"Does this look illegal?" is the viral campaign demanding the legalisation of the practice of tattooing in South Korea
Walking down the streets of Seoul, tattoos are no longer a rare sight. More and more young Koreans have embraced this form of self-expression. Tattooed models have become regulars at Seoul Fashion Week, the country’s main fashion event, while K-pop stars like G-Dragon and Jay Park have pushed tattoos into the mainstream. That said while having a tattoo is becoming less of a taboo in Korean society nowadays, being a tattoo artist is, in fact, still illegal. Get caught and you can end up with more than two years in prison or a fine of 100,000 to 1,000,000 Korean won (about 70 to 700 pounds). Frustrated by the stigma, South Korean tattoo artists have taken to Instagram to fight for recognition, posting pictures of their work, with the question: “Does this look illegal?”
Out of 193 UN countries, South Korea is the only country to make tattooing illegal. The Korean Tattoo Association argue this defies the constitutional right every Korean has to freely choose their vocation, forcing tattoo artists to hide their practice instead of celebrating their craft. In 1992, a lawsuit regarding the side effects of permanent eyebrows classified tattooing as a medical practice, which means all Korean tattoo artists are now required by law to hold a medical license - which is no easy feat to obtain. Without one, opening a tattoo studio and making your activities public is considered illegal, which forces Korean tattoo artists to work in secret and also in fear of the police knocking at their door if found out.
Frustrated by the refusal of Korean lawmakers to recognise tattoos as art instead of a legal offence, Korean tattoo artists have taken to Instagram to raise awareness of the issue by posting their best tats and asking the simple yet controversial question “Does this look illegal?” To his 50 thousand followers on Instagram, Korean tattoo artist Dokgo shared a personal story of a clock motif he tattooed on his brother’s stomach to cover up a scar left behind by surgery to donate his liver to save his father’s life. Using the hashtag #koreantattoolegalization, Dokgo started reaching out to his peers to speak up about their experience working undercover as “outlaws.” Within a month, more than 200 Korean tattoo artists joined, sharing their own experiences. Han Seol Won, a Seoul-based tattoo artist expressed her frustration pointing out the paradox that while many Korean tattoo artists have gained worldwide recognition for their artistry, their own country forces them to hide in fear of repercussions. “Have my tattoos done any harm to you? Please stop looking people who have tattoos with eyes full of hate, thinking we are bad people,” she appeals in an Instagram post.
Whether Korean lawmakers will hear out these appeals is still unknown, but the growing Korean tattoo legalisation movement doesn’t seem to be giving in anytime soon.