I'm planning on getting a tattoo in Korean. I'm Korean so its legit, but I just want to know why most Koreans find tattoos so offensive. My mom is totally against it and will kill me if she finds out.
I recently earned my Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. I am very proud of my accomplishment, and was also considering getting a tattoo to commemorate the years of perseverance and hard work it took to acheive that goal. I thought it would be fitting for the symbol to be in Korean, as I understand Tae Kwon Do originated in Korea. I don't, however, want to be one of those fools who has 'dumbass' tattooed on their body when they think it means 'indomitable spirit'!! What are your thoughts on this trend, and do you think it would be offensive or shocking to a person if Korean heritage? I don't mean to be a Korean 'wannabe', just proud of my accomplishment. The tattoo definitely won't be on my neck!!
Dear Lina and C,
This post about Prince Fielder's neck tattoo in Korean is really what made this blog take off (and not any of the Korean's erudite and well-reasoned observations on culture -- sad, but the Korean will take whatever he can get.) "Korean tattoo" is one of the most common Google search terms for this blog, along with "ask a korean", "korean men" and "korean porn."
First, a little bit about tattoos in Korea generally. Simply put, tattoos are just not a Korean thing to do. Traditionally (starting from 15th century or so), Korean people strictly followed this Confucian teaching: "Keep your body whole, for it is given to you by your father and mother." Even cutting hair or shaving was forbidden in an effort to keep your body whole. (Women put their hair in various decorative braids; men put their hair in a single knot that was tied at the top of their head, and wore a headgear that kept the knot in place.)
Korea was modernized eventually, but attitudes about making marks on one's body did not change much. (Except, of course, for plastic surgery lately.) Yet tattooing was in fact fairly common in a nearby country that all Koreans hate more than anyone else -- you guessed it, Japan. Organized criminals in Japan used extensive tattooing in order to mark the "families" to which they belonged, and organized criminals in Korea began to mimic such practices. As a result, until very recently, only people who had tattoos in Korea were thugs. Below is a picture of freshly arrested organized criminals in Korea.
So it really should not be surprising that Koreans have a very negative attitude toward tattooing. How negative is it? Being of a non-doctor tattooist is actually illegal in Korea, and carries roughly $3,000 of fine because tattooing is "unlicensed medical practice." (This law is not very often enforced, but it's in the book.) Excessive tattoos on a body is one of the ways to get out of the mandatory military service for men, along with torn ACL, missing index finger and schizophrenia, because excessive tattoos "create disharmony in the unit."
But like everything, attitude toward tattooing in Korea is changing recently. Henna tattoos are very available near any college campus, just like the U.S. It is not difficult at all to find tattooists in the middle of Seoul -- although they still mostly operate in the shadow. Fashionable tattoos are generally accepted among the young generation of Korea -- but don't expect older Korean folks to like you if you got sleeves.
What about Korean tattoos in the U.S.? Would a tattoo in Korean on a non-Korean person be offensive? In the Korean's opinion, probably not. For Koreans, non-Koreans operate in a separate plane of reality -- "our" rules don't apply to "them". After all, these foreign barbarians don't bow to their elders and keep their shoes on in a house -- who cares if they want to look like criminals? If anything, a tattoo in Korean would be mildly amusing to an average Korean, since Korean people don't expect non-Koreans to know anything about Korea. A Korean tattoo would signal your interest in Korean culture, however minimally, so it would not necessarily be a bad thing.
What does the Korean think about all this? That's a tough question. The Korean himself has no objection to tattoos in general. The Korean hates it when people get Asian letters just for the sake of their "exotic" appearance, because that's the precisely the type of attitude that keeps Asian Americans from feeling comfortable in America. But recently, like C, tattoos in Asian lettering often show a genuine attempt in understanding more about Asian culture -- the Korean welcomes that.
And then there's the "gut reaction" problem. Americans generally don't get a tattoo in plain English because plain words are not cryptic enough -- it's just not interesting. The gut reaction of an average American, if she saw the words "perseverance" tattooed on one's chest in Times New Roman font, would be that it looks silly. Well, the Korean can read Korean and Chinese, so tattoos in Korean and Chinese are not cryptic at all. So the Korean's gut reaction toward such tattoos are that they just look stupid. This is what the Korean wrote when he first saw Prince Fielder's neck tattoo: "It is as if some regular Korean dude was hanging out and drinking with Prince Fielder one night, then Fielder passes out, and the Korean dude picked up a marker and wrote it on his neck as a joke." The Korean can never shake that feeling whenever he sees a tattoo in Asian characters.
At any rate, what the hell do you care about what the Korean thinks? If you want a tattoo in Korean, go nuts. Just make sure it doesn't say "dumbass".
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.