In Seoul, the Constitutional Court upheld a ban on tattooing on Thursday with a 5-4 vote, confirming the law as constitutional. South Korea is the only developed country that doesn’t permit anyone other than medical professionals to give tattoos.
Tattooist associations have initiated a series of court actions since 2017, challenging the law. The court dismissed all suits as of Thursday by saying tattooing brings potential side effects and safety issues. They say it breaches their freedom of expression and right to engage in an occupation.
With K-pop artists as prominent as BTS’ Juungkook being known for his tattoos, many everyday citizens sit in resentment with the added disappointment of making getting a tattoo that much harder. According to Reuters data, “According to a 2018 estimate by a local medical device maker, about 3 million people in South Korea have at least one tattoo. If semi-permanent cosmetic tattoos are counted, that rises to 13 million.”
Over the last ten years, tattoos have become more and more prominent in the youth culture of South Korea. Despite the decades-old ban, the country has nearly 50,000 tattoo artists who risk potential police raids and prosecution for practicing their trade. Violating the ban is punishable by fines of up to 50 million won, which calculates to 40 thousand dollars, and prison terms of usually two years. However, the possibility of getting sentenced to life isn’t off the table.
It’s easy to look at someone and make an immediate judgment, but how accurate is that judgment you just made? Tattoos have been associated with circuses, gangs, and sometimes, if not most, they have a meaning that anchors the person who has it to whatever memory rests with it. For many of South Korea’s older generation, tattoos are associated with gangs and against the Confucian belief that altering the human body means disrespecting one’s parents. However, as tradition grew into ancient ideas and tattoos continued to grow in popularity throughout youth and pop culture, tattoos lost their diluted misguided stereotypes and became a widespread practice in the early 2000s.
The recent court decision has caused tattoo artists to deride it; the artists are calling the decision backward and lacking cultural understanding. A survey conducted last month by the union of 650 tattoo artists has found six cases since last April of artists being sentenced to jail, usually for the 2-year maximum punishment. The same coalition of 650 tattoo artists has labeled the decision “retrograde” and “not worth a penny.”