Getting a Tattoo in Korea – Is it Illegal?

(July 2018) I can’t believe how popular this post is! This was one of the posts I carried over from my old, personal blog. However, it’s steadily been one of my top posts since I published it in 2016, so here’s a much more extensive guide to getting a tattoo in Korea. For the record, I still love my lil guy, and I plan on getting another one, I just need to set aside the time!

Back in December of 2014, I got my first ever tattoo. In Korea no less! My parents are the kind of parents that didn’t necessarily judge others for their tattoo habits, but firmly told us, “If you ever get a tattoo, we’re no longer helping you with school.”

So, you know, I never thought about it much!

At some point in moving to Korea, I decided I wanted one. The small, minimalist tattoos were quite trendy on Pinterest and Instagram, and they matched my style more than the super detailed, colorful ones I usually associated with getting inked.

Over the course of a month or so, I played around with different ideas of what I’d get if I ever got one. Sometimes I thought of wrist map outline would be really cool, other times something as tiny as a heart outline seemed better.

I finally decided on a tattoo of the infinity symbol for a variety of reasons. I thought I’d share with you some tips on getting a tattoo in Korea, where to go, what to do, how to prepare, in case you ever want to get one done here as well.

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First things first:

Are tattoos in Korea illegal?

Short Answer: No.

Having a tattoo itself isn’t illegal. What’s technically illegal is being a tattoo artist. Since using needles is considered acupuncture, you need some sort of license or whatnot for it. That’s why if you visit a tattoo parlor in Korea, you’ll notice the windows are usually blacked out, and it’s a little secretive.

However, the way tattoo parlors are illegal in Korea is kind of how whistling underwater in West Virginia is illegal. No one is actively hunting artists to shut them down and arrest them, but it is possible to use their work against them if it comes to it.

Perceptions of Tattoos

The real issues with tattoos are how someone with them is perceived in Korea. Keep in mind, this is changing big time as more and more K-pop artists come with tattoos. Heck, one time I walked into one of my sixth-grade classes and saw the boys had set up their own fake tattoo corner. The teacher was fine with it.

The old school perception of tattoos, similar to many countries, is that people who get them are the bad kids. The gangsters, the delinquents… I mean, to be fair, even the K-pop artists that openly have tattoos veer more towards the edgy/cool image than the sweet, singer-next-door one. If I ever find out SNSD’s Yoona has a giant tattoo, I think my jaw would hit the floor.

My infinity symbol is considered little and cute, so none of my employers have ever said anything to me about covering it up. I know of teachers who have to get sleeves, the kind ahjummas wear to protect their arms, to cover the tattoos if they’re wearing short sleeves.

You’ll also notice, sometimes the K-pop artists have to cover up their tattoos on stage. I remember noticing this the most around when SISTAR came out with “Touch My Body” (catchiest summer song EVER). I couldn’t find some of the stages where it was really obvious they slapped a giant bandage over Hyolyn’s stomach tattoo, but you can see the difference below, especially with the white shorts/floral top outfits:

 

Anyway, TL;DR, tattoo culture is changing, but it still has some ways to go!

Tips on Getting a Tattoo in Korea

Do Research

I did some Google searching about getting a tattoo in Korea, and I remembered that Martina from Eat Your Kimchi had gotten an extensive one a little while ago. At their Christmas pop-up event, they reaffirmed their positive experience, so I booked an appointment with  Tattoo People.

Another great resource is the Facebook group, Inked in Korea. (Especially since Simon and Martina have long since moved on to Japan since I originally wrote this post!) My friends, the Hedgers, got their much larger scale tattoos done through the group.

Really Decide What You Want

I was quite wishy-washy in the very beginning. Know what you want and where you want it with 110% certainty. Because in case everyone and their mother hasn’t already reminded you, it’s pretty permanent.

That said, I think whatever you get is up to you. If you want something silly, go for it! If you want something deeply meaningful, go for it! For me, I like the idea of getting something small to commemorate big stages in my life. The infinity symbol basically represents growing up while my next one will be to commemorate my time in Namwon and how Korea has become a part of my life. Who knows what the next one will be or when!

In my search for a lavender farm in Pennsylvania, I stumbled across Peace Valley Lavender Farm in Doylestown. Stop by for some lovely scenery and shopping.

Do Even More Research

This time about what to expect. There are so many articles out there for “tattoo virgins,” and while a lot of them are extremely helpful, don’t let them get in your head.

I expected both pain and blood and had neither even if I was petrified leading up to it. I even asked my artist, who’s entire one arm was inked blue, if it would hurt, to which he laughed and said no.

My tattoo was also done in a matter of fifteen minutes, and it didn’t hurt at all. If you want a more extensive one than what I got, I would look to those tips more, but if you just want a small one, don’t worry.

Budget

Make sure you’re ready to spend money on your tattoo. I was told to expect about 100,000 won to 120,000 won ($100-ish). However, because mine was so small and only an outline, it was only 30,000 won.

Don’t Tell Everyone

Everyone’s got some sort of opinion on tattoos, and most of the time you weren’t asking. Leading up to getting my tattoo:

  • my parents told me they weren’t happy about it (enough that they texted me the day after I told them that they weren’t happy about it…)
  • one person told me I should wait until I was 23
  • multiple people told me my tattoo was “so basic” or “so cliche.”

Who knows what they said when I wasn’t listening.

If you’ve booked the appointment, chances are you want this tattoo. Trust in yourself that you’re mature enough to make this decision and that the tattoo you’re getting is meaningful to you. It’s your skin, so frankly it’s no one else’s business.

Bring a Friend

Whether they’re getting a tattoo done as well or just for moral support, it’s always nice to have a friend with you! Shout out to Elissa for coming along despite her aversion to needles and wrists!

Prepare for Language Barriers

Obviously, getting a tattoo in Korea is going to have some language barriers. There’s someone at Tattoo People who can speak English who I emailed with. However, my actual tattoo artist didn’t speak a lot.

There were some Google translating and different sketches involved, but we figured it out pretty easily. Your tattoo artist should make a temporary tattoo first, so you can determine if you like it or not.

Also, my care instructions were in Korean, so I asked my friend to translate it for me. If you go to TP and need a translation, let me know!

Revel in It

You did it! It’s wrapped up, and you have a tattoo. I highly recommend going to the cafe below Tattoo People and enjoying some honey bread and a coffee. It also has sauna boxes, which are for your lower half. You can’t swim or go to full-size saunas, but sauna boxes are fine if your tattoo is above the waist.

Follow the Aftercare Instructions

Whatever your parlor gives you, follow them! Make sure you have Neosporin and Vaseline ready to use. Mine was totally fine after a week. All it took was some keeping the skin hydrated and occasionally putting something over it.

And that’s it! I’m so happy I went through with getting a tattoo in Korea. This country has become like a second home to me, and I’ve done so much growing up just living here. The infinity symbol means a lot to me as well, even if it’s “Ugh, so basic,” and almost three years later I’ve never had a moment of regret. 

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4 Comments

  1. Annika Smolny
    February 1, 2018 / 6:36 pm

    Hi, im going to Seoul in some days and i really wanna get another Tattoo but i can’t find out which age you must have in Korea to get a Tattoo. Can you help me?

    • Samantha
      Author
      February 1, 2018 / 10:19 pm

      Hi Annika,

      Good question! I was 22 when I got mine done. I’d assume it’s 18 though. The company I used has a branch in Canada and on their homepage, they say they won’t work on anyone under 18 even with parental consent.

  2. November 8, 2016 / 11:09 pm

    Hi, I’m also looking to get a tattoo in Korea but I can’t find any information on if Tattoo People still has studios in Busan and Seoul? Which studio did you go to?

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