Will a presidential election mark the end of tattoo taboos in South Korea?

SEOUL, Feb 21 (Reuters) – Doy, one of South Korea’s most famous tattoo artists who tattooed Brad Pitt, just wants to practice his craft without fear of going to jail or heavy fines.

South Korea is the only developed country in the world where tattooing is considered a procedure that only medical professionals are able to perform legally.

That leaves almost all of the country’s 50,000 tattoo artists at the mercy of potential police raids and lawsuits, facing fines of up to 50 million won ($42,000) as well as jail time, in theory. as much as life.

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Doy, who like many other tattoo artists practices in a modest building with no signage, was himself fined 5 million won ($4,180) last year after a video of him of inking a popular Korean actress has gone viral. The 43-year-old appealed the decision. An investigation by the union of 650 tattoo artists led by Doy also revealed six cases since last April of artists being sentenced to prison terms – usually two years.

But change may well be on the way.

Over the past 10 years, tattoos have become increasingly popular among young South Koreans. BTS member Jungkook has several and while tattoos are usually covered up on TV, celebrities haven’t been shy about showing them off on social media. At the same time, appreciation for “K-tattoos”, often distinguished by fine line art, intricate detail and bold use of color, has grown at home and abroad.

This did not escape the notice of the ruling party’s candidate for the March 9 presidential election, Lee Jae-myung. In a move seen as courting young voters, Lee said last month it didn’t make sense for the industry to be illegal, noted it was worth around $1 billion and vowed to support the bills. currently pending in Parliament to legalize tattooing.

“I’m really grateful for the promise. This is probably the best artistic inspiration tattoo artists have had lately,” Doy, real name Kim Do-yoon, said in her living room.

Lee currently trails Yoon Suk-yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party, 34% to 41%, according to an opinion poll by Gallup Korea. Yoon’s party has yet to take a stance on traditional tattoos but supports the legalization of so-called cosmetic tattoos, which are semi-permanent and popular in South Korea for enhancing eyebrows, eyeliner and the hairline.

Ahn Cheol-soo, a third candidate with 11% support who had his eyebrows tattooed to look bushier, did not announce his position on the issue.

Public support for legalizing the industry appears to be growing.

According to a Gallup Korea poll last year, 81% of South Koreans in their 20s and about 60% of those in their 30s and 40s support legalization.

About 3 million people in South Korea have at least one tattoo and if semi-permanent cosmetic tattoos are included, that rises to 13 million, according to a 2018 estimate from a local medical device manufacturer. , The standard.

But for many older generations in South Korea, tattoos are associated with gangs and go against the Confucian belief that altering the human body means disrespecting one’s parents.

The country’s leading medical group, which argues tattooing with needles is an “invasive” procedure that can damage the body, also opposes legalization.

“Except to cover scars, from a medical point of view, I think tattooing with needles is self-harm, not an expression of freedom,” dermatologist Hwang Ji-hwan told Reuters. and advisor to the Korean Medical Association.

“We are trying to protect public health,” he said.

Doy said many of his colleagues have already gone to work overseas, with some applying for artist visas in the United States.

“Our country could have managed the industry better and developed it to add value to the economy. But it looks like we lost that timing, so it’s extremely sad,” he said.

($1 = 1,196.1000 won)

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Reporting by Ju-min Park and Daewoung Kim; additional reporting by Yeni Seo; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

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