Americans sporting visible tattoos often deal with unwanted judgments and lingering looks from strangers. At work, during job interviews, or even when just meeting new people, we may find ourselves covering up our ink to avoid unfounded judgments about our character based onlooks alone. Although some tattooed Americans may find themselves covering up, there are no laws in the United States banning tattoos. Though some workplaces and schools may not allow visible tattoos or other body modifications, Americans are mostly free to wear their tattoos proudly, with little more than minor inconveniences as a result. Americans cover up either due to an obligation to present a professional and conservative appearance, or because we simply would prefer to cover our tattoos than endure prying eyes and occasional unwanted conversations. Meanwhile, some countries actually have explicit legislation pertaining to the tattoo industry. Furthermore, many cultures consider tattoos so taboo that although they may in fact be widespread, it is uncommon for people to show them off in public. While Americans and other Western peoples may view tattoos as an emblem of individuality, other cultures consider them a more intimate artifact.
Tattoos in the United States still endure some negative associations with gangs, and more conservative folks may consider tattoos to be in bad taste, but as tattoos continue to enter the mainstream, these negative connotations hold less power. Unlike the United States however, the deviance associated with tattoos in countries like Japan and South Korea makes its way into explicit social rules and even bans barring artists from performing tattoos. Of course, regulations against unlicensed professionals and underage clients help ensure the safety of artists and customers alike, but Japan and South Korea ban artists from tattooing unless they acquire a medical license.
Laws like this place the tattoo industry in precarious legal standing, as they place an immense burden on artists to achieve unnecessary education in order to tattoo legally. Otherwise, if they’re caught without a medical license, artists could feasibly be charged with a crime. Still, tattoos themselves are not illegal. Additionally, as CNN notes, “Japan -- unlike the United Kingdom and the United States, but not unlike China and South Korea -- has no licensing system for tattoo artists, or law to regulate the industry.” That is, although the medical licensing law requires anyone piercing the skin with a needle to have a medical license, tattoos themselves are not regulated. Tattooing is considered a medical procedure and therefore only a licensed medical professional can legally perform them.
However, tides may be changing for artists, as Kotaku recently reported that a possibly precedent-setting court case has overturned an Osaka tattoo artist’s prior conviction for tattooing without a medical license. The new ruling argues that because tattoos are an art form, they are protected under the Japanese Constitution. This along with the imminent influx of Western tourists could help shift public opinion of tattoos.
Despite long standing judgment of tattoos in places like Japan and South Korea, many express optimism that Japan’s upcoming Summer Olympics in 2020 will loosen restrictions on tattoos. As foreign tourism in Japan grows, and in anticipation of a massive influx of foreign and possibly tattooed tourists, Japanese artists and tattoo devotees hope that in order to welcome customers, Japanese businesses will begin to abandon their tattoo bans.
Countries that are overall considered to be more modest and culturally conservative, like South Korea, China, Japan, as well as Iran and the United Arab Emirates, regulate the public display of tattoos or the performing of tattoos. In these countries, tattoos are considered taboo.
Tattoos of course are an expression of individuality. Whether tattoos are performed in the recognizable American Traditional style, the time-consuming Irezumi method, or whether they represent an entirely new avenue for body art, they always represent the individuality of both the artist and their client. Cultures like those of the various countries that have imposed regulations on public presentation of tattoos and on artists themselves tend to discourage such proud individuality. Rather, they encourage conformity. Those with tattoos are ostracized and consequently banned from certain spaces or simply discouraged from revealing their skin. Regulating tattoos and artists themselves appears to be not just an attempt to encourage conformity, but more specifically a method for deterring behavior that focuses on the individual self rather than society overall; however, there is concrete hope that tattoos are gaining more widespread acceptance. As tattoos become more popular, it becomes increasingly difficult to demand that those with tattoos hide them from public view.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.