***Note: Some photos in this article may be NSFW.***
Name: Kim Dong-woo
Hometown: Busan, Korea
With his slight frame and mumbling Busan inflection, Kim Dong-woo didn’t strike me a rebel or criminal. In fact, a part of me really wanted him to work a typical nine to six Korean job so that I could refute the Korean stereotype that tattoos are only found on gangsters and delinquents. But before I could even think of a cheeky headline (“Tattooed People: They’re Just Like Us!”), he smiled sheepishly and explained that his occupation was “not something bad, but not exactly legal”—much like the state of tattoos in Korea. (Tattoo studios are not sanctioned by Korean law, which requires anyone penetrating skin with needle to be a licensed medical practitioner.)
Dong-woo got his first tattoo in high school, courtesy of a friend with some ink and a needle. Within a few years, he had a change of heart and went under the laser to remove it. It wasn’t until his late-twenties when he met Horikuni, a Korean tattoo artist who specializes in the dying art of irezumi, or horimono, that he considered inking again.
We met Dong-woo at Horkuni’s unmarked studio in southern Seoul for his twentieth inking session.
Q: When or how did you first get interested in tattoos?
A: When I was 15 or 16. I thought they were fashionable. Something I could wear on my body.
Q: Why did you get another tattoo after erasing your first?
A: It wasn’t my intention to get another tattoo. But then I got to know Horikuni. When I saw [his designs]], I thought this was the kind of thing I could wear for the rest of my life.
Q: How do your family, friends or girlfriend react to your inked body?
A: About two or three out of 10 people would react negatively, but the rest were fine.
Q: You must be surrounded by very supportive, open-minded people.
A: Yes, many of my friends have tattoos. I’d say about three out of 10 people around me have tattoos. Some even more than me.
Q: How do strangers take to your tattoos?
A: I don’t stare at others in public. When my tattoo is showing, I tend not to make eye contact with strangers. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable.
Q: Do you think the way most Koreans perceive tattoos will change in the near future?
A: In 10 years, I think Korea will change and people will embrace tattoos as much as any other foreign country.
The following photos were taken during another session after the interview.
Interview has been translated from Korean.