South Korea has been responsible for some of the most infectious trends that have made their way over to the Western world. I’m going to abstain from mentioning cringe-worthy dances with billions of views on YouTube because the country truly has so much more to offer. For every cheesy Korean drama, there are arresting thrillers Spike Lee has copied, and for every shitty club blasting K-Pop with American army dudes, there are brothels that turn into rooftop sanctuaries for music aficionados on summer weekends (cc: Faust). Just like anything in life, you have to dig for diamonds. If you look hard enough, past the bustling streets and into the hidden alleys, behind sturdy clandestine metal doors you will find a thriving illegal tattoo culture.
I caught up with Steve Jang from Badhands (one of the OG tattoo shops in Seoul with sister locations in Busan and Osaka) to talk about the culture of tattooing and how it’s changing in Seoul and the rest of Korea.
Tell me about your experience growing up in Korea and how you got into tattooing?
I was originally born in Busan but I moved abroad for ten years. After my first year of school, I moved to Indonesia in Jakarta but there were protests about Koreans taking jobs and Korean people’s homes were being burned so my dad became paranoid and we moved to Hong Kong after a year. When I moved to Hong Kong I got expelled from school and I could only get into the crappy schools after that [so] we moved again to Mainland China until I went back to Korea for high school.
How was it when you moved back?
It was really hard adjusting to Korean culture because I was at an American international school with all American kids and [when] I moved back I became friends with the wrong people and was doing stupid shit but they introduced me to tattooing.
What was your first tattoo?
I got my first tattoo when I was in high school; it’s a tribal tattoo…it’s pretty shit haha, anyways that was my first contact with tattoos and I always wanted more but I didn’t have the money or the balls to get more.
At that time (8 years ago) was it hard to get tattoos or find a shop?
Ya, there were no signs. It wasn’t even on the Internet and you had to know people to get tattoos you know… because it was so illegal and nobody knew how to do it properly. People were using the same needle and without washing it and reusing it … you know real dirty shit.
You’re completely tatted now, when did you finally get more tattoos?
Hahaha well right after high school I stole my dad’s car and gold necklace and sold it, that was when I got my first sleeve done. I stole his car and all his gold man (laughing). He punched me so hard I woke up in the hospital. Anyways, I got that sleeve from a really legit guy. He was Air-Force… he was Korean American and he got discharged. I was going to learn right then and there but my dad forced me to go to the army when I was like 19 (all Korean nationals are required to do 2 years of military service). I told those guys that right after I finished the army I would come back and work for them.
So what happened when you finished the army?
Well, when I got back I kind of just messed around. I just wanted to drink and party so I didn’t start tattooing right away and went to university instead. After third year I wanted to get out of school because it’s bullshit you know… it’s a waste of time; you don’t learn anything. So I left school and my friends introduced me to old school tattooers and then I got too many tattoos and I was like fuck… no one is going to hire me. All my friends were tattoo artists and they were like you should tattoo. I told them I had never drawn anything and so they taught me and I started tattooing people at my house.
Tell me about Badhands and Unionway. You guys have some of the most famous tattoo artists in Korea and now an affiliate crew in Japan. What has that been like?
Oh, so Unionway is…. even in Japan… a crew of hardcore punk rock bands and they do gigs together. All the owners [of Badhands] are band members and they were a first generation punk band in Korea and were really famous before. But they fucked up on a live TV show by stripping – just doing punk shit and so the public hated them after that. But those original band members opened Badhands a little later on. The crew in Seoul and Busan do shows with the ones in Japan in our music club downstairs and we’ll fly to Kobe to do shows with them sometimes. It’s really just a group of people who are into tattoos and punk music but everyone is open-minded and soya, we joined with them.
How illegal is tattooing? Do the police actually do anything?
No, they know it’s there but they don’t really do anything about it. The only way they would come would be if another tattoo shop called the police on us. There is a lot of competition, especially in Hongdae.
I know in the past it has been hard to have tattoos. Are the attitudes changing at all?
Well 10 years ago when I had my sleeves done, old people on the Subway would kick their tongues at me or hiss at me. Some people would be like why did you do it? Don’t you have any respect for yourself or what do your parents think?
Where do you see Seoul and Korea in the arts in the next 10 years?
It is very hopeful; everyone is more open-minded now you know so people are freer to express themselves.
Is there anything else about the culture that you want to speak on?
Yeah, you know little kids these days have so many tattoos like their whole bodies and now they can’t get jobs and the only thing they can do is tattoo. I think it’s a little fucked up that some of the shops tattoo these young kids and give them full body suits. But its become really trendy to be a tattooer so now you see 20-year-old tattoo artists and there are way more artists than people getting tattooed… so I’m kinda fucked (laughing).