I was riding a bus to Seoul earlier this month when my phone buzzed. It was my friend Deni. The tattoo artist we were planning to meet that afternoon just canceled our appointment.
The tattooer is a popular artist in Seoul. He explained that “his condition was not good.” In other words, he was sick. Or hung over. Either way, his last-minute cancellation put our plans for a permanent souvenir on hold.
After hearing the disappointing news Deni and I agreed to meet in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. We knew the best way to salvage our (non) tattoo trip was to drink about our plan B with a craft beer and some western food at Craft Works.
My decision to get a tattoo is one that’s been brewing for awhile. I just couldn’t decide what to get. Or where to get it. And those are issues. But on a recent long weekend, I leaned on Deni for some support to make it happen. Deni is a tattooed beauty and has no fear about such things, especially when it comes to navigating a country where tattooing is essentially illegal.
The tattooing itself isn’t illegal, but the procedure can only be legally carried out by a licensed medical doctor. As a result, thousands of tattooers are literally underground, working in basement shops and advertising by internet and word of mouth only. Some tattoo parlors may have a modest “Tattoo” sign on the door of their business, but they can always be subject to random police raids and government fines.
What better place to get my first major tattoo.
So, back to the issue of what design to actually get. Deni was game for some matching KBFF (Korean Best Friends Forever) ink, so I felt emboldened. It sounds a bit cliche, but being tattooed with a friend was the push I needed to do a bucket list thing I always wanted. And despite Korea’s stigma toward tattoo culture, the design we landed couldn’t be more authentic.
The Korean magpie is all over the place here. Known as the “kkachi” 까치 (so says my guide, Wikipedia), the magpie has even been adopted as the “official bird” of several Korean cities. Deni and I both liked the idea of a magpie tattoo and started searching for a reference.
Our inspiration and reference picture came from this traditional Korean folk art image featuring the tiger and the magpie. According to Khan Academy, the tiger-and-magpie theme is a popular motif in Korean folk painting. In the past, Koreans believed tigers embodied the spirit of mountains and possessed the power to ward off harm, while magpies are harbingers of good news.
Excuse me? A harbinger of good news? I’m in.
Now back to finding a good and reliable tattooer. Our Seoul contact was out. Nobody cancels on the day of tattoo and gets another chance. At least not with us. Thankfully our friend had a great local recommendation for us.
Our friend Vlad recently had this piece done on his leg by a tattooer named Chloe from August Tattoo in Daejeon (Eunhaengdong). He only had great things to say about the process from start to finish. So we messaged Chloe and one week later we were in the shop.
Deni and I both agreed that I should go first. The anticipation of the pain was killing me. I wanted to get it over with.
Because this was my first major tattoo, I sort of underestimated what that pokey little needle was going to feel like. Especially on my squishy Minnesota thigh. Excuse me because my lameness is about to show… but it was much more painful than I expected.
I had a range of thoughts.
“Oh. That’s not so bad.” (She hadn’t started yet. Her hand was resting on my leg.)
“Oh my god. That can’t be right. Should I tell her something’s wrong?”
“I’m never doing this again. I’m never doing this again…”
[insert heavy Lamaze breathing here]
Deni: “Are you doing Lamaze right now?”
And just like that… it was over.
The whole tattoo took about 1.5 hours. As soon as it was finished, it just felt like as sunburn. Chloe’s been told she’s got a light hand when it comes to tattooing. I don’t have any other experience to weigh that against, but she gentle, professional and (big perk) fluent in English.
One other cool fact about this shop: It’s woman-owned! As I understand it, the owner has at least one other tattoo joint and a piercing place in Daejeon. In such a male-dominated business, it was cool to support her business and see an awesome female artist at work.
As my time in Korea starts to come to a close, I can’t think of a better way to put a cap on an interesting year abroad. It’s also the best permanent souvenir I’ll ever get!
If you’re thinking about a tattoo in Korea, I’d highly recommend Chloe. She’s a peach! You can find her contact information here.