May 23rd, 2012

a familiar feeling at my first tattoo convention.

Remember the familiar feeling of doing something you aren’t supposed to be doing? Your first underage sip of beer, that quick puff from your older friend’s cigarette, hooking up in the back of a car. There’s an undeniable thrill in being naughty, and in the potentiality of getting caught. For the longest time I hypothesized that drinking was decidedly less fun now that I could do it legally. After my 21st birthday, I was resigned to the fact that I would never get that specific rush again.

I was wrong.

Before coming to Korea, I had grand aspirations of obtaining a tattoo that would accurately reflect my decision to leave home and live an expat life in the exotic Orient. Then, I found out that tattoos are borderline illegal in Korea; I am not sure about the exact laws but I believe a medical license is required because it counts as a surgical procedure. At any rate, sketchy tattoo parlors are still abound — especially near the military base — but I wasn’t prepared to take the plunge into Hepatitis filled waters just yet.

Last week I heard about Ink Bomb – an international tattoo convention to take place in Seoul. After browsing the website, a couple of artists stood out to me, but I wanted a chance to get tattooed, specifically, by Chris Barnett from Good Faith Tattoo. I (impulsively, I suppose) booked an appointment, discussed what I wanted, and proceeded to buzz with anticipation for a week leading up to the convention. Jared decided to make an appointment with a Japanese artist named Matsuo from Three Tide Tattoos as well (sidenote: we love getting tattooed together).

I asked Chris to draw up a matryoshka design with an oriental fan in the center (to symbolize my time overseas). My grandparents used to have these Russian nesting dolls, and I would play with when I was little — I remember they smelled like musty wood and lacquer. I have fond memories, and I like the general aesthetic value of colorful matryoshkas, so it seemed appropriate.

Saturday, we showed up to Ink Bomb around 1PM, met with our artists, had a vodka tonic at the bar, and checked out the gallery. It was hosted at Platoon, which is comprised of 26 storage containers — a really hip space. There were several people already getting tattooed, custom motorcycles, and a body painter on the center stage, plus a bar. Jared sat for his work first, a traditional rose on his chest — it added to a much larger piece he already has. Apparently Japanese artists aren’t quite as gentle, Jared got dry shaved and dry wiped (which is pretty funny considering how hairy he is).

Halfway through Jared’s tattoo, the Korean police showed up  (apparently there was no other crime to attend to in Korea). Everyone dropped their needles and began covering up the equipment with the goal (I think) to show that the artists on site were only sketching tattoos and taking pictures — not actually participating in the voluntary defacement of human bodies. When the dust had settled, I found Jared outside padded with paper towels over a half-finished tattoo and his hoodie zipped up to the neck to hide the artwork. We waited a while, spoke with some other half-tattooed individuals, had another drink. The police finally cleared out and Jared got his tattoo finished. All seemed to be well.

I got mine started at about the same time. The outline didn’t bother me, well — the tiny needle he used to do the detailing on the face was a new experience, but otherwise it was bearable pain. “I wonder if they are smart enough to just come back and check again,” Chris joked.

Just as he started the shading, that is precisely what happened. The cops reappeared and began striding through all the stations, pointing, shouting in Korean — there was much hand waving. They were swiping business cards and generally bullying the tattooers.

Jared and I hung around awkwardly, attempting to figure out what was happening. It was difficult to discern as most of the discussion was in Korean or Japanese. Chris approached me and said, “I am going to have to finish your tattoo at my hotel.” And that’s what we did. We followed him back to the Young Dong Hotel (yes, that’s what it was called), where all the tattooers from the convention were staying.

I grabbed some Starbucks to get a bit of a sugar buzz, then we headed up to Chris’ room. As we approached the appropriate door, we listened to the hallway buzzing animatedly with the sound of displaced artists practicing their craft.  I situated myself in a hotel desk chair with the sun setting in the window, and we got back to work. The shading, after such a long break, was pretty painful — luckily Chris offered me two Aleve, and it definitely took the edge off.

I think we finally finished sometime near eleven — about ten hours after beginning our journey!

It was, in a word: awesome, or unforgettable. Let’s go with: unforgettably awesome. I will definitely remember that tattoo experience. And my matryoshka is definitely worth it! She is lovely — and my first truly “visible” tattoo, being on my bicep. So, here’s to experiencing the world a bit differently, meeting new people, and letting life surprise me.

  • elly_rarg

    Woah buddy!! That sounds like an insane adventure! Glad it all turned out awesome – love the new ink! :)

    • Abby

      I try to keep my adventures on par with your own. ;)

  • Erini

    I’ve been wanting a new tattoo(s) for a while!! thinking it’ll happen this summer. I want a yellow jack rabbit with big bifocals watching birds at a feeder. Sort of to look like it came from a really old kids book or something… Basically to represent my grandfather.
    (I also want a 1-up mushroom and a super star from mario too… but I might wait on those)

    • Abby

      Do you have any? I want to see. I wanted a Yoshi tattoo for a long time, but I am actually glad I never got it now — not that I don’t love Nintendo, the art was just really bad.

  • Ashlee

    This sounds like a crazy amazing adventure! Haha. I’m so happy you finally got your tattoo done and I hope you’ll be sharing the final results in the near future! The outline looks awesome! Thanks for sharing as usual! I’ve really been enjoying reading about all of your overseas musings/adventures! <3

  • terra

    What a crazy adventure! I saw your tweets regarding this and was fascinated. I had no idea tattooing was so frowned upon in Korea, but I’m so glad you were able to still get a lovely piece to add to your collection. I’m also glad you were able to finish the tattoo!

    • Abby

      When are you getting another one? :)

      • terra

        I don’t know! Probably as soon as I figure out what I want…

  • Erin

    I love this story! What an adventure. Part of what I like about traveling is experiencing foreign ways of going about more or less typical things: grocery shopping, going out at night, even just driving or walking around. Who knew tattoos were such a big deal in Korea?

    Your matryoshka is beautiful. I love how she combines several important stories into one image!

    • Abby

      Grocery shopping here deserves it’s own post! And I definitely was not aware of the tattoo culture before arriving here.

  • Lorraine

    I love that a tattoo meant to represent your adventure as an expat comes tied with such an amazing story. You had an adventure while documenting your adventure, basically. And the outline looks lovely. I’m sure it turned out beautifully.

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  • Anonymous

    haha sounds like quite the time!

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  • Bailie @ The Hemborg Wife

    That is crazy, I am also sure that my husband would love that experience!