I first came across Apro Lee when I was looking for tattoo artists in Seoul a couple of years back. Impressed by his excellent black-and-grey work, I followed his Instagram and kept up with what he was doing. Now, as I’m getting closer to completing my Tattoos of Asia project, I have started looking for interesting voices to add to the interviews with tribal people from all over Asia. Being a tattooed man, and especially having facial tattoos, in Korea, Apro seemed like he would have interesting thoughts and insights on tattoo culture as a whole.
I reached out to him to see if he’d be interested in an interview and showed him some of my work so far. He agreed and told me to drop by any time. Arriving at his studio, I was greeted with a clean and clear space dotted with things that instantly spoke volumes about its master. A sketch here, a minimalist speaker there, a painting, a solid wood desk. Apro Lee is a calm and collected man with a very clear goal: to keep learning and growing.
Becoming a Tattooer
As we sit down and begin talking, he starts by telling me about his history as a tattooer. Growing up in north-east Asia means that tattoos are taboo and only ever the mythical creatures worn by criminals and gangsters. That idea was flipped for Lee when he saw a portrait of Kurt Cobain rendered as a tattoo. It shocked him that this sort of tattoo was also possible.
Following his military service, Apro began his search for someone to teach him and came across a man offering lessons. The teacher had lived in America for a while and had learned to set up and operate tattoo machines. That was more than most people could do at the time, so Lee paid for his lessons and practiced tattooing on his fellow students.
He spent hours staring at photos of tattoos he’d collected from the internet and try to figure out how the tattoos were made. Nobody around him really knew in those days. At that time, it was also difficult to get hold of tattooing equipment in Korea due to the illegal status of the practice. Machines, ink, and needles had to be ordered through friends on the US military base in Seoul. A single needle could cost around 10,000 won at that time. Lee had never even heard of a magnum needle at that point, but was trying to learn to shade. These were the sorts of difficulties he faced daily when learning his art.
“We felt like drug dealers when we ordered and picked up this stuff. But, that’s how we got our tools.”
Thankfully, while tattooing is still technically illegal in Korea, it has become a much lesser offense. The police no longer knock on doors looking for artists to punish and tattooers like Lee are mostly left alone to continue their work now. Lee says that he’s pretty sure you’d still go to prison for tattooing a minor or harming someone with poor practice, but outside of that, he’s able to continue doing what he does in a relatively open fashion. This has led to more social acceptance of tattoos and increased learning opportunities for tattooers.
Lee tells that part of his work as a tattooer involves traveling to various conventions and meeting tattooers from all around the world. In the past, he was uncomfortable that he had nothing to share in terms of Korean tattoo culture. There just wasn’t anything for him to give. While he got his start working in black-and-grey realism, he wanted to find something to represent his own people and history; something to call his own. He began looking at Korean paintings for inspiration, but quickly realised how difficult they would be to render as tattoos. Since a painting can be rough and contain the artist’s feeling at the time, copying it exactly as a tattoo would just be a poor imitation, not something of his own.
“We always talked about American or Japanese tattoos. But, as I Korean tattooer, there was nothing for me to share about my own culture.”
Continuing, he talks about Soomookhwa (수묵화), a style of Korean painting that often makes use of “the beauty of emptiness” to engage the viewer’s imagination. “A tiny bird on a huge piece of paper gives you empty space to put your thoughts, but it doesn’t translate well as a tattoo,” he says, “One little bird doesn’t make for an interesting tattoo.” Over time, Lee came across folk paintings that contained Korea’s famed, almost comical-looking, tigers. He began sketching these and figuring our ways to tattoo them.
While he was working in New Zealand, a coworker was intrigued and asked if he’d ink one for her. Seeing the finished product, others began to ask and slowly this became what he was known for. Over the years, he has changed and refined the tigers he tattoos, but the basic idea remains the same. In western tattoos, tigers are almost always majestic. They strive to represent that fear and awe that humans feel when seeing a tiger. The tigers found in Korean art are comical and not nearly as frightening or powerful as a tiger in real life. They are usually disproportionate and laughable. Lee has heard people describe his tattoos as drunk, stoned, or retarded tigers. He shares his ideas about the origin of the paintings as follows.
“In Korea, there used to be a lot of tigers. It is said that the Chinese used to make fun of Koreans by saying that for half of the year we’d be hunting tigers and the other half of the year we’d be having funerals for people killed by tigers. That’s how many there were! The tiger was the strongest animal in Korea. When something becomes untouchable like that, people assign it the status of a god. I think that’s why tigers become a mythical animal like a dragon for us. People would put a painting of a tiger in their houses as a sort of amulet. We were really superstitious then. But, nobody wanted to be frightened by a real tiger in their home, so the painters deformed them to make them more fun and friendly. It was still a tiger, but it made you laugh.”
The Meaning of Tattoos
For Apro Lee, a tattoo is just a tattoo. With regards to the changing attitudes towards tattoos, he says that while they’re becoming more accepted, some people believe that they have lost their meaning now. He doesn’t believe this. He says that, “If you assign a meaning to it, then it has a meaning. If a tattoo was done just for aesthetic reasons, that’s also a form of meaning. A tattoo done to commemorate a time in your life is just that. It is no more or no less than any other tattoo.” He feels that sometimes people take it all too seriously.
“I remember a tattooer trying to make fun of me by asking if I was doing another tiger today. It didn’t offend me, though. It’s like working on a carving. You might carve a rock for one day and it still looks like a rock, but after years it will be what you want. You might even find a diamond. I think focusing on one thing is the key. If you focus on too many things, how are you going to make something special? People ask me if I still enjoy tattooing tigers and I always answer yes. I’m not done with tigers. I still want to make a tiger that I can say is my own. I’m not there yet. I’m still searching.”
While some tattooers are unhappy with tattoos becoming so mainstream, Lee doesn’t lament the changes in perception, he accepts them. When he began tattooing, he was nothing and so were his tattoos. At that time, the general feeling in Korea was that tattoos were for losers. He was just a loser tattooing other losers. People would call him 뜨쟁이 (ddeujaengi – lit. “poker”). Now people respect tattoos as a form of art and he is given the status of artist. He finds this amusing and says that absolutely nothing has changed for him. This is and was his work. This is how he makes a living. Tattoos were once tabboo, now they’re fashionable. As such, now his work has meaning for himself and others appreciate it. He looks to the future and wonders how that will change over time. He cannot even imagine what someone in 50 or 100 years will think of his work.
The only thing Lee knows he can keep doing is to keep moving forward. He knows that he doesn’t want to copy the work of others or be a “session musician” as he puts it. He wants to write his own rhythms and see where they lead him. That might be 10 more tigers or 1000 more. Regardless, Lee plans to keep carving that stone.