A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I left my apartment in Jeonju for the last time and booked myself into the adoptee guesthouse in Seoul. I’ve got a flight to Japan in a few weeks. It would’ve been sooner but the flight ticket prices are obscenely expensive in the middle of August and are cheaper near the end of the month, so I figured I’d relax in Seoul and see my family until it was time to leave.
I didn’t know what to do with myself in Seoul, so I joined a gang and got a tattoo.
Just kidding. I didn’t join a gang.
But I did get a tattoo.
I’d like to give a special shoutout to my Mum in Australia, who reads this blog, and may be having a nervous breakdown right now.
I’ve wanted a tattoo since forever. I’m an art-lover whose musical heroes are shouty guys and gals with guitars. To me, tattoos are like dyeing your hair or wearing a new pair of glasses. There are so many people with tattoos these days that it doesn’t seem shocking to me at all.
I know that my parents’ generation doesn’t see it the same way. Tattoos are generally associated with foul-mouthed sailors and convicts. In Korea and Japan, tattoos are associated with gangs like kkangpae or the yakuza.
But in the last few months, I noticed more and more young Koreans with visible tattoos – words snaking up their forearms, huge chest pieces, round little shoulder designs, even sleeves. And they weren’t kkangpae (except for maybe a big muscly guy I saw in Busan who had an enormous dark tattoo across his shoulders) – they were students, workers, even fathers. Things are changing.
Many people get tattoos for all sorts of reasons. To look like a tough guy. To look pretty. To make their friends laugh with a silly visual pun. To celebrate their love of something, whether it’s cats or Pokemon.
It’s taken me years to think of a tattoo design. I wanted something that looked cool, obviously, but was also meaningful. Hearts? Guitars? Women with swords? My last name in Korean? Korean women with swords? Then one day it came to me – the mungunghwa, Korea’s national flower. I googled mungunghwa tattoo designs and scrolled through the pages. Then I came across the perfect design.
It was a mungunghwa under a dragon-headed boat – the turtle ship that was moored in the harbour in Tongyeong, Umma’s hometown. It was the first thing I remember seeing when she brought me there for the first time.
The turtle ships were created by Admiral Yi Sun Shin. He’s considered a Korean national hero and his statue is found all around the country. Under his leadership, the Korean navy fought off Japanese invasion in a series of battles in the 16th century. You can read all about Yi Sun Shin and the turtle ships here.
I thought of that time I visited Umma and she excitedly took me around Tongyeong, pointing out where the historical Battle of Hansan took place, showing me relics from the battle at an exhibition hall and explaining the battle with enthusiastic sound effects. The design was absolutely perfect.
I followed a chain of links from the design back to the original artist, who owned a tattoo studio called Badass Tattoo. Luckily for me, the studio was based in Seoul.
I tentatively texted the tattoo artist, then decided to meet her in person at her tattoo studio near Ewha Woman’s University.
We chatted about the design, the size, the placement, the cost. I was impressed at how much she really cared about giving me the best-looking tattoo, as she fussed with the design, colours and sizing in Photoshop. I decided to get a smaller, simpler version of the tattoo on the left side of my chest. That way, no one would see it unless I was wearing a singlet or something low-cut – which I wouldn’t be wearing around potential employers, polite company and grandmothers anyway.
Pushing aside my apprehensions over pain the possibility that my mother(s) may kill me, I booked a session for the following day.
The tattoo gun whirred loudly against my ear like a dentist drill. I winced and braced myself. But the pain wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like someone drawing on you really hard with a pen. It was less painful than going to the actual dentist.
“That wasn’t so bad!” I said after she finished the outline.
But then it was time to colour it in. My tattooed friends said this was the most painful part.
That was when I started making weird faces and whimpering. It was like someone drawing on you with a pen, except the pen was on fire. But after only one more agonising hour, the tattoo designer finally announced “finished!”
And here it is – a tattoo emblazoned on my body forever about my mother, my ancestors, my time here in Korea, one of the most important events in Korean history. With a cool dragon head and pretty flowers.