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Apparently here in Korea there is a similar common rule to in Japan forbidding people with tattoos from using public bath houses.

I was telling a couple of traveller friends in my hostel here about Korean jjimjilbangs and they really want to visit one, but they both have tattoos.

Korea is still very conservative but individuality is gaining momentum. There are places doing tattooing and piercing in the student/nightclub zone not far from where I'm staying but "normal people" definitely don't have tattoos yet, even much less so than in Japan, where western cultural trends are picked up a few years before Korea.

I've heard in Japan that the reason is because traditionally only gangsters have tattoos and a solution is to find the places owned by yakuza. But Korea is not Japan and I don't think there's an equivalent to yakuza here. (It turns out there is, "Kkangpae".)

If some saunas accept tattooed patrons in Korea, how would one locate them? At least in cosmopolitan Seoul it should be possible.

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Go to the sauna where they shot Gangnam Style! –  Ankur Banerjee Sep 21 '12 at 21:18
    
@AnkurBanerjee: If you can find out which sauna they used that could be a good answer! (-: –  hippietrail Sep 22 '12 at 4:19
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The tattoo rule is mostly to exclude members of organized crime (e.g. Yakuza in Japan). If you're not Asian and a tourist, I doubt a tattoo would be a problem, since you're obviously not a Korean/Japanese gang member (as long as they accept tourists which is a different question). Asians can be quite pragmatic about rules (e.g. in Japan you can often get into Japanese-only places if you're with a Japanese friend). –  dbkk Nov 14 '12 at 16:54

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Have you tried to visit Jjimjilbang? I seldom go to a public bath, and sometimes I can see a man with tattoo. I think most of Jjimjilbangs will not block you to use it. I am able to say this because I assumed that it will be a small tattoos (i.e. on arms or on neck back.) But with a big tattoo like covered whole your back?.. Let's think about it.

I saw your linked question. In Japan, tattooed people might have been discriminated for some reasons. That is, probably, the awareness of tattoo is not good. In Korea, we also thought that way but slightly different.

I think it is very related with the size of the tattoo. With smaller one, people think they want to make themselves unique. But bigger its size, people start thinking more that they are connected with/or a member of gangster. Actually, the size of tattoo is very important.

Even if big one, they will not prohibit you to use it. I found out Some public bath noticed "A man who have big tattoos refrain from using this." at internet news, even though they will not refuse you. Just enjoy it with some great care.

I don't know where sauna is exactly accepting tattooed people, but try to go to bigger sauna. It has a higher chance to not fail.

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The couple I knew were Norwegians. He had quite a few quite big tattoos, but of course not in the style of East Asian gangs. I think she also had several, but smaller. –  hippietrail Nov 14 '12 at 9:30

There is a well-established system of organized crime in Korea. Korean organized crime operates in secret and many dislike being considered a gang and would rather be called a business, an organization, a clan, etc. similar to the few Tongs in china that are behind the organized crime and give direction and finance the various triads. The Korean mob was once more public, however in the early '90s the government declared war on them.

In Korea, it is illegal to give a tattoo unless you are a doctor, which means they are very expensive. thus people in Korea will believe if you have a tattoo, you got it from someone who is willing to risk life in prison for some money, this also means that you have connections to the underground in some way, and thus may bring trouble to a business.

Depending on which neighborhood you are in, tattoos can be a fashion statement or it can be a sign of gang or mob affiliation. Currently many mobs are transitioning to smaller tattoos that are less of a tell that a person is involved in a mob. This is happening all over the world as well.

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Thanks for the info Lee! So does this mean that the western-looking tattoo and piercing places I saw around Hongdae actually have qualified doctors working in them? –  hippietrail Mar 3 '13 at 23:34

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