The Korea Herald


Tattooists call for legalization of nonmedical tattoos ahead of jury trial

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : May 10, 2024 - 14:50

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South Korean tattooists held a protest in Daegu on Thursday calling for the legalization of nonmedical tattoos, ahead of the country's first-ever jury trial case involving the legal basis for a tattoo performed by a person without a medical license.

Several members of the Korea Tattoo Federation gathered in front of the Daegu District Court in Suseong-gu and demanded a not-guilty verdict for a practitioner charged with giving a person an eyebrow tattoo without a medical license. The 20-something-year-old tattooist was ordered to pay a fine via summary indictment for an illegal medical procedure, but she requested a formal trial.

Giving tattoos in South Korea has been defined as a medical procedure since a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1992, although no law specifically defines tattoos as such. In the case of eyebrow tattoos, the top court then ruled that it should be considered a medical procedure considering the accompanying risk of infection.

As a result, the operations of most tattoo parlors and tattooists are regarded as illegal in South Korea.

"Defining (giving tattoos) as a medical procedure is the only thing that makes tattooists criminals. ... There should be a law that institutionalizes (tattoos) rather than leaving the law as it is," said Im Bo-ran, the chief of the KTF.

The trial will be held in the form of a citizen participatory trial, which is a jury-type trial implemented in 2008 under the Act on Citizen Participation in Criminal Trials. Unlike in other countries where the jury decides whether or not the defendant is guilty, South Korean juries only get to recommend a verdict, although it is conventional for the judge to sustain their verdict.

The upcoming trial marks the first time the citizen juries will get to deliberate on the legal status of nonmedical tattoos, meaning it will be a more direct reflection of what the general public thinks of the issue.

The verdict for the upcoming trial will be reached next Tuesday.

Legalizing tattoos by nonmedical practitioners is still an ongoing debate in South Korea, and the government in March commissioned research to develop a national qualification exam for tattoo practitioners. A state-authorized certification system has been one of the key demands by tattooists here, as it will allow them to legalize their practice without getting a medical degree.