South Korean tattooist Doy counts Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt and members of K-Pop band EXO among his celebrity clients, but his delicate, detailed designs could land him in prison.
Doy is leading a campaign for the abolition of a law that reflects tattoos’ long-marginalized status in South Korea, where they were once associated almost exclusively with organized crime.
While tattooing itself is not illegal, it is classed as a medical procedure and is only allowed to be carried out by a fully qualified doctor — with the law setting a minimum two-year prison sentence for violators, although judges can impose lighter penalties.
Tattoo artists say the law has failed to keep pace, as tattoos have become more mainstream in the past few years, championed by K-pop stars, athletes and others with powerful fan bases in South Korea.
Doy’s career illustrates the contradictions: One of the most prominent tattoo artists in the country, he has nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram.
He declines to say what he inked Pitt with last year, citing client confidentiality, but is known at home and abroad for his unique designs — from a bird to croissants to a jumping gymnast — and his intricate use of color.
Even so, there is no sign on his studio in central Seoul.
“On your way back home after tattooing Brad Pitt, there are no words to describe how proud you feel,” he said. “But from the moment you arrive at Incheon International Airport, you worry about the tattoo tools in your bag.”
Doy says the situation leaves the country’s community of about 20,000 tattooists vulnerable to random raids — as well as blackmail by malicious clients.
Earlier this year, he established the country’s first tattoo artists’ union and plans to soon ask the South Korean Constitutional Court to legalize tattooing by non-doctors.
However, after media reports featuring his union activities, someone — who has not been publicly identified — filed a criminal complaint.
It “feels crappy” to be investigated, he said, but felt he “had to do something.”
“If you leave things as they are, nothing will change,” he added.
According to the Korea Tattoo Association — a separate organization to Doy’s union — at least 1 million Koreans have inked their skin, and the illicit but growing tattoo industry is worth about 200 billion won (US$170 million) a year.
Despite their popularity, tattoos can still carry negative connotations, especially at workplaces in South Korea, with public broadcasters often blurring them out.
Medical doctors oppose lifting the ban, as doing so would “endanger” Koreans, because getting a tattoo might lead to “a serious infection or allergic reactions,” the Korea Medical Association said
Doy says his union plans to introduce health guidelines, in collaboration with medical professionals who support their cause.
Doy has tattooed at least 10,000 people, but says he never faced prosecution or blackmail, until July.
Other tattooists, though, had lost their income after being convicted, and he knows of artists who have committed suicide as a result.
“This is very devastating,” he said. “In a way, they lost their lives because they were painting.”
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