Tattoos in Korea: How Jay Park is Changing Attitudes to Korean Beauty


I’m Grace Neutral,
a tattoo artist and activist. I don’t know if they’re more freaked out
by my tattoos or the fact that I’m wearing
a Burberry coat in a spa. I’m interested in ideas of
alternative beauty and pushing our boundaries
of positive body image. If you could never wear makeup again.
How would you feel? I will die. To me, the human body
is a beautiful thing in all its forms. What Gracie could have looked like,
if she didn’t f**k her face up. Having travelled to South Korea to
explore its alternative beauty industry, I’ve witnessed first-hand the social stigma
towards tattooing and body art. She’s got a pretty face and nice body
but because of the tattoos, she’s ruined. Much of this perception comes from the traditional association of tattoos
with gang members. I wanted to find out more about
this negative relationship between body art and
South Korea’s prejudices. I’ve been in touch with the tattoo artist
called Hernan, who said he can introduce me
to a gang member at his studio. I’m a little nervous as
I don’t know what to expect. So, this is your friend Mr. Kim? Hello?
Nice to meet you. So there seems to be this stigma around
tattooing and having tattoos in South Korea, being attached to gang members and criminals. Can you explain that to me?
Is that true? In Korea, gang members don’t
necessarily and deliberately walk around in revealing clothes
to show off their tattoos and intimidate people. Or showing off their tattoos and saying, “I am a gang member so be careful.” We don’t walk around doing that. I’m gonna ask you a really blunt question.
Are you in a gang? -Yes.
-Yes. What do you do that makes you a gangster? We conduct legitimate businesses. So long as our trading partners don’t
commit foul play, everything goes well. But if they do commit foul play then we don’t resolve the situation
with legal ways. So the rules that you’ve established
within the gang that’s the law that you abide
by rather than the government’s laws? There must be some moral code.
So if I have to say why I had to hit this person
or kill that person I have to be able to explain the reason. You can’t assault or kill someone with no reason. That’s just for the fraudsters,
the idiots, the a******s, and crooks. So, does everyone in your gang
have a tattoo? If a 100 [gangsters] have tattoos,
then only one would not have one. The rest of South Korea might think
tattoos and gangs are related. It is true, because only one person out
of your whole gang doesn’t have tattoos. -There is a relationship.
-Sure. Meeting Mr. Kim helped me
understand that if there’s still an association between
tattoos and gang members, gangsters are not the ones flaunting it. Over the last few years, attitudes towards tattoos
have been shifting particularly amongst
the younger generation. A massive 90% of young South Koreans
identify as K-pop fans. Maybe the popularity of music
stars and celebrities publicly parading their tattoos has
something to do with the shift. Jay Park is one of K-pop’s biggest stars, with over 1.2 million followers
on Twitter and Instagram. He’s a massive pop sensation
in South Korea and well known for
having extensive tattoos. I’m on my way to meet him near his studio
in Gangnam, Seoul. From what I hear, you are like
the Justin Bieber of South Korea. So, one thing I have noticed
in South Korea is the fact that the cosmetics industry is huge and plastic surgery is commonplace. Even just younger people,
like people who are in high school and almost as young as middle school, they get cosmetic surgery. Yeah this is what I’ve heard. I’ve heard, the young girls get nose jobs or
double eyelid surgery as a present from their parents
when they graduate, and things like that. Yes, Botox or you get fat injections
in your eyelids or whatever. That’s just very very common. Did you find that getting tattoos and
being in the public eye in South Korea… Did that have an impact on
your fan base at all or…? -Oh yeah, it really did.
-Yeah? Well first off,
my family really dislikes it. My parents really dislike it. And also my old fans would bash me, because, you know, way before tattoos were always associated with
the Mafia or whatever. I mean you can’t see it on TV yet,
because they blur it out. -Oh, really?
-Yeah. So if they did a performance
of you on the TV and you were wearing like a vest, they would blur out your arms? But they wouldn’t even let
me, you know. I’d have to wear like gloves
and like a long sleeve. Although there is still some way to go
for full acceptance, stars like Jay Park have a big influence on changing the attitudes towards
tattooing in South Korea. This is giving younger
generations the confidence to explore alternative ideas of beauty. It’s my final day in Seoul and
I am headed to a small tattoo studio run by a female tattoo artist called Eda. She’s expecting a young lady
who wants to get her first tattoo. Hello. -How did you come?
-I would like to get a tattoo… I love being able to be part of
someone’s first experience with tattooing. So I’m pretty elated right now. Her mom and dad are outside
and her sister’s here, so it’s gonna be a nice family day. When I was younger about her age, about 30, I wanted to get it done. If you look at the people with tattoos
in our generation… You don’t know anyone with tattoos right? No, I don’t,
because we are more conservative people. I also don’t know anybody in my circle
who has a tattoo. I don’t think there would be anyone who would
ask me why I would go and get it done. I can think of one or two people that would. Well done, babe. The way I see it… You haven’t been able to do it
for many years… but now it’s time you can do it. -Yeah, I could definitely do it.
-What’s the worry? What’s there to worry about?
At my age. So she has just had her first tattoo done,
which is very exciting. But the even more exciting thing
about it is, her dad is actually going
to get a tattoo as well. And from talking to the guys at the front, this is the sort of thing
that would make the local news. So this is pretty big deal right now. Because of the fact that he worked
in quite a corporate job and back in the day you could you lose
your job for having a tattoo, you know. I just really respect him
and love the fact that he’s still young and a rebel at heart doesn’t really give a shit about what South Korean society would think
of him with a tattoo. He said, after this one,
if he is happy for this tattoo, next month he may come again. -Yeah, to get more. Starting a tattoo revolution
for the older generation. Yeah. He’s brave. It was quite amazing to see
the dad finally get his first tattoo. 30 years after he initially wanted one. It showed how much things are changing
in South Korea. For my final evening in the city, I wanted
to meet up with tattoo artist Apro again and share my thoughts on the experiences
I’ve had here. Before I came to Seoul,
the research that I did… All I really got from online and
reading and looking on the news is that there’s a booming
plastic surgery industry here and it’s all about
plastic surgery and cosmetics and it was really refreshing coming here
and actually seeing how many young people in Seoul
are actually open-minded and these younger generations
are kind of breaking down barriers with the older generations,
as well. What I find really
beautiful is the fact that a lot of the older generation seem to be embracing the younger
generations culture change and I find that really inspiring
and fascinating. This is all about culture and
it’s really natural, like rain. So no one can stop the rain. So, we have to keep fighting
and then we will survive. -Of course.
-Yes. I really hope that
you continue to push forward with your art and your
passion and keep fighting because I know you will and you’re
really brave and I really admire you. -Thank you so much.
-Thank you so much. Thank you. I’ve travelled to South Korea
where amazingly tattooing is illegal. I’m going to explore their six billion
dollar domestic beauty industry and K-pop’s influence
on Korean beauty ideals. So we’re here in Myeongdong in Seoul which
is basically like the epicentre of beauty.

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