'Memories we can touch and see': Korean tattoo artists operate in secret

Lisa, seen here in May 2017, traveled from Austria all the way to South Korea to get a tattoo after seeing artists' work online. (WTHR Photo/Steve Rhodes)

SEOUL, Korea (WTHR) - Korean art, intentional or incidental, is often rooted in tradition. The most visible art displays celebrate Korea's religious and cultural history but this is a country where some art remains hidden in the shadows, created by artists who work in secret.

"We don't have signs. We do all of our advertising on the internet. Usually, people know our reputation," Zihwa said.

Korean tattoo artist Zihwa
Zihwa, seen here in May 2017, is a tattoo artist in Seoul, South Korea, where tattoos are still illegal. (WTHR Photo/Steve Rhodes)

Zihwa has an international reputation as a tattoo artist. In fact, 340,000 people follow her on Instagram.

"Instagram allows me to be known to Westerners. It shows people that Korean tattoos are high quality and the tattoo artists have good skills," Zihwa explained. "I look at the body shape first and then determine what would look good. We use a very delicate needle. That allows us to get great detail."

Social media is one of the few ways tattoo artists like Zihwa and Doa can promote themselves.

"Korea is the only country in the world where tattoo is still illegal," Doa said. "We are not able to get the walk-in customers, so the only way we can promote ourselves is Instagram and Facebook."

Americans and Europeans along with people from China and Hong Kong come to South Korea to get tattoos. If these Korean artists are caught giving tattoos, though, they face fines or jail time. That is why many have security cameras in the hallway outside their office.

"You have to be a little bit careful. There's a chance the police might come into our shop. So, we always have to prepare for it," Doa explained. "If police catch us while we're doing the tattoo, then we become as a criminal, just like the thief or other criminals. We are just equal to them."

Zihwa promotes herself on Instagram as someone who can "sketch your memories on your skin. Memories we can touch and see."

"I really thought these are beautiful and I thought, 'I really need to get some of these on my body'," a customer, Lisa, told us. She saw the tattoos on social media. "At first, I thought this art was beautiful. They look unique from each tattoo artist here in Korea."

She came all the way from Austria to get a tattoo.

"I was just telling her to draw something she likes which suits my body and I'm going with it, and I'm getting a rose on my back," Lisa said.

“It's like art on the body.”

The popularity of these Koreans on social media is an indication that their artistry may be different than tattoos in other parts of the world.

"I was looking for artists like that in Europe, but you really can't find them," Lisa said.

Ida is another popular tattoo artist with more than 70,000 followers on Instagram.

"When a customer comes in, I'll do a consultation to determine what tattoo they want me to make. We'll discuss designs," Ida explained of the process she uses. "Korean tattoos have tiny lines. We have detailed colors, designs and illustrations. Korean people care about how these tattoos look on people. I'm concerned about how people look at these tattoos. I'm concerned about other people's viewpoint, too."

Ida says the perception of having a tattoo on your body in changing in Korea.

"Before, tattoos were for gangsters. But there are many young tattoo artists making very nice designs. It's like art on the body. It's becoming more common," Ida said.

The designs she promotes on social media draw customers from all over the world.

"One person came here from Iceland. I didn't even know where that country was. I asked him, 'Why are you coming here for a tattoo?' She said, 'Yours are special'," Ida recalled.

You do see some tattoo shops in Korea, but until the government changes its policy many of the top artists will continue to work in a hidden world.

"It's what we want to do. This is our life. This is the only thing we really want to do, so we're taking the risk," Doa said.

"I hope it will be more appreciated and that Koreans will be more open-minded with tattoos because it's beautiful," Lisa said.

A steady hand and a creative mind always produce beauty, no matter the canvas.

"I want to engrave something for another person which makes them happy. It's not like clothes or shoes or changing hair color. It lasts forever," Doa said.

Courtesy: Zihwa's Instagram
Courtesy: Zihwa's Instagram
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