Tattoos in South Korea
In 1992, South Korea passed laws that defined tattooing a medical procedure and since then it has continued to be ruled an illegal practice for regular tattooists in the country without a medical license, even though only about 10 doctors in the country have obtained a license and limit their practices to makeup tattoos. Though many Koreans are now fighting to have the law, which they feel is outdated, overturned, the reasons behind the law are deeply rooted in Confucian culture: the belief in preserving the natural state of the body (which the exorbitant rates of plastic surgery in the country already overrule) and that tattoos are a practice reserved for mobsters and criminals (an idea likely carried over from Japanese yakuza).
Historically, marks were often tattooed on criminals to distinguish them from the rest of society, giving the art of tattooing a bad rap. Men with tattoos are not permitted to complete their mandatory military service and having a tattoo can easily be grounds for employment refusal – or even, in some cases, dismissal. Lawmakers consider it a public health violation and the corresponding sentence applies: fines and possible lifetime imprisonment.
Nevertheless, tattooing remains an underground operation and is available safely, albeit pricey, in several alleyway parlors scattered around Seoul. The trick to finding a place is either scouring the Internet, talking to Koreans who have gotten tattoos, or meandering one of the subculture hotspots – districts like Itaewon and Gangnam that hosts many foreign businesses, or hip college districts like Idae (Ehwa University) and Hongdae (Hongik University).
Tattoo Korea is one foreigner-friendly parlor where most of the artists, as well as the ink, are imported directly from the United States. More local are Tattoo Mania in Mokdong, Bloody Ink in Hongdae, and Hyun Tattoo in Daegu city.
Be aware that if you are planning to work in South Korea, the taboo is still strong and you will find no support if you are “discriminated against” for having visible tattoos.