How Norigae Evolved From Fashion Accessory to Tattoo in South Korea

Tattoo in South Korea
Credit: Instagram @tattooistsion

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 norigae, a traditional Korean women’s accessory popular during the 18th century, have earned her over 100,000 followers.

“I was drawn to the intense color and details. I immediately recognized the norigae and that was an even stronger draw for me,” says An, whose parents came from Korea to the U.S. in the 1970s. “It was pretty profound for me to see a very Korean image as a tattoo.”

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, norigae completed the look of women’s hanbok, or traditional Korean dress.” The knotted adornments were tied to the high waist of the chima skirt, and were worn by women regardless of class—though the most luxurious were made of jade, amber, coral, gold, and silver. Depending on their design motifs, they expressed the wearer’s artistic taste and wish for longevity, happiness, wealth, fortune and fertility.

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A black moon norigae with peony.🌙 . #tattooistsion

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Though the word norigae simply means “a playful object”, they were more than just decoration. For Samantha Yun, who has a tattoo by Kwak of a norigae trailing from a moon-shaped wreath of flowers with a magpie perched on top, the tassels actually represent feminine resiliency. “They are playful ornaments that could contain conventionally feminine things such as perfume or sewing kits. They could also be tied to small daggers women would use to defend their honor if a man dared to touch them,” she says. “The norigae reminds me that a woman can be both delicate and passionate, and this duality does not take away from her character.”

Kwak, writing over email through a translator, speaks of norigae as representative of another duality: two people bound by a “token of love.” She was drawn to traditional Korean culture since childhood, and especially knots, which signify the concept of yin and yeon. In East Asian legend, people are connected by the red thread of fate, explains Kwak, a link which is difficult to undo.

“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.”

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Norigae (Korean traditional ornaments) . #tattooistsion

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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 body, since all the elements that form our body are received from our parents,” says Kwak, who finds this belief at odds with South Korea’s overall culture of freedom of expression. “Even if they are not aware of it, I believe [the Confucian] ideology still remains in our consciousness.”

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

Related: Get Inspired by These South Korean Tattoo Artists

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