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South Korea Considers Legalizing Tattoo Artists Amid Healthcare Protests

Government Orders Research Related to Tattoo Artists
Non-Medical Professionals’ Procedures are Illegal under Current Law
Interpreted as a Reduction in Medical Professionals’ Authority

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Tattoo artists, also known as tattooists, who ink tattoos on bodies are considered “illegal” under current law. However, signs of this changing to legal have emerged recently amidst doctors’ strikes against the increase in medical school admissions.

According to the government and medical community, on the 4th, the Ministry of Health and Welfare ordered a research on the “Development and Management of the Tattoo Artist Qualification Exam and Continuing Education System”.

An official from the Ministry of Welfare explained the background of the order, stating, “There is a high societal need for the legalization of tattoo procedures. We prepare in advance through research in anticipation of the bills proposed in the National Assembly.”

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Under current law, tattooing is considered a medical procedure. It involves injecting foreign substances such as dye with a needle, which raises hygiene issues, hence it is only legal for medical professionals to perform. In other words, it is illegal for non-medical professionals to perform tattoos in South Korea, which is unique worldwide.

Despite several bills having been proposed, the reason for considering legalization now is analyzed as a “pressure card against doctors.”

The government is currently leveraging Physician Assistants (PAs) to fill the void left by doctors who declared a strike in protest of the increase in medical school admissions. It is also moving towards expanding telemedicine. It also opens tattooing to non-medical professionals, aiming to reduce the scope of medical professionals’ activities.

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In fact, according to data submitted to the National Assembly Legislative Research Office by the Ministry of Health and Welfare a few years ago, the number of people with experience in semi-permanent makeup and tattoos in the country has reached a cumulative total of 13 million and the number of practitioners is estimated to be over 350,000. Among them, over 99% were non-medical professionals.

The tattoo industry argues for legalization, stating, “Not only are we not recognized as a profession, but we are also not protected by law.” Crimes occur when people take advantage of the fact that tattooing is illegal to extort money from the beginning.

One tattoo artist claimed that a customer who got a tattoo worth 150,000 KRW (approximately $112) threatened to report him unless he paid 8 million KRW (approximately $6,017) by sending a medical certificate unrelated to the tattoo.

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The industry also argues that if hygiene issues are legalized, more stringent management will be implemented. If strict health and hygiene management education is provided, the medical community’s concern about infection will decrease.

In response to these grievances from tattoo artists, some members of the National Assembly have proposed bills. Currently, in the National Assembly, there are proposed bills such as “Tattoo Artist Bill” by Park Joo-min of the Democratic Party, “Semi-Permanent Makeup and Tattoo Artist Bill” by Eom Tae-young of the People Power Party, and “Tattoo Business Bill” by former Justice Party Rep. Ryu Ho-jeong. However, discussions have been sluggish since the proposal.

Meanwhile, the government drew a line on the interpretation of “pressure card against doctors”, saying “there is no relation”.

The Ministry of Welfare said on the day, “In particular, it’s not that we are urgently pushing for this due to the current situation of residents leaving their workplaces, it has nothing to do with it at all”.

However, some predict that the legalization of tattoos will speed up more than before, as it has been revealed that the tattoo population is gradually increasing. The authority of medical professionals is excessive.

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