Yujin An was resolved to get her first tattoo—she just didn’t know of what. Then one day on Instagram she was stopped mid-scroll by an image of red strings looped into intricate knots, a dangling beaded charm, fluttering tassels. The algorithm had led her to the feed of Sion Kwak, a Seoul-based tattoo artist whose delicate tattoos of
“I was drawn to the intense
Minjee Kim, a fashion historian and lecturer at San Francisco’s Academy of Arts University, explains that “just as hats completed the look in western fashion,
Though the word
Kwak, writing over email through a translator, speaks of
“Korean traditional knots are knotted very densely, so the beautiful ties of relationship do not fade away.” Since these cannot be broken by force and only get more tangled if you try, she says, they must be unraveled slowly, thread-by-thread, so that the affection between the two remains unharmed. “I cherish the beauty of the Korean spirit and the significance that lies in the knot. Because I found this so charming, I immediately wanted to reinterpret this in my own drawings.”
An’s norigae tattoo incorporates a pohutukawa flower, native to New Zealand where she and her husband got married. “Parenting and marriage are very difficult work,” she says. “The symbolism of the norigae along with the pohutukawa are my way of reaffirming my commitment to myself and my family.”
For the women who ink themselves with these images, norigae are also a potent embodiment of Korean identity. “Like many children of immigrants, I’ve gone through periods of self-loathing and yearning to assimilate in every way I could, in spite of my outward appearance,” says An. “The tattoo to me is a symbol of my heritage and something that I can share with others when they ask about its meaning. It’s an embrace of who I am.” At the same time, she hasn’t yet felt ready to share her tattoo with her parents. “There’s still a lot of emphasis on pure, clean, white skin in Korean culture and I had a lot of that drilled into me growing up.”
Yun, who was born in Seoul, has eight or nine tattoos representing her Korean roots, including women wearing hanbok and animals from folklore: tigers, rabbits, and foxes. Though her dad, who grew up in Chicago and is more open-minded about tattoo culture, is proud of his “badass” daughter, Yun has learned to be selective about how much of her tattoos she shares with the rest of her Korean family. “My mother associates tattoos with people who lack morals. A few years ago, she caught a glimpse of my tattoos and didn’t speak to me for two months,” she says. They’re back on speaking terms now, but she still hides her tattoos for family functions. “I don’t think badly of my mother. Her feelings about tattoos are not uncommon for Korean adults in their 60’s and older.”
Though ancient Korean men and women tattooed their bodies, the association between tattoos and delinquency dates to the Joseon dynasty, explains Kim. “Local governments executed tattoos for criminals to visibly mark out their crime—robbery, embezzlement, burglary, and escape (for slaves)—usually on their face.” Modern South Korean law regards tattooing as a medical procedure, so while having a tattoo is not illegal, tattooing without a medical license is.
“Although it hurts, I cannot deny it; I really love my nation’s traditional beauty that enabled me to become who I am right now, [but] uncomfortable gazes and perspectives still exist,” says Kwak. She and Kim agree that contemporary Korean attitudes towards tattooing are still greatly influenced by Confucianism and its emphasis on filial piety.
“This basically means respect for our parents starts with not harming our own
She’s hopeful that the South Korean tattoo artists achieving international recognition and the recent surge in popularity of tattoos among young, fashion-conscious South Koreans are signs that things are changing. “I expect we are almost getting there, to legalization,” she says. That shift would be an emotional victory for Kwak: growing up, she loved watching her mother, also a tattoo artist, absorbed in her craft. “Her work is distinctive from mine; delicate and elegant expression is what she is best at.” But she also felt isolated from society because of the illegality of her mother’s profession. “She struggled and fought against the uncomfortable gazes and prejudice when no one acknowledged her. For this reason, I admire and respect her braveness and firm love of her dreams,” writes Sion. Seeing the power of those images etched on skin, even at the cost of enduring physical and emotional pain, inspired her to start tattooing, too—because tattoos, she says, are ultimately messages of to oneself to be fearless.
“With my own stubbornness and pride,” she says, “I am now engraving pieces of Korea’s traditional beauty.” – Kwak