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Tattoos of organized gangs

Posted November. 05, 2011 07:10,   


"Joseon Wangjo Sillok," or the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, has records suggesting that court ladies in the royal palace inscribed characters meaning “friend” as sign of affection between lesbian court ladies. In reality, tattoos have never been in vogue in Korean society. Referring to Japan, China’s historical book "San Gou Zhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms) Wiji Dongi-jeon" from the third century has the expression, “All men wear tattoos.” Korea uses the same Chinese characters “munshin” to refer to tattoos, but Japan uses "irezumi," which is its own Chinese word. A famous book and movie share the title "Irezumi" in Japan.

In Korea, tattoos were considered until recently the exclusive domain of organized crime. Gangs who started to emerge under Japan’s colonial rule of Korea started to get tattoos as influenced by Japan’s yakuza. "Shui Hu Zhuan (The Water Margin," an ancient Chinese novel, suggests that certain heroes in Yangsanbak wear tattoos. Some say that deeply impressed by the strong companionship between the heroes, Japan’s yakuza started to inscribe tattoos. Tattoos today are a common practice done by organized gangs in East Asia, including Korea’s "jopok," Japan’s yakuza, and China’s "bang." Like a family emblem, organized gangs have inscribed tattoos to display a sense of companionship and loyalty to an organization. They renew commitment to their organization by enduring pain while tattooing and by inscribing inerasable signs on their body.

Even watching tattoos makes ordinary people nervous. Warriors in ancient society had scary tattoos on their faces to spiritually overwhelm the enemy. Even today, scary dragons and tigers dominate the images of tattoos found on organized gangsters. Tattoos inscribed on the upper or entire body, which are clear and look even dark blue as if drawn with a fountain pen, are ominous enough to make ordinary people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. People are free to wear tattoos but they should consider what other people feel about them. A man with tattoos at a public sauna often causes others to grow tense and to leave immediately.

Police in the southern port city of Ulsan fined 50,000 won (45 U.S. dollars) on two gang members who frequented public saunas with dragon tattoos on their body. The measure came after National Police Agency Commissioner Cho Hyun-oh ordered a stronger crackdown on organized gangs. Many saunas and health clubs in Japan place signs reading, “Admission denied to people with tattoos.” If a man with tattoos enters such a facility, he could face trespassing charges under criminal law. If he refuses to leave, he could face punishment for resisting an order to leave. Stern regulations are required to ensure that organized gangs are curbed from unveiling their “signs of darkness” without reservation.

Editorial Writer Song Pyeong-in (pisong@donga.com)