The Cool Kids
By Murdock O’Mooney
Kim Myung Hyun lifts his shirt exposing his tattooed arms and torso. The work is beautiful and he smiles as he explains his tattoos. “I’ve had these for over 10 years. My tattoos are mostly black and grey style, but I also have irezumi (Japanese style).”
Kim is the operations manager at Crows Ink Tattoo in downtown Gwangju, the oldest and most established shop in the city. The space the shop occupies is palatial by Korean standards. It boasts an open floor plan with exposed bulb lighting and artifacts from the early 20th century, including an old typewriter, antique piano and a huge area rug. The shop is nothing short of beautiful and, based on the people inside, one thing is vividly clear: this is where the cool kids hang out.
While counterculture in Gwangju might not be as apparent as in the US or Japan, it is
very much alive and well, and many would argue, growing. Kim explains to me that for seven years Crows Ink Tattoo was the only shop in Gwangju, but recently things have changed. Now there are fifteen tattoo shops in the city with at least six in the downtown area alone.
Kim tells me that conservative president Park Geun-hye is working on a solution for tattoo artists to operate legally under a licensing system. “Currently, tattooing is only legal for doctors,” he tells me. “But this will soon change.”
When asked why he got his first tattoo, Kim thinks then responds confidently, “I wanted to show my uniqueness and stand out among my peers.” Kim says that currently men make up about 60% of the shop’s customer base and women 40%. Foreigners comprise about 10% of his customers.
Currently, the most popular tattoo styles at Crows Ink are black and grey (also known as realistic style) and irezumi. However, increasingly people are requesting more diverse designs known as fashion tattoos.
In a cafe near Crows Ink, I spot a young woman named Eun Gin with a fashion tattoo. She explains her tattoo saying, “This is Cracker. He is my cat.” I look at the simple 2-D image of a cute cat face on her wrist. When asked why she got the tattoo, she smiles and says, “Just for fashion. No reason.” She then adds exuberantly, “It looks cool!”
“Traditionally, tattoos were used to mark criminals, or signify social status and clan affiliation—a practice we adapted from samurai culture in Japan,” he explains. “But these days people get tattoos for many different reasons, including fashion and sentimental reasons.” Deal explains why he became a tattoo artist saying, “It was one of the few ways I could make a living as an artist in Gwangju.”
Feeling sated with my knowledge of local tattoo culture, I head to the Asia Culture Complex to investigate another subculture in Gwangju— skateboarding. While there, I meet local skater Jeong Tae Wan. He is flipping his board into the air and grinding on steps. He’s got the typically aware look of a skater, cool, but ready to flee quickly if need be.
Jeong says he was inspired to take up skating after seeing a video of pro Korean skater Jason Choi “surfing the street.” “It [skateboarding] looked so fun and freeing,” he said. “I wanted to move like that.” A year later, Jeong is doing tricks and skating confidently around the Asian Culture Complex.
He says that while skateboarding is growing in Gwangju, the scene is much weaker than Busan or Seoul. For example, there are no large skate shops in Gwangju and not many pro-skate events happen here. Curious, I ask Tae Wan if the police ever give skaters a hard time in Gwangju, to which he smiles sheepishly and replies in perfect English, “sometimes.”
While it is easy to think that because countercultures go against the main stream and, some may feel, are not productive contributors to society in the traditional sense, nothing could be further from the truth. According to Theodore Rozak, the author who coined the term in his book Making of a Counterculture, countercultures add much needed cultural richness to societies, including critical analyses and intellectualism, arts and music, poetry and literature and even technological innovations. Notable past counterculture movements include Romanticism (1790-1840), Bohemianism (1850-1910), the American 1960’s (1964-1974) and LGBT movements of the 1970’s.
If the health of a city’s counterculture is any indicator of it’s cultural richness, then The City of Light is in good standing.