The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] A walking canvas of tattoos

With 80 percent of skin inked, Ahn Li-na speaks about life as tattoo artist and social stigma

By Choi Ji-won

Published : May 10, 2019 - 11:25

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In a country where tattoos are widely frowned upon, Ahn Li-na, 25, catches attention as a walking canvas of body art, with nearly 80 percent of her skin inked.

“The value of all my tattoos, if combined, could easily match that of quite an expensive car,” said Ahn, a tattoo artist herself, adding that only her face, scalp, front neck, knuckles and soles of her feet are left untouched. 

Living with such overt body art comes with a hefty price here, as tattoos are often associated with deviant behavior in South Korea. Bearing a tattoo is not a crime, but displaying large tattoos in public can be punished by law as a misdemeanor.

Tattoo artist Ahn Li-na (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald) Tattoo artist Ahn Li-na (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Ahn can attest to this from her own experience. She was once fined “for arousing revulsion in a public place” and was kicked out of a public bath. In addition, people have stared, sworn and even spat at her on the streets.

“Many old people who disapprove of tattoos abuse me viciously,” she said. “I don’t think I will ever get used to that.”

Ahn tries to evade such situations as best as she can. But that doesn’t mean she hides from the public eye. On the contrary, she is a star on YouTube and social media for defying stereotypes and fighting to change people’s perceptions of tattoos.

“Just today, on my way to this interview, an elderly lady with remarkable fashion style came up to me and, pointing at my tattoos, said, ‘They’re so pretty. I love them,’ before simply walking away. There are people who appreciate and respect me, and such warm attention is always welcome.”

Ahn initially wanted to pursue a career in art. When she came across skin art, she knew that was what she wanted to do. At age 20, she started working -- without pay -- as an apprentice at a tattoo shop.

She started getting tattoos from more established artists to learn about the craft.

“Some people may laugh at me, but I first started getting tattooed to be able to understand the pain from the needlework on each part of the body,” she said. 

Tattoo artist Ahn Li-na (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald) Tattoo artist Ahn Li-na (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Most tattoo artists here are outlaws because Korean law defines tattooing as a medical procedure that can be performed only by qualified medical experts. Although the law is seldom enforced, the industry remains largely underground, with no established training system for aspiring tattoo artists like Ahn.

Ahn’s favorite out of all her tattoos is at the core of her body, below her chest, and it symbolizes her family -- a drawing in bold black lines of a woman holding flowers, reflected on a mirror.

“It’s Virgo -- my daughter’s horoscope -- holding marigold and genista, my birth flower and my husband’s. The mirror is a symbol for a child being a reflection of the parents,” she said.

Ahn Li-na’s tattoo symbolizing her family (Ahn Li-na) Ahn Li-na’s tattoo symbolizing her family (Ahn Li-na)

Despite her love of tattoos, Ahn is married to a man with no tattoos.

“My husband was raised in a conservative environment, and such people in Korea still tend to consider tattoos vulgar. However, he once said to me, ‘While many people notice your tattoos when they see you, I only see you and not the tattoos.’

“I also felt the same about him. When I see most other people, I imagine what kind of tattoos would match them, but for my husband, I like him as he is now, with no inked skin.”

Yu-ha, Ahn’s daughter who will soon turn 2, does not seem to mind that her mom looks different from others.

“To her, tattoos are natural. When I show her a toy in front of a bunch of babies, other kids look at my (tattooed) arm, but Yu-ha looks at the toy.”

If and when her child wants a tattoo herself, Ahn said she would be willing to help her make a responsible decision.

“I will candidly talk about the social stigma surrounding it. If she is still confident, then I would even like to do it myself. It would be my honor,” she said.

As for tattoo art, Ahn’s main genre used to be old school style -- the traditional American tattoo style featuring bold black outlines and a limited color palette.

She has been trying to create a style of her own, though she is a little out of practice because she became pregnant with Yu-ha unexpectedly.

“I want to add a sentimental vibe to the black-and-gray style,” she said. Black-and-gray is one of the most artistic and intricate tattoo genres, characterized by its lifelike designs, while the sentimental design comprehensively refers to designs currently in trend around the world. 

A black-and-grey tatoo of a lion on the right shoulder of K-pop artist Jay Park (Jay Park`s Instagram) A black-and-grey tatoo of a lion on the right shoulder of K-pop artist Jay Park (Jay Park`s Instagram)

In one of her YouTube videos, Ahn explains the style covers a range of drawings, from line tattoos to watercolor tattoos, which are small, simple, and dainty.

Ahn, who plans to return to work early next year, describes her customers as “living exhibitions” of her creations.

“When conventional artists throw an exhibition, they assemble only their finest work. That’s my -- and many other tattoo artists’ -- approach to work,” she stressed.

By Choi Ji-won (