SEOUL, South Korea (Circa) — Aerok Kim moves his hand with precision, knowing that a minor slip up could cause irreversible damage to his client's skin. He pauses for a brief moment to look at the artwork he's created: a tattoo showcasing a hodgepodge of iconic symbols native to New Mexico.
Kim, 47, is an illegal tattoo artist here in South Korea, according to Korean law. The Korean Ministry of Justice interprets tattoos as an invasive medical procedure that should only be done by doctors with the appropriate credentials.
But that's not stopping this Korean-American from pursuing his art underground.
"I don't look at myself as a doctor, Kim told Circa. "I look at myself as an artist who is drawing on skin. People come to me and tell me about their dreams, and we're putting that on their skin. And that's what I do. So the law can say whatever. I don't really care about the law."
Though estimates are hard to come by, the Korea Tattoo Association, a group leading the legalization movement, says there could be anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 underground tattoo artists in South Korea, if not more.
Arang Kim of Seoul Ink has been tattooing for seven years. She believes that the industry could be made much safer if officials legitimized the unregulated industry and implemented a set of health standards for non-medically licensed tattoo artists to follow.
"If more attention is given to it, and proper regulations are made, the tattoo scene would be safer without any problems," Kim said in Korean.
An unregulated industry
In Aerok Kim's native California, for instance, the state requires an artist to obtain a body art license before even coming close to a tattoo gun, according to the Safe Body Art Act of 2012. Owners even have to adhere to certain standards when it comes to the cleanliness of the facility as well as the safe disposal of materials that may contain bodily fluids.
But that's not necessarily the case in South Korea. Some Korean tattooists say that the provision intended to keep the public safe may actually be doing more harm than good. The estimated thousands of underground tattooists in South Korea are invisible in the eyes of the law, which means they're not required to possess certain certifications, or training, like body art professionals do in the United States.
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Aerok Kim says the somewhat unregulated industry could foster potentially dangerous situations for tattooists who haven't taken the time to educate or train themselves properly.
"If you don't know what you're doing, you don't know what's going to happen," he added. "So being safety conscious is very important to me. I have my blood-borne license, which you can only get in the States. Every year, I take the test. And so I know what to do when someone is bleeding or I know what to do when someone's skin is getting affected."
And even though the law exists, enforcement has been inconsistent. In 2009, for example, police raided Aerok Kim's parlor after receiving nearly 1,300 complaints. He says the calls were made from other tattoo shops who were jealous of his booming business and had hopes of shutting him down completely.
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To a certain extent, their efforts were successful. Police confiscated his tattoo equipment and slapped him with a $2,000 fine. But later on, they gave him his machines back, and he opened another shop.
"No one is going to stop me from tattooing," he said defiantly.
Breaking the stigma
Traditionalists still view tattoos as taboo markings associated with criminal organizations, or men who hoped to avoid mandatory military service (in which tattoos are prohibited).
Over the years, tattoos have certainly become more mainstream in South Korea thanks to the global rise of K-pop and foreign influence, but the ban still exists despite repeated attempts to reverse it.
"Two to three years ago, the view on tattoos was very conservative, but now there are many celebrities on TV with tattoos," Arang Kim told Circa. "This means tattoos are being accepted."
Fully reconciling South Korea's conservative identity with a more modern one won't come easy, she added, but it's worth the fight in the long run.
"I was criticized in the beginning and it was burdensome," she said. "I questioned myself whether this work is the right thing, and I even questioned morality. But now, I don't care about it anymore. I am enjoying my work, and I think I can continue my work since I feel proud when I see customers who are satisfied with my work."