I Got An "Underground" Tattoo In Busan

After spending a week agonizing over contacting Kyung Jin, of Fat Buddha Tattoo in Busan, I sent him a message over facebook. Like many businesses in South Korea, he doesn’t have a business website, so much as a Facebook page.

Moments later Kyung Jin responded and we had a consult set up.

Tattoo Consultation: July 28

It took us an hour to find our way to Fat Buddha, located high in Trump World II (Tower A), Centum City (a high end neighbourhood in Busan that also houses the world’s largest department store). It seemed ridiculous that I’d come to this opulent/gaudy sky scraper to get an underground tattoo in Busan (underground in that he’s officially unlicensed. Only medical doctors can be licensed to tattoo). There was even mandatory sign-in before they would let you through the lobby. The floors are marble and the accents are bronze and gold.

The long elevator ride up gave me plenty of time to consider how ridiculous this felt. A tattoo parlour that specialized in Irezumi (traditional Japanese tattoos, most often of the full body variety), located in a Trump building. Adam had stumbled across the place in a few magazine articles after we arrived in South Korea. From what I’ve read, it’s the best shop In Busan.

We rang the bell, and a small dog barked frantically on the other side of the door. Seconds went by before we were greeted by Dan, Kyung Jin’s American apprentice. He invited us in, and lead us through several darkened rooms to the tattoo studio. Kyung Jin was leaning over a mostly nude young man stretched out in front of him on the work table. He said something to his client in Korean and the client quickly left the room.

Kyung Jin offered us a seat by his nearby computer and asked which of us was getting the tattoo, and what do we want. I told him it was me, and that I wanted a fu dog.

Kyung Jin leaned back in his computer chair. “Wow,” Kyung Jin said, eyes wide.

“What?” Did I make some sort of faux pas?

“Foreigners never know about fu dogs,” he said.

Now that he had said it out loud, I realized it was probably true. It took me months of research, over the course of years, to stumble across the mythology of the fu dog https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komainu (or lion dog, more colloquially). They usually appear in pairs guarding entrances to shrines and homes, protecting them from evil spirits. And they aren’t popular among foreigners, as they aren’t as well known as dragons or koi.

We discussed surprisingly little about the design before he started drawing on my shoulder, where I said I wanted the tattoo. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I could feel his pen strokes stretching further and further up and down my arm.

“How big?” he asked.

I gestured towards my elbow. “How about here?”

Kyung Jin nodded and continued. In minutes he had the tattoo roughed out and asked me to check it out in the mirror. I could only get the gist from the mash of red and purple stokes, but it looked about the right size and shape.

“It looks good,” I said, returning to my seat.

As he pressed a piece of translucent paper onto my arm, to lift a copy of his rough work, he asked, “Is this your first tattoo?”

“Yes.”

Kyung Jin peeled the paper off my arm and leaned back again. “Wow! He paused. “Usually a girl’s first tattoo is small.” He made a circle with his index finger and thumb.

The whole meeting took less than 20 minutes. After scheduling my first session in a week’s time, he bade us farewell and we walked back through the darkened apartment, passing his client, who was lounging in a neighbouring room in his boxer briefs, playing a game on his cell phone.

Session 1: Aug 4

We arrived and Kyung Jin got to work. He transferred his completed sketch onto my arm and touched up a few parts by hand with a pen. One more confirmation on it’s look and we were ready to go.

He had me lie down on his black leathery looking tattoo table and got to work. Adam lasted a few minutes before excusing himself to explore the nearby mall. Watching someone get a tattoo in silence isn’t the most exciting way to spend an afternoon.

It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. The pain ranged from cat scratch too bad paper-cut, and was largely dependant on location and amount of work done. In areas where the lines bunched up together, it was hard not to wince, but when they spread out I hardly even noticed.

We didn’t talk much. It turns out many Koreans are self-conscious of their English and embarrassed to speak it. Kyung Jin occasionally broke the silence to ask how I was doing, or to get me to hold my arm this way or that.

Two hours later, I could see my fu dog: all black lines and menace.

Session 2: Aug 10

It took three days for my scabs to start peeling off of their own accord. The plasma makes for a translucent scab, and the dye in the top layers of my skin comes off with it, making it look a little like onion skin. I’d been diligently washing and lotioning my skin, as instructed.

Today was my colour session. I’d been told this hurts “less” than line-work, but I beg to differ. When I scheduled this session, I’d made the mistake of assuming that it would be, if anything, less painful. So I went all out and said I could handle four hours (with hourly breaks, of course).

It was not “less” painful.

Hour one went ok (linework for the spots and the beginning of the main colour, teal). More painful than the previous session, but manageable. Hour two started to push my boundaries, but I could handle it without making a face (more teal, and teal shading). Hour three was pretty bad (more teal, and a start on the ochre and yellows of the mane). I kept a stony expression and tried to count all the tiles on the ceiling. Hour four I watched the clock tick down (completion of mane, start on pink accents). My arm felt like hamburger.

By the time Kyung Jin put down his tattoo gun I was exhausted. One more session was needed to finish up my fu dog’s tail and spots. I managed to sit up so his apprentice can clean and wrap the oozing work on my arm. It looked great (under the blood and plasma). Seriously. I was genuinely delighted but too tired to do more than grin while Adam escorted me out of the building.

We’re starving by this point and step into the first restaurant we see: a tourist oriented BBQ joint. I did my best to cover my bandaged arm with my shawl but failed. The waiter caught a glimpse of it and gave me an apologetic grimace before taking our order.

Session 3/Final: Aug 17

My skin has finished peeling again by the time we were back at Fat Buddha. This time it looked more like soggy printed tissue paper when it came off, leaving our bathroom sink looking looking like it was full of confetti after I washed my arm. That was nothing compared to the yellow bruise that bloomed around my forming tattoo. Washing and moisturizing had become a very delicate affair.

While I was looking forward to getting this finished, I wasn’t looking forward to feeling it get finished. But there was only an hour and a half of work left to do.

It hurt. As bad as hour four of the last session. But time didn’t seem to drag on like it had the last time.

The best part was when he started filling in the tail that curled around the top of my shoulder. Don’t ask me why, but it hurt and tickled at the same time. My toes curled involuntarily.

It took an hour and a half (orange spots, and ochre/yellow tail). Plenty of bruising on my shoulder, but less messy overall.

After Kyung Jin finished and Dan bandaged me up we said goodbye and left Fat Buddha Tattoo for the last time.

Sept 9

It’s been over a month now, and we’ve moved on to Taipei, Taiwan.

Adam and I were sitting on a sidewalk bench the other day, enjoying some bubble tea, when a woman and her young son walked by. He must have been about five years old.

As he noticed us, his jaw dropped. He fought to keep us in his sight as his mother pulled him down the street. It’s not unusual to be stared at. There aren’t that many foreigners in Taipei.

Adam leaned over to me, “I think he likes your ink.”