▲ Studio owner Simon Han (left) and tattooist Mir. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
Simon Han is the owner of "Tattooist," a new tattoo studio situated in Shin Jeju, Jeju City, which provides studio space for tattooists to ply their trade on the holiday island. The artists stay for periods of weeks to a few months and I was invited to watch famed Korean tattooist “Mir” as he performed his craft in late-March.
Mir had already begun work when I arrived. I watched as he carefully drew an intricate picture of a bird surrounded by flowers on a young mother's left shoulder. Noting my surprise, the engaging Mir told me that 70 percent of his customers are women, mostly young, university students, a sharp contrast from his macho clientele just a few years ago. In fact the entire market for his tattoos has changed a lot over the years. In the early days, clients would come in with a photo and say, "I want this." Today he sits down with more sophisticated customers and discusses options over the course of several consultations and drawing sessions.
▲ Choosing the inks. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
Mir, whose name means "dragon" in Korean, had wanted to become a tattoo artist since middle school when he and his friends would tattoo each other using sharp needles and ink. Their work looked terrible according to Mir. "One day I got a tattoo that was supposed to be a spider but it looked like a cockroach", he explained with a laugh. "My friends teased me, asking me why I got a cockroach tattooed on my body."
After going to Saipan to get his low-quality tattoos covered, he came back to Korea intent on doing tattoos the right way. Self-taught, Mir first practiced on friends. Then, as his skills improved and he became more well-known, he began to travel across Korea to tattoo gangsters. In 2000 he opened up his own studio. His timing was prescient as the demand for tattoos exploded just six years later. Today, Mir's client list includes musicians, club owners, singers, actors, and UFC and F1 fighters.
▲ A tattooist's tools of the trade. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
After 90 minutes, Mir's work is done and it's not at all what I expected. The tattoo looks beautiful and the woman is clearly pleased. Tattoos in Korea have long been considered a mark of violence, gang membership, or defiance of mainstream culture. However, in recent years tattoos have been embraced as works of art and fashion statements.
20 percent of tattoo artists in Korea are now women and their "new-school" style, punctuated by bright colors and smaller, cuter designs, is at the forefront of a break from the "old-school" of dragons, skulls, and sinister messages. Mir embraces the change which gives him a chance to flex his artistic muscle.
What does the future hold for Mir? "I'd like to go abroad and get a tattoo from a famous artist like French tattooist Filip Leu," he mused. In the meantime, Mir will continue to refine his craft, solidifying his place as one of the top tattoo artists in Korea.
▲ No longer a mark of gang membership, 70 percent of Mir's customers are now female. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
Mir will be on the island until mid-April before returning later in the year. A total of seven artists rotate at Tattooist, all of whom are respected across Korea. Call Simon Han at 010-5306-2444 for an appointment or contact online at facebook.com/tattooismjeju or firstname.lastname@example.org
More of MacDonald’s photography can be found here.
▲ Mir relaxes on the balcony. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
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