South Korean tattoo aficionados seek changes in law

Viyah Lee sports her five tattoos like hidden badges of rebellion: a small treble clef in her ear, her name fashioned in leopard spots on her left hip, discreet images on her wrist and ankles.

Now the 26-year-old former model is ready to emerge from the body art closet. Defying long-held prejudices and an edict decreeing that only physicians can tattoo, she’s crafting her own skin design, which she plans to have etched on a prominent spot on her neck or shoulders.

“These images are an art form, not a medical procedure,” she says. “Doctors aren’t artists.”

Lee is part of an emerging campaign to change what advocates call this conservative culture’s outdated views on tattoos, long stigmatized as adornments for mobsters and hoodlums.

With the indelible designs being embraced by the nation’s youths as a fashion statement, tattooists are calling for regulation and legalization of the industry and want lawmakers to amend a 2001 law that defines tattooing as a medical procedure.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Kang Un, 38, executive director of the Korean Tattoo Assn., who estimates that there are 22,000 illegal tattoo artists nationwide. “But there’s still a huge gap between law and reality.”

Only a few generations ago, tattoos were seen as a scarlet letter, with critics saying they violate Confucian teachings to preserve the body. There was even a curse: “You should be tattooed!” In the 1980s, the government arrested men with tattoos on the assumption they were involved in illegal activities, activists say.

South Korean law still labels men with large and obvious tattoos as unfit for the military, reasoning that they cause “abomination among fellow soldiers.” Scores of tattoo artists have been arrested for providing would-be military conscripts a loophole to avoid the draft.

As a result, the tattoo industry lurks underground. Most parlors have unmarked fronts to avoid detection by police, who have raided the shops to confiscate tattoo machines and fine proprietors as much as $10,000.

Kang says tattoos got a public relations boost in a 2003 when, during a soccer match against Japan, South Korean soccer star Ahn Jung-hwan threw off his shirt after scoring a goal and revealed tattoos on both shoulders on national television.

“It showed that everyone with a tattoo wasn’t a criminal or a thug,” he said. “This guy is a sports legend.”

But problems remain. Last month, a human rights court here ruled that a club for golfers didn’t violate the rights of an applicant who had been denied membership because he sported numerous tattoos.

One scholar says that attitude changes are slow in coming.

“Tattoos need to be legalized to be truly accepted in Korea,” said Cho Hyun-soul, a Seoul National University professor and author of the Korean-language book “The History of the Tattoo.”

After conducting his research, Cho says, he now wants a tattoo, “though I haven’t decided on what.”

For Viyah Lee, acceptance has also come slowly: Her parents balked at her first tattoo: an ankle a rendering of two feathers with the words “Give God the Glory.”

“My father didn’t say anything, which meant he was really mad,” she recalled. “My mother told me to go to the hospital to have it removed. I told her that would cost more than the tattoo.”

Not long after Lee became a tattoo artist, her father bought her $500 worth of ink.

“We were against her choice at first, but have come to support her,” said her mother, Park Jong-shil, a lecturer on Korean cultural assets. “She has passion for it, and we appreciate her work now.”

Lee now collaborates with clients to design a lasting work of art. Her advice: Don’t follow the crowd with something seen on a starlet or soccer player.

“Your tattoo should have a special meaning, a hint to the person that’s inside,” she said. “It’s something you wear for life.”

Ethan Kim in The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.