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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘The Tattooist’ tells the stories behind people’s ink

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Wavve original series “The Tattooist” tells of the work of tattooists and the stories of their clients as they explain why they want to receive a specific tattoo. [WAVVE]
Wavve original series “The Tattooist” tells of the work of tattooists and the stories of their clients as they explain why they want to receive a specific tattoo. [WAVVE]

Although tattoos still remain a controversial topic between older and younger generations in Korea, it’s not too difficult to spot someone with a tattoo walking down the street nowadays.

Even as global stars such as Brad Pitt, Lily Collins and Steven Yeun look to get a tattoo from Korean tattoo artists, a large number of tattooists in Korea are actually working illegally: Tattoos in Korea are categorized as a medical service, based on the judicial precedent made in 1992, which means that only medical professionals are allowed to wield a tattoo gun. If indicted for their practice, tattooists may face at least two years in prison or a fine of more than 1 million won.

In the Wavve original documentary series “The Tattooist,” producer Choi Jung-ho and famed tattooist Doy highlight these hidden artists and the moments they interact with their clients and listen to their stories to produce the exact tattoo they had imagined.

Each client adds to the diversity with their own narrative as they sit down with their tattooists to talk about why they want to get inked, such as that of a 25-year-old college graduate, a stunt woman, a survivor of the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, and patients struggling with serious or rare diseases such as breast cancer and hereditary amyloidosis.

Choi, who had not really had any experience with tattoos for most of his life, first observed one on someone he met when he took the helm of a documentary series about the Sewol ferry sinking.

From left, singer Lee Seok-hoon, client So Ha-rang and tattoist UZU look at the tattoo So got on her back. [WAVVE]
From left, singer Lee Seok-hoon, client So Ha-rang and tattoist UZU look at the tattoo So got on her back. [WAVVE]

“I befriended one of the survivors of the Sewol ferry tragedy,” Choi said in a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at Doy’s studio in central Seoul. “And one day she told me that she wanted to get a tattoo to cover up her self-inflicted injuries. I didn’t know really anything about tattoos at the time, and I offered to go with her. And I felt completely betrayed — while it took months for her to finally open up to me, from the moment she sat down at the studio, she poured out her whole story to the tattooist and completely trusted this stranger to work on her body. It was a bizarre feeling. I initially offered to go with her for protection because, in my mind, I imagined tattoo shops would be situated in back allies somewhere. But the shops were actually very hip and cool, and the tattooists were so nice. It was a completely new culture for me, but I could see the attraction of it, and why the younger generations love it so much.”

As the producer had not the faintest inkling of how to gather tattooists for his project, he set up a meeting with someone he could find — Doy, whose real name is Kim Do-yoon — to plan and develop the documentary series. Doy is the founder of Korea’s first tattoo artist union, active since 2020 and working toward legalizing tattooing by non-doctors.

“I gave a list full of dozens of artists’ names,” Doy said. “And there was only one standard I set when I gave the list — that these tattooists do not curse in their daily lives. All the matching and handpicking of tattooists and their clients were done by the staff, but I did not want tattoos to be misrepresented by tattooists who curse at the end of every sentence.”

Tatttoist Doy [WAVVE]
Tatttoist Doy [WAVVE]

The documentary takes place in the airy hanok (traditional Korean house) neighborhood in central Seoul — where tattooists, clients, and celebrities such as singer Lee Seok-hoon and dancer Monica talk, drink tea, work, and get inked.

“When I first pitched this project, I wanted the theme to be similar to ‘Midnight Diner,’” Choi said. “The tattoo artists, are like the master of the diner, and diverse people from all generations freely come to receive tattoos. The tattooists had to be charming enough to stop people in their tracks, and they also had to be careful listeners — someone who is able to understand people leading their own unique lives, someone who can really hear their stories out.”

The tattoos that clients receive range from cute lightbulb doodles, to magnificent works of art featuring tigers, owls, flowers, snakes and dragons. As the tattooists meticulously design and create the tattoos based on each client’s story, viewers are left with the impression that each tattoo has become a sort of cultural phenomenon of its own, each becoming its own independent artwork drawn on the canvas that is a person’s body.

However, neither Choi nor Doy intend for the series to persuade people who are against tattoos to like them or to help legalize tattooing by non-medical professionals in Korea.

Tattooist Hugo designs each tattto based on his client’s orders. [WAVVE]
Tattooist Hugo designs each tattto based on his client’s orders. [WAVVE]

“That is what we agreed on, and that is why we were able to work together,” Doy said. “I did not intend ‘The Tattooist’ to become a game changer to legalize tattooing. Tattooing is a form of culture, and I do not believe that we need to persuade people to like them — some may, some may not. The series is up on a streaming service that anyone can see anytime if they wish to — but it is up to them to watch the content or not.”

“The Tattooist” is currently available exclusively on Wavve. The series consists of four episodes.

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]