Story by: Dave Hazzan, Photos by: Dave Hazzan
At noon this Saturday, the police came to the weekend Ink Bomb Tattoo Convention in Seoul. By Sunday, it was all over – no tattoos, no more convention, leave your name and number to get your money back.
Only a quarter mile from a neighborhood where anyone can get their nose replaced, their jaw shaved and their eyelids slit open, Ink Bomb Korea was eviscerated of its primary purpose for daring to stencil ink on someone’s body – an illegal practice unless performed by a doctor. And on Saturday, the police decided this law would be enforced.
Five police officers walked through the venue at WAV Bar and Bistro in Apgujeong, checking IDs, ordering artists to clear up their stands, and above all making sure no tattoo needles or ink were out, never mind being used.
By 1:30 p.m., the police had left and allowed the convention to begin an hour and a half late – provided no tattooing was done.
Moon Seun-dong is a lawyer who works for the tattoo convention, and who was following the police. “In Korea, tattoo artists giving tattoos is regulated by criminal law and medical law,” he said, a fancy way of saying it’s illegal. “People with bad emotions toward tattoos called the police.” Moon was sympathetic to the cops, though, adding that they were only “doing their jobs.”
An official from Sinsa police station commented after the event, saying, “We received a complaint from someone, but I cannot disclose the person’s identity for privacy reasons. Getting tattoos is illegal in Korea, according to a special law related to public health, and that’s why we had to crack down on them.”
Business back underground
Norm, 39 and from Hawaii, is a famous tattoo and graffiti artist who flew to Korea specifically for the show.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of appointments. I’m just waiting for the police to leave so I can do my appointments. I’m booked solid the whole time I’m in Korea,” he said. Though the conference paid for his hotel and meals, he paid his own flight over, knowing that he would make the money back easily once he arrived.
But the law meant that was unlikely to happen. On Sunday, he was giving private tattoos at an undisclosed location, hoping to make back his airfare and expenses.
Billy DeCola, 38, is a tattoo artist from Vancouver, BC. He was doing a tattoo convention in Toronto when someone told him Ink Bomb was “a really good show” and that there was a “huge tattoo culture (in Korea) and that it was kind of underground.”
“It seems to be pretty cool,” he said of Korean tattoo culture. “I kind of like the fact it’s a little bit underground. But when I saw the cops barge in today, that wasn’t cool. I do not want to go to jail in Korea. I like fish and all, but fish heads and rice for the rest of my life is not going to cut it. And I don’t know what the penalty is for that infringement.”
He had a sign-up sheet laid out for anyone who wanted to get a tattoo somewhere private. “The plan was to tattoo today and tomorrow,” he said. “But if we can’t tattoo, then I’m going to go get some barbecue and start drinking.”
Neither Norm nor DeCola were able to comment on Sunday, except to say they were doing some tattooing in unspecified locations.
Ko Pyung-jin, 26, was waiting to get his first-ever tattoo done: the word “noble” across his chest. It’s what his son’s name means in English. He had an appointment to do it with Big Sleeps, one of the American artists.
“It’s my first tattoo, so I’m not going to just get it from some guy,” he said. He wasn’t sure if it was going to happen though.
“Tattooing is illegal, they can treat everyone as criminals,” he said. “I guess they’ve got nothing to do today.”
Throughout the convention, people were spitting angry at the wasted time, money and talent, even if fully cognizant the law was the law. The police reappeared again later in the day, and then again at the end, around 9:40 p.m. By this point, several rebels had thrown caution to the wind and were tattooing anyway. They were shut down, but there were no arrests or tickets.
On Sunday, the Ink Bomb organizers decided it was pointless to continue the show, and they axed the day’s events.
Saem is a tattoo artist with Sunrat Tattoos in Hongdae, one of the organizing studios. “We felt, this is a tattoo convention, and since none of the artists are going to be tattooing, we just pulled the plug on it.”
He admitted they’ve lost a lot of money, “But (we’re) going to take it like a man, though.”
He couldn’t say exactly how much money had been lost.
Many foreigners at the convention were surprised tattooing was illegal in Korea, though most had heard it had been in the past. But with tattoo shops up all over Hongdae and Itaewon, they assumed it had been legalized.
Jillian Robbins, of White Lies Burlesque Review, did a short performance Saturday afternoon, but the police interventions pushed the schedule back, and time ran out before the group could do its big show.
“Our group act at the end of the night was canceled,” she said. “That really sucks because we prepared this group show, sewed costumes, choreographed stuff, met up for weeks, and then we didn’t even get to do it. And we bought all the stuff for it, too, and a lot of it is perishable, because we were going to use chocolate and cream and cherries.”
But they weren’t too upset, because there was still the next day. “And we said, ‘Well, at least we get to do it tomorrow!’” Robbins said, dripping sarcasm. “And now we can’t.”
Allison Lee, 28, of Ilsan, was primed to go to Ink Bomb on Sunday, and was furious she couldn’t. “I find it astonishing that they have built this country to what it is but can’t allow for a little bit of ink to be tattooed on consenting adults.”
Martina Stawski, of the Eat Your Kimchi blog, was apoplectic. “A tattoo gun to the eye for beauty is okay and adjusting your body in various ways using plastic surgery is okay – you can shave your jawbone, slice your eye socket open for bigger eyes, adjust your nose and breasts as you please – but drawing on your body is deemed crazy and illegal!” Stawski said. “This old-fashioned attitude needs to change, considering Korea openly supports other forms of body adjustment.”
Stawski had big plans for the day, but those were cancelled along with the convention. “This is just super disappointing, considering I just got an amazing half-sleeve tattoo done in Korea by a Korean artist, and was excited to show it off and represent the Korean tattoo world.”
Art, not illegal
This was not the first time the convention has been shut down.
Andrew Chubb, 31, was three-quarters of the way through a leg tattoo two years ago at Ink Bomb, when the police shut that one down. He had to go to a hotel room with the artist to have it finished. Last year, the police showed up but left peacefully, and many tattoos were done. This year there was no such luck.
As for next year, Saem doesn’t even want to think about it. “As of right now, we don’t know,” he said.
But he said one of the main points they were trying to make was that tattooing wasn’t for gangbangers, it was for all sorts of people. “This is a show to show people that (tattooing) shouldn’t be illegal,” he said. “It’s art.”
Dave Hazzan is a regular contributor to Groove Korea. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine. This article was updated from its original version, adding police comment. — Ed.