ABC features South Korean tattooists breaking the taboo of body art

Getting a tattoo is still frowned upon in many circles in South Korea. Giving a tattoo is — in the eyes of the law at least — an even greater sin.

Technically, only medical doctors are allowed to do tattooing. Mirae and Yo-Yo, two 25-year-old tattoo artists living and working in the capital, Seoul, are certainly not that.

Mirae is a part-time model with a keen interest in fashion; Yo-Yo used to work in clothes shops, before taking a working holiday to Australia, where she began to consider training as a tattoo artist.

"I used to draw from time to time while I was in Australia, and some of my friends who I met in Australia or while travelling asked me to draw for their tattoos, or they got a tattoo from my drawing," she said.

 

Yo-Yo decided she could not only draw the tattoos but give them, too.

"I think it's more meaningful," she said.

Yo-Yo's not too worried about the fact the profession she has chosen is illegal.

"I think it's quite silly," she said. "Have a look around — you guys can see lots of people who have a tattoo."

The studio the young women share with about eight other artists is located underground, like many tattoo businesses. However, outside the entrance is a large sign displaying the business's name and line of work.

 

Even police officers get tattoos

 

Mirae fell into tattooing through her love of fashion and art.

She never meant to get tattoos herself, but said she got her first when she noticed some clients were uncomfortable with the fact that she did not have any.

She said she loved the intimacy of her work with customers.

Tattooists Mirae and Yo-YoPHOTO: Mirae and Yo-Yo in the studio they share in Seoul. (ABC News: Tom Hancock)

 

"When I'm working I'm not drawing on a flat canvas, I'm drawing on a human body," she said.

"So, if my client is shaking then it will make my hands shake, too.

"I try to talk to my clients throughout the process to help calm their nerves."

Mirae said unless you are giving a tattoo to someone who is underage or involved in criminal activity, police will not enforce the ban on tattooing.

"Sometimes police officers themselves come and get a tattoo done," she said.

 

Mirae's father has suggested other lines of work

Artist Mirae tattoos Yo-YoPHOTO: Mirae tattoos Yo-Yo. (ABC News: Barbara Miller)

 

Just having tattoos is also frowned upon by many people in South Korea and has been seen traditionally as a marker of gang membership.

For women in particular, having a tattoo can also be seen as defacement of their body.

Mirae said she did get strange looks in some parts of town, but on the whole could live freely.

"There isn't anywhere I can't go," she said.

"I heard in Japan that you can't go to a bath house if you have tattoos, but not really in Korea."

 

In fact, one of the only places Mirae can't display her tattoos openly is her parents' house.

"My father is quite conservative," Mirae explained.

"When I first told him that I was going to train to be a tattooist, he thought it was just a phase. He started suggesting other things for me to train as."

When Mirae visits her parents she covers up her tattoos, so her father cannot see how many she now has — about 20.

"But I think he might know," she said.

Mirae used to think she would cover her whole body with tattoos, but now thinks if she has too many each one will distract attention from the next.

"I think I have enough now," she said.

"But I don't have many on my back and hands, so I might get three or four more."

 

VIDEO: Mirae, a tattoo artist in Seoul, is not concerned that what she does is technically illegal. (ABC News)