the legislation has changed.

South Korea: tattoo artists demand legalization of their profession

The situation of Doy, one of the most famous tattoo artists in the country followed by nearly 500,000 people on Instagram, illustrates this contradiction.

If he refuses to tell Brad Pitt what he tattooed last year, citing confidentiality, his remarkable designs, which range from a bird to crescents to a gymnast in the middle of the jump, are also famous. both at home and abroad.

But that does not mean that it is well established. There are no signs that point to his tattoo studio, located in central Seoul.

Bad image

“When you come home after tattooing Brad Pitt, there are no words to describe the feeling of pride you feel,” the 40-year-old artist told AFP.

“But from the moment you disembark at Incheon International Airport, you’re afraid the tattoo implements you have in your bag will be discovered.”

Doy, whose real name is Kim Do-yoon, estimates that the country’s 200,000 or so tattoo artists are susceptible to prosecution, raids or blackmail by malicious or dissatisfied clients.

A few months ago, he founded the first union of tattoo artists and quickly intends to ask the Constitutional Court to legalize tattoos not done by doctors.

But when the media reported it, someone filed a complaint against him. He is now the subject of a police investigation.

It “hurts”, he admits, but I “had to do something” because “if you leave things as they are, nothing will change”.

According to the Korean Tattoo Association, which is different from Doy’s union, at least one million South Koreans are tattooed and the sector is growing steadily. It is estimated to weigh around 2,000 billion won (€ 142 million) per year.

Even though the tattoo is more and more popular, it continues to suffer from a bad image, especially in the world of work.

” Uncomfortable “

In reports broadcast on public channels, images of tattoos are often blurred.

For their part, many doctors are still firmly opposed to the legalization of the tattoo profession, citing a health risk.

This can lead to “serious infections or allergic reactions,” said an official of the Korean College of Physicians.

Doy explains that his union plans to adopt health guidelines that will be designed in collaboration with medical professionals supporting their cause.

South Korea: tattoo artists demand legalization of their profession

If in 14 years of career, he tattooed at least 10,000 people without being blackmailed, until last month, other professionals were less fortunate.

Convicted, some lost all their income and others even committed suicide.

“In a way, they lost their lives because they were painting”

This did not prevent some, like Kim Goang-seok, 54, from continuing to indulge in their art.

He started tattooing 25 years ago. At that time, “80% of my clients were gangsters, and I kept tattooing big tigers and dragons,” he recalls.

Sentenced three times, including once to eight months of detention, he intends to continue his activity.

“It always made me uncomfortable doing something illegal and I always remain so,” admits Kim, who has been tattooing for more than two decades in her “secret” studio in Ulsan (south-east).

“But that’s the only thing I’m good at. I accepted it when I was sentenced the first time ”.

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