Hot or Not/ Commentary: Tattoos in Kpop

Super Junior's Henry wears a plethora of fake tattoos for his solo debut
Note: This is an opinion piece. That means, it does not reflect everyone's thoughts nor the point of view of all of Korea. (please don't kill me)

Kpop is all about the idol image. And what image has been increasingly popular?  The bad boy/ bad girl 'gangsta' look. Many idols want to exude the persona of  toughness associated with hip hop music that comes with years of growing up in the streets. However, the majority of these idols have never experienced the same situations. Instead, they are imitating the perceived image from (mainly Western) rap or hip-hop. Many idols have quoted Jay-Z, Micheal Jackson, Omarion, Usher, B2K, and more as their favorite singers. 

That's great, but has this focus on what is cool and most hip-hop gone too far?
When is too much really too much?

SNSD's Hyoyeon rocks some fake ink for IGAB
Kpop's obsession with the 'cool' image has led to an increase in popularity of fake tattoos as accessories. In Korea, tattoos have been considered taboo and are carefully hidden in public. So idols' acceptance of them reflects a greater mainstream societal transformation, a liberalization of Korea's image-- take the greater acceptance of homosexuality in kdramas (e.g. 'Reply 1997' and 'To the Beautiful You) . The youth-centered kpop market has forced entertainment groups to find the next hip thing. This market is dominated by young people who are easily tired of repetition and are constantly searching for more unique fashion, more Western attitudes and different music styles. This, combined with the past precedence of the pop scene in Korea becoming more and more Westernized, to me makes tattoos a logical extension of the youthful, ideal image. And so, the tattoo trend is steadily becoming gradually more appealing with the emergence of pop-influenced hip-hop hits and an increase of designers focusing in urban streetwear, particularly from Europe.

Dok2“Stay Fly” with wings + Hustle Read Hard (on upper right arm)date: (?)source: Tumblr
close up: K-Pop Tattoos, submitted by dee
One of the main differences between the idol group trend/Korea as a whole and more 'rebellious' stars is the permanence of the ink. While some idols' comeback images feature fake tattoos, which often seem more trashy than hardcore (see the above photos), I think more credible rap/ hip-hop artists like Dok2,  Illionare, Outsider, etc. have images that align with tattoos. Still, many idols get legitimate ink. As more and more idol groups are veering away from the pop path, they are embracing hip-hop, r&b, and rap (just take a look at pre-2011 Big Bang, B.A.P., Block B, EvoL, EXID,  Spica, Infinite H, etc.). This venture into less mainstream and more 'urban' music has trickled into their lives, and so many get ink as a representation of their growing ties to the hip-hop genre. Therefore, the 'hip-hop'  image merges with the reality of their characters. So unlike many groups that use fake tattoos as accessories, artists that get permanent tattoos tend to have more intense images with sticking power.

In the instances of permanent ink, many tattoos look nice, but many do not. Either way, I can only think that kpop's (and perhaps Korea's) emphasis on youth and physical beauty is still reflected in tattoos however taboo they may seem. Idols' obsessions with outer appearance makes them stay slimmer quite a bit longer than most people. This means that their tattoos, sometimes in unfortunate locations, stay unobstructed and, well, for a lack of a better word, appealing for longer. All those who get full sleeves or ab tattoos have just one more reason to stay fit and one more thing that serves as a sign of aging.

And so Korea's obsession with the idol image shifts but does not go away. The new idol image has a duality of tone; on the one hand, there are the cutesy, aegyo groups (like B1A4 and Dal Shabet), but on the other, many popular groups are becoming hip-hop-centered (like B.A.P and Block B) or even are releasing a mix of hip-hop and pop tracks (like SNSD, B2ST, Infinite, etc.).

So let's examine some idol ink (image heavy):

1. Lee Hyori

Lee Hyori on Nylon May 2013
Ok, not going to lie I stan Lee Hyori hard, but girl-crush aside, I think her tattoos are pleasant. They are not overdone, and I'm a sucker for black and white. I especially love the one on her right arm, because it draws on an Native American/ American Indian proverb: “Walk lightly in the spring, mother earth is pregnant” (Cr. hallyu uk).

Hyori rocks some Henna tattoos at Seoul Fashion Week 2012

2. Big Bang's G-Dragon

Various tattoos of Big Bang's G-Dragon
OK, GD's tattoos are quite legendary in the kpop world. I like the tattoos on his wrist one that say "vita dolce modereto" and the walking heart. The color in the heart is not overwhelming, and it's very clean looking. I don't really understand the Dragon Ball-Z thing above his armpit. I think that's an awkward spot for tattoos, and his tattoo (at least from what I know) had no other meaning. His other lyrical tats are OK. "Forever Young" is overused and too big, while "mind control" looks like something a prepubescent boy would chose. His "too fast to live too young to die" is clearly a phrase he's quite proud of writing, and so I think it has meaning to put on himself. Theatrics and faux-gansta-ness aside, GD is quite sentimental. I would rate his tattoos a 4.5/10. 

3. Jay Park

Jay Park on GQ April 2012
Jay, baby, what ever happened to the cute boy who debuted? I understand growing up, but your tattoos seem to be getting more and more immature. I was on board when you got the seven stars for, presumably, the seven members of 2pm. I even understood your large Jaywalkerz ink on your back/neck.  Some of your ink I have to accept because they are odes to your group, Art of Movement (e.g. behind his ear, on his forearm). Others, like your "Fresh Prince of $" shoulder ink, are not forgivable. At least they are (mostly) high quality. I will admit you are dedicated to filling the canvas. Good for you.

Jay Park's early tattoos
5. B.A.P's Bang Yongguk

Bang Yongguk's sexy (?) back
I really appreciate Yongguk as a rapper, but his tattoo is a prime example of why tattoos in general are ridiculed by many. It says, "Do what u like and luv What u do". So much is wrong with that. His obsession with wanting to be black -- he has repeatedly said he likes the "style of gangster rap" (Cr. Madonna Warriors), and he wants "to be born as an African-American" (Cr. Allkpop) -- has made him try to embrace a more street persona. This persona, it seems, entails spelling things as if texting and randomly Capitalizing Words for Emphasis. At least his tat was done in quality script. Things like this make me want to educate Korea on what it really means to be a hip-hop star. Take a hint from Tiger JK, Yongguk, some people are badass without ink.

4. Block B's Zico

Zico has a nice religious allusion and...a picture of his omma?!
I hate to be a Debbie downer, but I'm going to be a Debbie downer. Tattoos are all fun and games until you get a portrait of your mother done...on your chest...where anyone you sleep with will be able to see it. Zico's Christian reference is nice; however I do wish I knew what about John the Apostle he likes. Whatever, I'm not too worried about it. I'm not going to criticize him for expressing his faith. Even the placement of the words is very cool, as it leads up to something. It's just the 'something' that bothers me. I feel like he did not think this one through. Just a word to the wise, get a portrait of your mother done on paper. Hang it up in your house (not your bedroom!). That way when you're banging someone, they won't have to look your mother in the eyes. At least he loves his mom, so that's nice.

Which kpop tattoo do you think is the best? The worst? 

For more kpop tattoos, click here.
Image cr. onekpop, as linked, various magazines
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