I have a feeling attitudes against tattoos are loosening up nowadays, but as late as 2009 prejudice against them were still quite strong (according to this article by the Huffington Post. It also says that Korean men who donned big tattoos were banned from applying to the military, implying the stigma was darn huge. (They were also being accused for draft-dodging, and it’s no secret how severely dishonorable for a Korean male to not join the army.) Apparently this changed a bit, but there are still a few “boundaries.”) I’m not sure if tattoos in South Korea have much of a cultural history, but I do know that body art in Asia in general is commonly seen as marks of gang membership or general criminal activity and violence. (For example, in Japan, huge tattoos (dragons on the back, stereotypically speaking) are associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia). They’re viewed with fear and wary particularly by older generations, meaning that the discouragement to get a tattoo surely manifests among younger Asians today. Even if one wanted to, they’d likely be pressured not to because there are still quite a number of job markets that don’t accept employees with loud body art. A personal example: I currently work part-time at a cafe which is ran by a foreigner. The employees are local (Cambodians), and many of them are inked. I’ve had conversations about it with them, and they expressed to me how grateful and fortunate they were able to find work here regardless (and I’m talking like on their entire arms or calves), and that they believe it’s probably because of their boss, who is more open-minded to body art. There’s a woman who works as a waitress and she’s inked as well, but unlike those who work in the kitchen, she was asked by the management to at least cover her tattooed calf when dealing with customers. It’s not because of the management’s prejudice, but rather, that of the customers. The culture here is still quite conservative, wariness on the part of many locals is still exhibited towards things like tattoos. (Top that off with the fact the waitress is a female.) What’s ironic is that these employees are inked because of previous delinquencies they were involved in… so in a way, the stereotype is still being a bit propagated. Here it’s a bit rare to find someone (a local, at least) who dons body art just for the sake of it, but I’m noticing this is changing quite quickly.
Tattoos in K-pop is definitely a sign that attitudes are becoming more lax. The relatively more open view towards tattoos in the west, whether it be personal marks of self-expression, or simply aesthetic, (or whether they’re real or not), are evidently transferring over to South Korea, particularly into popular culture (there’s a mini article about inked idols in MTV Iggy here).
Popular culture is one thing because, again, there are some workplaces that would refuse to hire you, especially those with more conservative environments. (The thing is, I’m wondering if this is the same in a few places in the west? It probably is.) I’m also aware that in many schools in Korea, tattoos are still strictly regulated (if not completely restricted). This includes stuff like dyed hair and pierced ears as well, but I guess it depends on the school. The seemingly open-mindedness towards it in K-pop may or may not in turn foster it among the general population, I’m not sure. I think it’s still too early to tell. However, I don’t think tattoo parlors are illegal anymore because popular shops in Seoul advertise themselves quite openly (tattooists are required to be medically licensed though). At the very least, we’re in the middle of a transition. (This travel forum from 2011 says otherwise though - that even foreigners with tattoos in Seoul may receive a bit of microaggressions from locals (compared to Koreans). I guess it really depends where you are and what line of work you’re involved in - attitudes vary from context to context.)
Hopefully this answers your question :) Thanks for dropping by!