Thursday’s decision by the Constitutional Court of Seoul to uphold a law banning the practice of tattooing by non-medical professionals has sparked outrage among tattoo artists and advocates across the country.
The ban, originally set in place by a Supreme Court decision in 1992, argues that tattooing is dangerous and could cause infections among other negative health effects. Only those with a medical license were given the right to perform the practice.
The Constitutional Court upheld the ban on Thursday in a 5-4 vote.
Well-known artist Kim Do-yoon, who heads a union of 650 tattooists, criticized the ruling, saying, “No one in the world believes that tattooing is a medical practice and requires medical expertise.”
“It’s just pathetic because only the judges of the Constitutional Court don’t seem to know this,” she added.
Kim, a 14-year industry veteran who has tattooed the likes of Brad Pitt and several K-pop stars, has led campaigns and petitions to legalize the practice in Korea in the past but has met no success. He, along with some of the 220,000 estimated tattooists in Korea, have faced penalties including fines of up to 10 million won (approximately $8,200) and up to two years of prison time.
Many artists advertise their services on social media platforms, including Instagram, where they post pictures of their finished work and are less likely to be caught by authorities.
The Korea Tattoo Association says that the industry is worth 200 billion won (approximately $170 million) a year, and studies show there are 13 million people that have at least one tattoo in Korea.
A 2021 poll showed that four out of five South Koreans in their 20s, and a majority of overall participants, were in favor of lifting the ban against tattooing; however, the struggle to legalize tattooing in Korea has long been undermined by the lasting stigma that tattoos have in the country. They have been associated in the past with gangs and those who engage in criminal activity. This stigma, along with the opposition of doctors and medical associations questioning the health risks of using needles on the body, has stymied many attempts by advocates at legalizing tattooing.
South Korea remains one of the only developed countries to prohibit the practice of tattooing by non-medical professionals.