I’d never really given much thought to tattoos in anywhere but the UK – I suppose that’s a bit ignorant – but by the off chance, I was chatting to someone and they started discussing tattooing in Korean culture. They recommended Grace Neutral’s iD/Viceland documentary about Korea’s underground tattooing taboo and the relationship between plastic surgery and young people.
When I watched it, I was taken aback by the stigma that is associated with tattoos and tattoo culture in East Asia. In South Korea, they are largely frowned upon due to the connections ink has with gangs, as a result, to be a legal tattooist in South Korea you must have a medical licence (crazy right?). Otherwise you’re essentially forced underground to pursue your passion, like Apro Lee (a Korean tattooist who features in the video) was. Although the younger generation are changing; K-pop stars such as Jay Park (who also features in the video), Bang Young Guk (of B.A.P), Lee Hyo Ri and many others are covered in body art, which could be down to the change in Korean fashion, as body performer and artist NOVO says. But tattoos have to remain covered if a celebrity is on Korean television and are still widely disapproved of. The documentary was truly eye opening, watching a young woman tell her parents about her tattoos and seeing their distraught reactions honestly pained me. Parents worry for their children and their future prospects all because of this association. This inspired me to look at other nations and cultures and their beliefs when it comes to tattoos.
In Japan, it is the same. An artist should have a medical licence but even if you’ve been tattooed by the best artist in the world, there will still be disapproving looks. Despite having developed their own style (wabori for machine or tebori for hand poked, derived from Buddhist, Chinese and Japanese mythology), tattoos are often associated with crime, because criminals were branded/tattooed to show their offences, and gangs (like the Yakuza) use tattoos as a way to show dedication and loyalty. This has led to those with inkings being banned from public places like gyms, swimming pools and hot spring bathing resorts because, for Japanese people, showcasing tats causes fear – whether you are foreign or not. Some hot spring spas do allow tattooed people in, if they cover their inkings, but this then brings into question how fair that is for the natives?
It’s sad but I think it’s understandable too. For commercial reasons, exceptions may have to be made for westerners even though tattoos have been stigmatised in Japan because of other practices that do not relate to all of the nation. That is not to say you can’t be tattooed there though, there are some amazingly talented artist out there, like Horiyoshi III, but the same rules apply as if you were here – research! I hope one day to be lucky enough to get a tattoo, inspired by Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa woodblock print, done there (if I get out there, I’m not rich…. yet). When I told the artist I go to for written pieces of this plan, he advised me and offered to help me find a place if I get out there; his advice was, “avoid those with “Temple” in the name, you won’t get what you want.”
The Islamic beliefs don’t allow for tattoos. When a young girl I work with, from Saudi Arabia, talked to me about this I asked her “why?” It’s so they do not taint their bodies for the sake of beautification, which I respect because it is a religious reasoning. But, they do use henna (mehndi) which creates impermanent (and beautiful) body art. Traditionally it is used for weddings or festivals to celebrate though in India, Pakistan and Arabian cultures there are many variations of henna designs. That being said, in Africa, the oldest form of tattoos – besides Otzi, the 5000 year old body of a man with tattoos – can be found in ancient Egypt. Over 2100 years ago, there was a Priestess of the Goddess of Hathor who was found to have simplistic tattoos on her forearms, legs and above her navel. However, the art of tattooing is no longer used there due to religious reasons.
It can be different though. Perspectives change. Young Russians don’t look at body art as if it is criminal, as it once was. During the Soviet era, tattoos were the symbols of an inmate’s convictions to be decoded, as Arkady Bronnikov discovered and archived over a thirty year period. A knife in the neck meant murderer, churches or monasteries represent devotion to thievery and bowties around the neck were linked to pickpocketing. But, when I think of tattoos in Russia I think of the mafia there, who are allegedly covered in inkings (as shown in the film Eastern Promises). Tats proved the ultimate way to communicate a pecking order because they had to be earned. But now tattoos are, for the next generation, an aesthetic. They are personal and inspired, not associated with these notions of criminality and brutality.
Or, tattooing can be culturally integrated and significant, like the practice of the Polynesian tatau (tattoo). Polynesia refers to those triangulated between Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island, including the Samoa, Tonga and many others comprised of indigenous people. Tattooing there dates back over 2000 years, and was done during adolescence to show information about oneself, such as social ranking and character. Ancient practitioners believed the tattoo(s) should try encapture the spirit (mana) of the wearer and so tattoo masters would have to know all of the meanings and symbols in order to create a meaningful design for each individual, though women were not as extensively tattooed as men.
During the 18th century tattooing was banned but the 1980’s saw a resurgence in the art form, which varied stylistically from island to island, with Maori (New Zealand) being curved and spiral shapes, Samoan and Hawaiian being geometric lines and angles, and Marquesan being made up geometrically of lines, arches and circles. Now, although meaning has been lost over the years, the tattoos still hold a place in terms of cultural identity as they are traditional symbols of the islands.
Despite the relatively new culture surrounding tattoos in America, when the electric tattoo gun became a reality less than two hundred years ago, there has been an inventive and patriotic set of designs to derive from there – eagles, pin-up girls, mermaids and swallows were etched into the skins of many young men. The invention of “flash” tattoos – pre-drawn tattoos displayed on walls for anyone to choose – enabled artists to keep up with the growing demand by keeping designs simplistic and limited in colour. This ‘old school’ form of tattoo was highly popular among sailors and soldiers during wars, as their ink became reminders of home.
Though throughout the 1950s and 1960s tattoo culture in the US was still largely underground, the 70s saw designs become more subtle, so women were able to get more delicate designs. The 70s also saw the emergence of ‘new school’ tattoos, which were very different stylistically – bold and vivid in colour, they were not limited to patriotic imagery but could be customisable and individual. Now, is a different story to say a hundred years ago. The tattoo industry moved to the forefront of popular culture and, as stated by the U.S. News and World Report, has become the sixth largest retail market in America because, as the Huffington Post said, television shows LA Ink, NY Ink and the mother of them all Miami Ink, all of which I’ve watched and loved (Kat Von D is life), allow a look into the world of tattooing and showcase true artistry. Appealing to the younger generations as a way to express themselves however they want.
Apro Lee is on Instagram – @apro_lee
Horiyoshi III is also on Instagram – Horiyoshi_3