SEOUL (REUTERS) – Doy, one of South Korea’s most famous tattoo artists, having inked the likes of Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt, just wants to practice his craft without fear of going to jail or hefty fines.
South Korea is the sole developed country in the world where tattooing is considered a procedure that only medical professionals are capable of legally performing.
That leaves almost all of the country’s 50,000 tattoo artists at the mercy of potential police raids and prosecution, facing fines of up to 50 million won (S$56,200) as well as prison terms, in theory as much as life.
Doy, who like many fellow tattooists practises from a modest building with no signage, was himself fined five million won last year after a video of him inking a popular Korean actress went viral. The 43-year-old has appealed the ruling.
A survey conducted by the union of 650 tattoo artists Doy leads has also found six cases since last April of artists being sentenced to jail – usually for two years.
But change could well be on its way.
Over the last 10 years, tattoos have become increasingly popular among young South Koreans. BTS band member Jungkook famously has several and while tattoos are usually covered up on TV, celebrities have not been reticent about showing them off on social media.
At the same time, appreciation for “K-tattoos”, often distinguished by fine-line drawing, intricate detail and bold use of colour, has grown at home and abroad.
That has not escaped the attention of the ruling party’s candidate for the March 9 presidential election, Mr Lee Jae-myung.
In a move seen as courting young voters, Mr Lee last month said it made no sense for the industry to be illegal, noted it was worth an estimated US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) and promised to back Bills now pending in Parliament to legalise tattooing.
“I’m really grateful for the pledge. It’s probably the best artistic inspiration that tattooists have had recently,” Doy, whose real name is Kim Do-yoon, said at his parlour.
Mr Lee currently trails Mr Yoon Suk-yeol from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, 34 per cent to 41 per cent, according to a public opinion poll by Gallup Korea.
Mr Yoon’s party has not yet decided its position on traditional tattoos but supports legalising so-called cosmetic tattoos, which are semi-permanent and popular in South Korea for enhancing eyebrows, eyelines and hairlines.
Mr Ahn Cheol-soo, a third candidate with 11 per cent support, who has had his eyebrows tattooed to look bushier, has not announced his position on the matter.