20 January 2013

Korean Culture & Tattoo Taboos

One thing I hadn't considered for much more than a second before coming to Korea was their cultural attitude toward tattoos.  Of course I only have a few small tattoos, but they are sometimes visible (much more often come summer), so I should probably have thought about what my student's reaction would be before my first actual day of teaching.  I don't recall seeing anything in my contract that said no tattoos or certain piercings, so I assumed tattoos were just as normal a part of the culture here as they are back home.  Wrong, so wrong.

My initial lesson about tattoos came from a few of my coworkers.  One of my female coworkers has a tattoo on her foot and was covering it up with makeup every single day in the summer so that her kids wouldn't notice it as much, or hopefully wouldn't see it at all.  Of course when it's warm out, foot tattoos are much more difficult to hide (boots, socks, etc.), so I thought I may have to start covering mine up too.  Didn't work so well, as thick dark black lines don't cover up very easily with medium coverage foundation.  The second lesson I had came from a different coworker who has tattoos on his arms that are visible if he's wearing a short sleeved shirt.  Every single sweltering August day he came to work either wearing long sleeves or a short sleeved shirt with these terrible removable sleeve things to cover the tattoos.  You could kind of see through them and most of the kids knew he had them, but he still made an effort to keep them covered at all times in front of his kids.

My first term I covered my foot with makeup or shoes that came higher up on my foot and never wore my hair up to keep my neck concealed.  Of course there wasn't a lot of lower back showing when I was at work, so we were safe on that account.  A few of my very astute students pointed out that I had a tattoo on my foot (which I was instructed to adamantly deny - pretty hard denying the fact that you have ink tattooed on your body but whatever), however it never turned out to be a big deal.  Then one fateful evening during my Memory Giga class, my student Jonny was standing behind me and was moving my hair around for whatever reason - kids are freaks - when he saw it.  He saw it!  He immediately started yelling "teacha, tattoo!" and then escalated his screams into "gang member, gang member!"  I was slightly mortified but overwhelmingly amused.  Once he settled down and all the other kids stopped yelling that I was a 'gang member,' they asked me what was on my neck.  So instead of following our ludicrous policy and telling them it wasn't a tattoo, I explained it to them.  I told them what it meant, what language it was in, and that it was my grandmother's language.  They seemed to either be indifferent toward it, or think it was pretty cool... but none of them were turned off or upset by it.

Come five months later, and basically all of my students know I have a few tattoos.  For the most part, the boys think they are really cool and when I wear my hair up they always point out the one on my neck (seriously it never gets old to them).  Most of the girls seem to react the same way, although maybe not as excitedly or forwardly as the younger boys.  I obviously haven't and won't show them the tattoo on my lower back, but the mountains on my foot have been spotted more than a few times, and every time my hair is up in a ponytail somebody comments on my neck.  I've actually found that I don't mind their incessant questions about my tattoos.  I like to think of them as more of a cultural learning process than a series of interrogations.  I don't care if my kids don't like my tattoos, but I do care that they understand that tattoos do not make somebody 'bad' or 'dirty' (their favorite word) or, god forbid, a 'gang member.'

My favorite thing about this whole experience has been the gradual change in perception that some of my kids have toward people with tattoos.  The first time they see mine, most of them are shocked.  How does such a nice normal looking person, and a girl person at that, have tattoos?  And why?!  Then once I explain how American culture sees tattoos and why I personally have mine, they seem to actually grasp and understand the concept of cultural differences and how certain things may or may not be taboo simply depending on where you are from in the world.  A handful of them almost connect with me on a level of wanting to do something out of their cultural comfort zone, and seeing that it can be okay - almost even a positive thing, if they allow it to be.


  1. Don't know how I missed this when you posted it, but there you have it. I love your tattoos, and think the photos of them here are beautiful! They are now a part of who you are, and I'm proud that you're embracing them when others may not feel the same way.
    Part of going to an international school (or having an international teacher) is learning how to accept other cultures. You are just encouraging intercultural dialogue with your littles--love it!

  2. My then-s.o. had a small tattoo on her foot. When she got foot surgery, I did a lot of translating for her in the hospital. She had to be seen by a parade of doctors and nurses, and I had to explain to each and every one of them that no, this innocent- and sweet-looking young lady who resembles Kristen Stewart is NOT a gangster.

    When/if the real-world restrictions on tattoos are ever relaxed (which may not happen for a long time because of the yakuza association) maybe more South Koreans will warm up to tattoos, but for now, it's one of those things that makes non-Asian-looking foreigners seem very otherworldly.

    1. Very interesting! I have yet to get the 'gangster' sentiment from anybody over the age of 14, but we'll see once the weather gets warmer :)