Though associated mostly with the mafia, tattoos are becoming more popular on the peninsula, and the artists who produce them can be more open about their art. Rachel Bailey takes a look at an art that is coming out of the back room and more and more into the public eye.
Gu is here today to continue work on a body suit, a tattoo covering his back from his shoulders to his mid-thighs that Kyung Jin has already spent over ten hours creating.
“As a child, this tattoo was always my dream,” he says. Once he was old enough to begin work on it, “I looked and looked for Kyung Jin.”
Gu sought out Kyung Jin, who operates under the name Fat Buddha Tattoo and Teahouse, in particular because of his excellent reputation in Busan’s tattoo underground. Kyung Jin, 46, with salt and pepper hair and thick-framed glasses, would be nondescript if not for his head shop wardrobe, which he says he buys online.
|“80% of my clients are gangsters wanting body suits,” Kyung Jin says, adding with a chuckle, “Almost all of them ask for pain cream.”||
He trained in Osaka for two years in his twenties and has over two decades of experience in traditional Japanese Irezumi tattooing. Because tattooing remains illegal in Korea for those without a medical license, Kyung Jin operates his tattoo parlor out of his home in Busan, but he doesn’t lose any sleep over the illegality of his enterprise.
“The police don’t care,” he says.
The real trouble, it seems is customs.
“$500 worth of supplies my mother tried mailing from Canada was seized by Korean customs,” says his apprentice Marianna, a Canadian artist and former English teacher who began working with Kyung Jin after a chance meeting on Haeundae Beach. “[I saw] his dreadlocks and hippy pants among a sea of typically professional or schoolboy dressed people, and I had to talk to him. I walked straight up to him and demanded to know who he was.”
Since then, Marianna and Kyung Jin have formed a partnership — her helping him to learn English, and him pushing his new apprentice to grow.
“If there isn’t a pencil moving in my hand and I’m not practicing my drawing, he’s teasing me and asking me if I’m a tattoo artist,” Marinna says.
Since last fall, she has been advertising Fat Buddha to the foreign community through social media such as Facebook, serving the foreign community with Western-style tattoos as she studies Irezumi from Kyung Jin. Her teacher, however, still works almost exclusively in the Japanese style.
“80% of my clients are gangsters wanting body suits,” Kyung Jin says, adding with a chuckle, “Almost all of them ask for pain cream.”
Because of the difficulty in getting illegal tattoo supplies in Korea, many of the parlors in Busan are unable to acquire proper sterilization supplies, but this is not a concern for Fat Buddha. Along with a modern tattoo gun, the artists use all the sterilization supplies Westerners are used to seeing in our home countries, including an autoclave and high-grade sterilization chemicals. Kyung Jin is also trained in handmade tattooing and occasionally practices it.
Getting a tattoo can be a meaningful commemoration of a chapter in life, but finding a talented and trustworthy artist in the ROK can be a challenge for foreigners. This is a need that Fat Buddha is trying to fill, and though the idea of being tattooed in someone’s home studio may sound strange, the generosity and warm spirit of Fat Buddha’s artists turn this potential drawback into one of the most pleasant aspects of becoming a client.
And ending an hours-long session of being pounded by a needle, a soothing cup of green tea doesn’t hurt either.
The artist at work in Busan
Kyung-jin specializes in Japanese-style tattoos, but can do just about anything for a customer
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