Tattoos in East Asia: Conforming to Individualism
Keywords:China, Japan, Korea, Development, Democracy, Modernization, Tattoos, Gangs
Although Japan, South Korea, and China share a similar history of tattoo criminality spanning thousands of years, in modern times they all hold different legal policies concerning the practice of tattooing. South Korea has the strictest laws, requiring a medical doctorate to legally tattoo, while Japan has only recently reaffirmed the legality of the practice outside of health professionals. China, on the other hand, has few restrictions on body art. This paper explores this interesting difference via observational fieldwork in the major cities of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing as well as interviews with local people within and outside the tattoo scene. In doing so, this paper hopes to explain the connection between a new tattoo culture supported by a younger generation and the level of democracy and development of each country. Although a strong social stigma towards the art remains salient in all three nations due to the historical connection to criminality, a new, younger generation with greater access to the internet and the outside world has been able to adopt a tattoo culture unrelated to previous trends. Tattoos in East Asia are becoming less about rebellious self-expression, which could be threatening to authoritarian governmental systems like China, but are instead symbols of a modern society rising alongside a younger middle class, one unburdened by previous decades of poverty or struggle. The rising prevalence of a tattooed population may be less an indicator of a strong counter-culture then, but instead, a signal of a globalized, developed society.
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