BIPOC Voices, Education, Living

Tattoo taboo in East Asia – here’s what you need to know

So you don’t get grilled.

words by: Alee Kwong
Mar 3, 2021

Travel plans are hard to make right now. Everyone is in planning mode, but who knows when it’ll be safe to travel to another state, let alone another country anytime soon. However, if you are looking into traveling to East Asia and you have tattoos, listen up. It’s a well-known fact that East Asia has extremely conservative views within their societies and a lot of that applies to one’s appearance. In East Asia, your physical appearance is linked to you as a person and your character.


Apart from their famously abusive beauty standards, tattoos are a huge taboo in China, South Korea, and Japan. Many of the young people in these countries have started embracing tattoos and either have small tattoos placed in easy-to-hide spots or full-blown large pieces scattered across their body and nothing in-between. Having tattoos makes living out some iconic cultural experiences in these countries difficult and in some cases impossible. While you might be able to get a private onsen in Japan, you won’t be able to walk freely in a South Korean spa. In an i-D mini-documentary series starring British tattoo artist, Grace Neutral, she explores South Korea’s beauty scene and on a trip to the spa, she is told that since she is covered in tattoos that she needs to wear her Burberry coat over her body while she walks around the spa.


To support the stigma around tattoos, Japan and South Korea have made it illegal to practice the art of tattooing without a medical license. The Chinese government also made it illegal for tattoos and other “depictions of subculture” to appear on television. Tattoos are historically linked to gang activity and seen as an invitation for trouble. Many business owners would refuse service to people with tattoos in fear that they would be associated with local gangs. During my trip to Tokyo and Hong Kong in July 2017, I had no choice but to wear T-shirts and expose the tattoos covering my arms. While I was stared at by older people with laser focus, I never experienced any verbal judgment.


So if you’re planning on making a trip out to China, South Korea, or Japan, just keep in mind that while tattoo culture has quickly become more acceptable here in America, the same can’t be said over there.



Photo via Compulsive Contents