There’s much more writing and explanation further below, as I explore the art of tattooing and Korean culture. Mamiya RZ 67 shots on Ilford Delta 3200 medium format film above, Canon AE-1 / fixed 50mm lens shots on slightly expired Kodak Tmax 3200 35mm film below.
Having a tattoo in Korea is perfectly legal. However, the act of physically inking someone’s skin is illegal unless it’s for medical purposes. Traditionally, tattoos were only worn by gangsters in Korea. There’s still a bit of a stigma about being inked in Korea, but the times are changing. You can check a great article from the Wall Street Journal that delves into this topic here. Within the past five or so years of me living here, tattoos have become much more common and can be seen almost daily. The younger generation seems eager to change from traditional values, impressed with and influenced by Western thought and culture. I’ve even seen Korean underground hip hop rappers donning Hispanic / Chicano / LA lowrider tattoos. Also, I’ve noted many Japanese style tattoos being worn by Koreans despite so much hatred Koreans tend to have against their neighbors to the east. This hatred stems from the sordid history of the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. I feel this animosity is something the older folks cling to, unwilling to forget the tragedies that were brought on by the Japanese. The millennials, however, don’t want to be burdened by anything beyond the countless hours of studying they do. I teach university students, and it’s apparent that they are competing hard so that they can land a dream job. The last thing they want to stress about is the past since their culture deems they move forward and be successful. There’s so much pressure put on them to perform to make their families proud. With all this strain and high expectation placed on their shoulders, the younger generation seem to simply want to be free and live in the moment. And what shows more freedom and independence than going out and getting a tattoo?
I was highly intrigued when I heard that a student, Gui Young, had an appointment to get some ink. Gui Young works in our university’s design department office, a place I frequent as a Master’s degree student, so we chat often. When she told me of her appointment, I knew I had to see if she’d let me go and document the experience. She was fine with it all and showed me her design, a symbol that represents ‘hakuna matata,’ living without worries. Even though she had no qualms about me going with to watch and snap away, we were both unsure of how the tattoo artist would feel being photographed. After all, it is an illegal practice. Yet, it being illegal here further fueled my curiosity and I wanted to both capture the story and learn more about the craft.
So off we went to the tattoo shop, a very small office located a few blocks from campus. I’d ridden by the place countless times since it’s on my bike route to work. I’d noted a sign outside, but the door was always closed. The sign mentioned ‘appointment only.’ I didn’t know what the lighting would be like inside. Figuring it’d be dark, I made sure to bring some high speed black and white film. As we knocked on the door, I was relieved to find that the artist didn’t mind me taking pictures of the experience. Indeed, the interior of the parlor was quite dark so I proceeded to load up some Ilford Delta 3200 medium format film in the Mamiya RZ 67. Also, a roll of Kodak Tmax 3200 in 35mm was fed into the Canon AE-1. The first 15 shots are from the Mamiya. The last ones are from the Canon. You’ll note the difference in film texture and format ( the 35mm is a bit skinnier than the 6×7 medium format ).
I’ve tried my best to put the whole experience in order. I wanted to take pictures to show how the events unfolded. However, there are two sets of photos each in their own chronological order – the first from the Mamiya, the second from the Canon. First, I shot the tattooist’s desk. The tattoo design, done by Gui Young, is displayed on the computer monitor. From there we see the tattoo artist cutting out the stencil, then placing it on Gui Young, preparing the needle, and finally inking her skin. I also wanted to capture the atmosphere of the tattoo parlor, so I made sure to snap a shot of the artist’s pet cats and all the cute stuffed animals around the room. I doubt many American tattoo shops look quite like this! Another thing I noted was that the tattooist wore slippers while he worked. That’s a classic Korean look, doubtful a style one would find overseas in a tattoo artist, so I made sure to get a shot of it.
Before petting the kitties and leaving, I asked the artist about the legality of his craft. Wasn’t he afraid of having his shop advertised so openly? No, in fact he wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. He told me that tattooing is becoming more accepted as an art form. Even huge Korean pop stars will flaunt off their ink. He admitted that tattooing someone is an illegal craft in Korea. However, he had no fear of police involvement. They’re not out to bust a man for making a living or creating art. He went on to say that the police have other things with which to concern themselves. However, many other tattoo artists opt to work without advertising, with customers coming in only by word of mouth. And with that, I thanked him again for allowing me to document the event and we headed off – Gui Young with her fresh ink and me with some rolls of film to develop in the darkroom.
The whole experience was really fascinating to me. It was only the second time that I’d watched someone get tattooed. I learned more about the procedure and how it exists as a somewhat hidden, still quite taboo art, albeit one that is rising in both acceptance and popularity among the Korean youth.
Now, before I sign off, I’d like to get into the technical stuff. I feel that this post really highlights the difference between medium format and 35mm film. The medium format shots, to my eye, have more depth. The 35mm is a bit flatter. Each have their own look. Also, this was a great way to compare Ilford Delta 3200 to Kodak Tmax 3200. Without doubt, the Tmax came out with much more noticeable grain. This might be because it was a bit expired and the Delta was fresh. The Tmax also may have been extra grainy be due to my developing technique. Perhaps the temperature of my developer was a bit too high. Yet, the added grain might also be due to the fact that a 35mm negative is smaller than a medium format one. If there’s a smaller negative, will it yield a more condensed looking grain? Any thoughts on this? I figured that both films would look pretty similar. They’re both ready to be pushed to ISO 3200 or beyond, but these rolls were both rated and developed at ISO 1600 in D76. So why such a great difference in grain? If you have some thoughts, please fill me in! You’ll note that I shoot with all sorts of films. I honestly like both smooth black and white tones as well as chunky, contrasty, grainy images. Which do you prefer? Please feel free to comment ^^
Well, I hope you’ve learned a bit about life and tattooing in Korea. I had fun being a journalist of sorts, and I realized there’s still more to be learned concerning this culture even though I’ve been residing on the Korean peninsula for over five years. In all, I’m thankful to be able to share this experience with each of you. Until next time!
These 27 photos were taken with either a Mamiya RZ 67 on Ilford Delta 3200 film or a Canon AE-1 on Kodak Tmax 3200 film. Both were rated at ISO 1600 and personally souped up in the darkroom with D76. © Patrick Bresnahan