Why Are Tattoos Illegal in South Korea? Underground Tattooing in South Korea

Though tattoos are becoming more and more common in places like the United States, there are many countries, like South Korea, that don’t encourage them - or even ban them outright.

As a tattoo artist, it can be helpful to understand how tattooing is viewed in other places around the world, especially if you plan to be a traveling artist.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Why South Korea banned tattoos
  • What South Korean tattoo artists do about the ban
  • How tattoos are thriving in South Korea despite being illegal

South Korean Tattoo Ban

A Korean tattoo artist draws out a tattoo for a client

In March 2022, the Constitutional Court in Seoul upheld its ban on tattooing. Because of this, South Korea is still the only developed country where everyone except medical professionals is banned from doing tattoos. 

The tattoo ban was put in place in 1992 and came from fears that decorative body art was associated with criminal and gang activity.  When the ban was upheld in 2022, the court argued that it was because only someone with a medical license could make sure that tattoos are done safely and with minimal potential harm.

History of Tattoos in South Korea

Client getting a tattoo in Seoul

Tattoos have a long history of negative associations in South Korea. Criminals used to have their face or arms forcibly tattooed to list their crimes until the practice was eliminated in 1740. In the 20th century, gangs started using tattoos as a symbol of their affiliation, which is why most people who do tattoos there stay away from images like dragons that were often used to signify gang affiliation. 

Now, tattooing is against Korean laws and is practiced illegally, but the industry is still booming. Some artists are finding success in secret shops, but others note that - especially for female artists - practicing tattoos can be dangerous.

What Exactly is Banned?

A person receiving a tattoo in South Korea

Tattoos aren’t banned outright, but tattooing is prohibited without a medical license. In other words, existing tattoos are not a problem, but tattoo artists doing new tattoos face fines and jail time under the tattoo restrictions. 

The tattoo ban was copied from a similar law in Japan, but the Japanese law against getting inked has been overturned.

Korean artists have been trying to legalize tattooing in South Korea for years, but none of the attempts to loosen the restrictions have worked.

The Popularity of Tattoos in South Korea

K-pop star Jaejoong showing tattoos

Even though the tattoo industry is extremely restricted, tattoos and other body art have become more and more popular in recent decades, especially with the younger generation. Individual tattoo artists and customers argue that tattooing is an art form that should be celebrated as social norms change.

Celebrities Getting Inked in South Korea 

K-pop star J Park showing off his tattoos

K-pop stars and other public figures often have multiple tattoos, but visible tattoos are usually covered up for television appearances. Model and actress Han Ye Seul is an example of Korean women supporting the industry with 12 tattoos including religious tattoos and fine line work.

Delicate wildflower sweeping tattoo by a Korean artist

Even though doing tattoos is illegal, there are at least 50,000 tattoo artists in South Korea. These artists risk being charged with a crime or being raided for running a tattoo shop. Tattoo artists who violate the ban could be charged up to $50,000 or have to spend up to 2 years in prison.

Popular Korean Tattoo Artists 

Client being tattooed by Kim Do-yoon photographed for the New York Time

Even though it’s illegal to practice tattooing on clients, artists and clients have found ways to make it work. Tattoo artist Kim Do Yoon operates a plant-filled studio paneled with large windows. Kim works discreetly in order to operate under the current laws in the country. He tattoos in public places but rolls the blinds down and moves his tattoo shop every two years. 

Kim will meet clients from all over the world, including his celebrity clients like Brad Pitt. The law against tattoos has led artists and clients to want to push the boundaries of tattoos themselves. Kim says he has gotten to do really cool tattoo designs like a diaphanous octopus with its tentacles unfurled because clients want interesting pieces if they are asking their artist to break the law. 

The industry, though mostly secret, is thriving in Seoul. There are tons of places to get tattooed in Seoul, as long as clients know how to find them on Instagram.

Prepare for a Tattoo Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Understanding tattoo laws is an important step in your journey towards a tattoo career, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into the tattoo business because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need for your tattoo career. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start working full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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