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Morality, legality and tattoos

By David Tizzard

If the modern world and the rise of social media have taught us anything, it's that we can be prompted very quickly and easily to pass judgment on a number of things ― many of which might be considered beyond our natural area of expertise. Putting that to the test, and without getting all Michael Sandel on you, consider the following two cases and your reaction to them.

Case A: Mrs. Jeong, married for 15 years but largely unhappy at being forced to live an isolated and unappreciated existence as a housewife, begins seeing another man. They exchange text messages, meet for coffees and occasionally visit a motel in the afternoon. Her husband and daughter are unaware of her steamy tryst.

Case B: Su-min, a young university student in Seoul studying fashion design, gets a tattoo of a star on her shoulder. It represents the light she found in friendship and solidarity. Her mother is unimpressed but ultimately accepting and aware that "kids these days" will do such things.

Both situations are relatively commonplace. The first might make you somewhat sympathetic but also perhaps uneasy about the morality of infidelity; the second, rather tame and uneventful in comparison.

In Korea, however, only one of these cases would "technically" be a case for the police: Su-min and her tattoo. For Case A, the country's Constitutional Court finally overturned the law that made adultery illegal in 2015.

There is a wide and often confusing literature that explores the difference between morality and legality. Ultimately, however, the general conclusion for many seems to be that the two terms are not coterminous: legality is not morality.

There are many acts people around us might commit that would be illegal but which we would not feel are immoral, say your father driving 73 on a 70 km/h road. Conversely, the acts of adultery and lying are perfectly legal (now) but toward which we might have serious reservations vis-a-vis the morality.

This delicate act between the two has come into stark relief with the country's battle to legalize abortion, the anti-discrimination laws seeking approval, and…tattoos.

Since 1992, the South Korean government has enforced a law that permits only licensed medical professionals to give tattoos. The stated reason for this is that tattoos are classified as a medical service because of the dangers of infection.

Obviously, not many people are going to spend all those years at medical school just so they can draw butterflies on women's ankles and barbed wire across men's biceps.

Thus your regular artist or aficionado is not legally allowed to do give tattoos. Most if not all of those tattoo shops you see around town or advertised on Instagram are actually illegal (just like the prostitution parlors that are conveniently located fairly close to police stations).

One result is that the tattoo scene here in South Korea remains untaxed, unregulated, and unprotected. Customers have the power to report tattoo artists should they ever feel disgruntled with their ink and the artists live under constant fear of sporadic or unprompted clampdowns on their work and livelihood.

It wasn't so much of a problem 20-odd years ago. Tattoos were very much a niche thing and only associated with certain demographics.

Now, however, more and more young people are getting them (my university classes are filled with many of the Su-mins described above) and celebrities can be seen sporting body ink on most of the major television stations and programs: Hyori being a notable example, of late.

The traditional word for tattoo in Korea is "munshin" ― meaning "characters engraved on the body." Unlike the artistic or ritual connotations found in Polynesia and elsewhere, munshins were often used as a form of punishment.

During the early years of the Joseon Dynasty, the aristocrats would brand their slaves with these munshin so that they could not run away. The munshin denoted both class and status ― neither of which was positive. Such attitudes continued into early modernity, with munshin being associated with gangsters (jopok) and the lower class.

This introduced a necessary linguistic distinction for some people: a move from munshin to tattoos. Munshin were threatening, violent, anti-social and often masculine. Tattoos were positive, individual, sexy and fashionable.

A 2013 study also revealed something rather interesting: More women than men have them. Over 60 percent of those with tattoos are women. Obviously each person would have their own reasons for doing so, but one might question whether there is an element of women reclaiming their bodies and fighting back against Confucian ideals that sanctify their body and claim it as the property of their parents.

In a 2018 survey on the perception of tattoos, 70.9 percent of the respondents said that views on body ink have become more lenient. This was a rather dramatic rise from 47.5 percent when the same question was asked four years earlier.

It was estimated last year that about a million Koreans have tattoos and about 500,000 tattoos are given each year. Other recent reports, however, suggest that more than 3 million citizens now have tattoos.

According to the Korea Tattoo Association, approximately 220,000 were engaged in tattooing last year. Not surprising when one considers the industry's market size is roughly 200 billion won.

It was with all this in mind that Democratic Party lawmaker Park Ju-min proposed a bill that would allow people other than licensed medical professionals and doctors to give tattoos. The bill would ultimately give the Ministry of Health and Welfare the ability to provide licenses to people to open and run their own parlors.

The research provided to supplement the proposal claimed that only 0.6 percent of those surveyed had received their tattoos from an actual doctor in a completely legal and above-board manner.

The move, which has been demanded by tattooists for some time, would bring the country more in line with its OECD counterparts. In the United Kingdom, for example, tattoo artists can receive licenses if they complete certain training related to hygiene, safety and technology.

Some in the medical profession have hit back, however. They suggested in the press this week that just because cannabis is legal in Canada and drugs and prostitution are legal in the Netherlands, it doesn't necessarily follow that Korea should follow such trends and that the social fallout here would be large.

The medical professionals ― rich, powerful and connected ― obviously have quite a bit of leverage when it comes to such issues. However, looking at their arguments and the rather non-analogous comparisons they make, one might begin to question whether all that money they put toward education was well-spent.

Ultimately, until the issue is resolved, all those people around you with tattoos have likely engaged in illegal activities. Surely none of us would think they did anything immoral? So why would the country make criminals of them?

Perhaps the lawmakers might like to start an informed discussion on the topic with a view to addressing the issue?

Probably worth mentioning as I close, should any of them be listening, that I don't have any tattoos myself. I do, however, think Su-min should be given the freedom to get one if she wants.


Dr. David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University. He discusses the week's hottest issues on TBS eFM (101.3FM) on "Life Abroad" live every Thursday from 9:35 a.m. to 10 a.m.




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