Seyoon Kim is a tattooist from South Korea who started learning to tattoo in any evening hours she could spare after closing up the café where she worked full time. Her joyful, cleanly executed tattoos bury into her clients’ stories, and are in stark contrast to the subversive portrayal of tattoos which is still dominant in her native country. Kim speaks passionately about the hope she has for change to be brought about in the tattoo culture of South Korea, fueled by the younger generation’s desire for freedom and bodily autonomy.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Seyoon Kim and I was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1988.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I was happy as a child growing up in the suburban side of Seoul. My family was supportive, warm, and loving to me all the time. We travelled a lot, following my dad all around the world. He was an admirer of adventure. Sometimes there were days when my school schedule clashed with the travel plan, but my parents didn’t worry – they let me skip classes since they knew what was more important in my life. They were great believers in real experiences when it comes to education. I wanted to be an artist since I was a kid. I really enjoyed making and crafting with my hands – all kinds of things from accessories to toys – and giving out the things I made to the people I knew.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I have my studio in Seoul and mostly work there. I also work abroad quite often as a guest artist, and whenever I do, I try to stay for extra days to travel. This year I spent almost half of my time abroad. My most recent and probably longest trip so far was to Switzerland. I worked at a local tattoo shop in Lausanne and met lovely people there. Now I am considering moving to Switzerland to study and looking to do more guest spots in other cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin.
How long have you been tattooing?
It’s been about five years since I first used my tattoo machine.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I just wanted to do it. The trajectory of my life has always been led by my gut feeling. I have set off on all the paths in my life completely out of the blue. One day, this idea that I wanted to learn how to tattoo crossed my mind, so I went out to find famous tattoo artists in Seoul, asking them to teach me. It just started like that.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
When I made up my mind to learn to tattoo I was working full time at the cafe I was running. Although tattooing was all I could think about, there was not much time for me to undertake full-time training, never mind an apprenticeship. Late evenings after closing the cafe were the only times I could spare to get tattoo lessons. A while after taking the lessons, I became able to practice on my own – I remember this now as one of the craziest days of my life. I would practice throughout the night after closing the cafe in the evening, working till dawn every day. I was that smitten.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I studied Industrial Design at university. But the program rarely appealed to me as it was designed to equip us with technical skills rather than creativity. I never liked it. I wanted to draw in my own way, but the longer I was in the program the more it felt like I was made into someone who produces according to the client's need. An internal struggle between my desire and my duty was always ongoing. I started to skip most of the classes in which I was losing interest and ended up quitting.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
I think it helped to some extent, except for developing my own drawing style and tattooing techniques. There was some affinity between the training and university program, in that both of them required a continuous process of drawing to develop the result my client wants.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I started my first tattoo experience at a parlor which had quite a big name for old school drawings. Old school tattoo is a highly aesthetic style with such a profound tradition, but soon I got drawn to tiny cute drawings. I added a touch of story to the drawings, hoping to make them feel like fairy tales. In this way I established my current style. I could go with the old school style, like bold skulls and solid icons, but as a tattooist I am genuinely fascinated by what runs underneath the image people want on their skin – their stories. My drawing may seem relatively cute and dainty compared to those traditional ones, yet I believe my tattoos run deep, expressing more than just the visual look. I think I am a perfect artist for clients who want warm and convivial drawings. My familial background has had a significant influence on my sensibility, and more recently, it is my boyfriend who turned into the source of my inspiration as well as my support.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I only once had an apprentice. Back then I thought I would simply pass on what I know to her, reflecting on the days when I was an apprentice. It was a huge mistake. It turned out I was not at the appropriate level yet – I didn't have much experience, lacked responsibility and on top of everything, I had such a limited time to dedicate to teaching her. I haven’t had an apprentice since then. Recently, one of my close friends asked to be my apprentice but I had to say no. I definitely need to grow more before undertaking anything like that in the future.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Travelling, Lego, cooking for my boyfriend, and shopping for cute items. Also, building up my hats and socks collection. My room is always flooded with thousands of random things because I am a mad shopper. At the same time, I am terrible at throwing things away.
What inspires you generally?
My clients’ stories are the fountain of my inspiration – they never dry up. I love it when a tattoo has a compelling story behind it. Although it might look trivial to others it doesn’t matter. It means the most to the person who has it, no one else. People come to me with different narratives; they talk to me and ask me to visualize their tales. When their stories meet my design skills, we create their perfect tattoo, like serendipity. It is the result of their experience and my imagination. I believe that is the most wonderful moment in my years as a tattooist so far.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
Other forms of media are extremely vital; I believe no one can create something completely new. Whether you intended it or not, what you see and experience lingers in the deep valley of your consciousness, shaping your thoughts and mind. It is ready to influence you at any time. I try not to look at other’s works too much because I am cautious about being influenced and unwittingly copying them. Instead, I count on old artworks and crafts. With them, I find my ‘aha’ moments.
One of my favorite artists, David Hockney, is like the well of my color inspiration. Words cannot fully express my admiration for his choice of colors. It was a few years ago when I first saw his exhibition at Tate Britain, and since then I have never forgotten the electrifying shock and awe that hit me in front of his paintings. Gosh, I was so smitten and I still am. His aesthetics have naturally influenced my style.
Objects are another thing that awaken my curiosity. My recent experiences in various churches in Europe, especially seeing magnificent stained glass, channeled my senses into somewhere I had never previously ventured to. Gaudi’s architecture should not be omitted from my list. My style has been reshaped by the artists and surroundings that have entered into my senses and through them, I develop my interests in many exciting ways. These days, I divide my drawings and sketches into small patterns like stained glass, as well as abstracting them.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
It underpins my life. I have travelled a lot since I was young, which I believe has influenced me a great deal, and has formed my identity and creativity. Recently I’ve visited Switzerland quite often since my boyfriend is studying there. We went to the neighboring countries too, visiting small towns and big cities. Situating myself in a foreign place provides ideas that I have never thought about. For example, my most recent series of work in stained-glass was largely inspired by beautiful churches in Europe.
London is another important destination for me. Two years ago I went to London on my own. I set out for Tate Modern and started giving out stickers which had my drawings on. It was pretty awkward to stand in front of the gallery with a note saying ‘it’s free!’ and people seemed to think that I was begging for money. But after a while, one by one, people came to me. Then more than a few came and all of sudden I was surrounded by a crowd, answering their questions and thanking them for their nice words about my work. I filmed it so as not to forget such a sweet memory.
"Maybe we need to bear with the struggle from time to time, so that these lessons can lead us to the next stage of development. Hopefully, in the near future, South Korea will stand as a country where tattoos stand for freedom, not transgression."
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
We say “Tattoo first, get slapped later” in South Korea. It means you better get inked first and get punished by your parents afterwards, as they wouldn’t have let you otherwise. It really points to where we are, in terms of the challenge of settling tattoo culture into South Korea. Tattooing is still a subculture and is not seen very positively, especially to the older generation. Nevertheless, tattoo is on its way here. In my opinion, the boundaries between styles in tattooing do not exist anymore. Some works are so cool that you feel like you are looking at a contemporary art piece in a museum. Now it is time for us to get over old prejudices – that tattoo is only a subculture, something for the minority.
Please can you expand more on how you think tattooing is becoming more accepted in Korean culture, and what steps you think could be taken to help this process?
My international friends often ask me if it is really illegal to get or offer a tattoo in South Korea. I am afraid it is so. Any form of needlework conducted on the human body is regarded as medical treatment in my country. This law puts tattooists in a socially obscure position, since there is no way a tattooist has a doctor’s license.
Because of the long-standing history of social restriction, South Korea is one of the countries that has a notoriously prejudiced view about people with tattoos. Common stereotypes include characterizing violence, often associated with gangsters or hooligans. Tattooed women tend to be regarded as a character of promiscuity. Basically, anyone with a tattoo must bear other people’s silent criticisms, and the feeling of seeming a socially undesirable character. For the older generation, such ideas even more deeply fixated in their psyche. So, no matter how artful or skillful they are, a tattooist is a lawbreaker in South Korea.
‘How ridiculous it is,’ I think to myself every time I reflect on the meaning of my work and my existence under these laws. The matter is not simple at all, and will not be easy to resolve for the time being.
That being said, I hear some positive noise too. More and more tattooists have raised their voices to legalise tattoos in South Korea. An outcome is still far from reach though as doctors are unhappy with the proposal. Luckily for us, public sentiment is growing sympathetic and supportive towards our case. Young people find it liberating to get a tattoo or piercing; they are aware of the current law but also of the anachronism therein. Contemporary South Korean tattoo culture has been thriving as the dynamics between these social boundaries, older values, and counter movements shift. People don’t view these issues as negatively as before–for them, exploring their right to autonomy over their body is no longer something forbidden. The growing market is a compelling example of a changing view. Law cannot intervene with cultural freedom anymore.
I am both pleased and worried about this movement. I should mention that there are some tattooists who have jumped on the trend without thorough preparation. Lack of knowledge about tattoos and awareness of hygiene can result in an unhappy customer or, in the worst case, side effects after the tattoo. Despite the increasing popularity, a few unfortunate cases occasionally appear in the news, which worsens the stigma around tattoos.
To resolve this issue, I would say it is urgent to settle the legal ground for a start. By the term ‘ground’, I mean many things, such as essential education, proper training, and licenses for tattooists. I think the key to change is a socially acknowledged environment where tattooists can offer their service with pride and confidently take responsibility for it.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I am still a beginner with only five years of experience, but when I recall the time I had just started my career, I do see the transformation. Now we have diverse styles with excellent quality and many more tattooists equipped with top level skills. It is cross-cultural, cross-genre. It can be anything; it can do more. The potential is enormous. I believe it will keep evolving and expand its scene in the future.
What do you think the positives and negatives of tattooing's continuing expansion in the future might be?
As a native South Korean, whose tattoo career has been mainly based in her home country, I can only comment on the situation in South Korea. I think everything is likely to go viral and grow quickly in my country. Staying relevant means needing to spread quickly and keep in the people’s conscience through word of mouth. Within only the last few years, the South Korean tattoo market has expanded at an incredible pace. However, there is always a flip side to such positive potential. I see people who get tattoos to fashion themselves as a trend-follower. I worry that because of their spontaneity, they’ll easily revert their choice and remove the tattoos. I think there is something more profound and definitive in getting a tattoo than simply to accessorize; I hope the zeal will cool down in time.
The capitalized medical business in South Korea does not seem to help. Nowadays, it is common to see a beauty advertisement in city streets which says: “Inquiries about tattoo removal, by a legitimate doctor, welcome.” I think my country is still going through a transition stage. Maybe we need to bear with the struggle from time to time, so that these lessons can lead us to the next stage of development. Hopefully, in the near future, South Korea will stand as a country where tattoos stand for freedom, not transgression.