Apro Lee is guesting at Sang Bleu London until the 24th September
Since Seoul-based tattooer Apro Lee completed his first guest spot at East River Tattoo last April, his tattoos–contorted, demonic tigers and cartoonish, almost mocking, magpies in particular–have left a lasting impression. With thick, bold lines, expansive stippling, and graphic dotted, slashed, and scratched textures, all his tattoos have a sense of strength and deliberateness that feels appropriate to their place of origin. After all, tattooing is still very much illegal in Seoul, and serious tattooers are still actively and passionately fighting to practice their craft without persecution. We recently caught up with Apro to talk about his background, philanthropy the rough tattoo scene in Seoul.
When did you start tattooing? Do you have a background in art?
I started tattooing in Seoul, Korea in 2006. I don’t have any background in art, but as far as I can remember, I was drawing all the time. I had always wanted to be a cartoonist when I was little.
I know tattooing is still illegal in South Korea. How does that affect the tattoo scene there? How does the tattoo scene in Seoul compare to other cities you have travelled to?
Yes, tattooing in South Korea is still illegal. There is this strange law that only doctors can tattoo, which is very frustrating. But compared to the days I began about 10 years ago, circumstances and regulations are way better. Back then, there were no [tattoo] masters or [sites like] YouTube that could teach us, nor the proper tattoo equipment dealers. A single needle was $10, so I had to make needles, liners, magnums, etc. every time I tattooed. Can you imagine?
Things are different now, but it still has to stay private and underground like in my studio. The scene here is very territorial and competitive–or sometimes aggressive–but I think this makes Korean tattooers more talented, experimental, and tough. It’s also hard to work as a guest artist, and because many shops doesn’t have walk in customers, we use internet a lot to find customers.
What have police done to try and crack down on tattooers?
In fact, the police don’t try to crack down on tattooers with no reason these days, only when there is a report from someone. When it happens, they seize the tattoo machine, ink, supplies, etc. and search how many tattoos you’ve done to decide the sentence or how much you have to pay for the penalty. There were a number of tattooers who actually went to prison for few months, but now it’s usually just a penalty.
The most frustrating part of this is that the person who reports to the police is usually a brainless tattooer or some gangs around the neighborhood. This illustrates how difficult the Korean tattoo scene is.
When you say tattooers in Korea are aggressive, what do you mean by that?
The tattoo scene has grown very rapidly during last few years, and, of course, the number of tattooers as well. But since the law still prohibits tattooing, the [tattoo] scene is not big enough to react to supply and demand. So, there is harsh competition and territorialism: tattooers becoming aggressive and political to fight for the dominant positions. I think, personally, that it is all out of anxiety.
Why did you choose tattooing as a profession, especially given the unfriendly climate in Korea?
During the time of my military duty [Ed. note: Military service is compulsory for all men in South Korea], I had many thoughts about my talent and future. I realized that with any [formal] background, connections, or money, I couldn’t be an “Artist” in Korea. Imagining the life of a cartoonist was even more depressing.
One day, a random tattoo picture from the internet struck me unexpectedly. It was a tattoo of Kurt Cobain’s portrait, which was quite a shock for someone who had previously regarded tattoo as simply some tribal dragons for Japanese gangsters. Since I was dying to draw and use my hands, I thought “This is it.” I knew that I could do this stuff, that I had a little gift on my hands. That’s how I decided to become a tattooist.
Since tattooing is illegal, how did you learn how to tattoo, the technique? How did you begin meeting other tattooers?
In 2005, I found someone who could teach me through the internet. I had to pay to learn. I forgot how much it cost, but it wasn’t big money ($500 probably).
When I was there, there were about 4 or 5 more people who were learning with me. Initially, I thought I was learning from a master, but he had actually just studied tattooing for 3 months with someone else–that’s it–and then he started teach other people. I realized that after a couple months. But he was a good, responsible man, and he knew many people–some customers, some just tough friends–so we could practice on them. There was no YouTube or any videos of tattooing, so I would just look at pictures for a long, long time to try and figure out how to do it.
So actually, I didn’t have a master; we all taught each other. I got out from there after 6 months and I worked alone for 3 years until I went to work for Westside Tattoo in Brisbane, Australia. I would like to say that Matt Cunnington, the owner of Westside Tattoo, is my master.
I’ve noticed that most of your work used to be realistic black and grey, and now you’re doing more bold, graphic blackwork. What mediated this transition? What have you taken from your older black and grey work that informs your blackwork.
The main reason for this transition was that I couldn’t enjoy myself anymore. Realistic black and grey had to have very smooth shading, and this put me under too much pressure. Even drawings were highly concentrated, detailed works. Another reason was attention to the [client’s] body. I not only wanted to produce a great tattoo technically, but a tattoo that matched client’s character and body shape through good placement.
Since I was keen to draw something with less technical pressure, I started to draw things that were [visually] simpler. This was the time when tigers came out. The lines got bolder, and the whole style changed eventually. Now the fun was in finding my style of tattooing, but I wasn’t there just yet: I tried mixing the two styles [shaded black and gray and bold linework] at once and liked the outcome but found myself pushing against details again–this time, with the bold lines and dots. I realized that I would never be able to escape from the detailed world. I think that’s who I am.
What I brought from my black and grey work is nothing but a smooth hand. I’ve learned new techniques for bold graphic works.
What types of images inspire you?
I really like Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts and medieval paintings and statues. My [most] recent interest is Korean folk paintings because they’re simple, bold and strong.
I also like to study Russian criminal tattoo and its culture because every single one of the Russian tattoos has interesting meanings. They can be a places, purposes, actions, consequences, hopes, class, coterie (independent society) symbols etc. To me, it is a modern version of tribal tattoo, which all first began with the tribal warfare and the symbol of classes. I find it very masculine in that it stimulates primitive instinct.
Who are some other tattooers that you look up to?
Too many that I cannot pick. But at the same time, I try not to get too inspired from anyone else.
I also know that the history of tattooing Korea (much like in other places) is mixed up crime and gangs, etc. How are tattoos and the profession of tattooing seen in South Korea today? Have you perceived a noticeable shift in how tattoos are regarded by people in the last 10 or so years?
Tattooing still is very underground in Korea, but perception and culture has changed a lot during the last 10 years. It’s more “fashion” now, since it is a bit of a trend world-wide. Same goes for the gangs; either it’s aesthetic or real gangs don’t get tattooed anymore. They are more intelligent now, I think. And there are a lot of tattooer wannabes among teenagers these days.
As the number of tattooers rise, effects are visible. There are limited customers here, so there are bunch of silly competitions within the scene, low quality events, and hygiene problems. For example: “$50 for any kind of cigarette-pack-sized tattoo” or “50% Summer sale,” “$50 lettering,” “$100 for palm size tattoo,” that shit… [Tattooers] are killing each other with tattoos that are low quality, not from the heart, only for a money. It’s very bad for customers.
Korea’s a real funny place for me. I’m legally unemployed or a lawbreaker here, but an artist abroad and respected in the culture scene. I think I’m sitting on both edges, going through a harsh process of building up a tattoo scene in Korea.
Can you tell me a bit about your suicidal face tattoo and how you came up with that image? Relatedly, I’ve noticed that you have a noose tattoo around your neck and have tattooed noses around other people’s; what attracts you to nooses?
Actually, the suicidal face design is based on my own face. Two eyes stand for two minds: you can either choose A or B, give up or stand up. The noose is your destiny, [in my case,] the sterile tattoo scene in Korea. It’s a tough, difficult scene to maintain. There were times when tattooers had to endure prison-like environments. The noose is a symbol for those times, and the part where the noose is cut means that I have survived or will survive from it. I choose to stand up and survive. I don’t give a fuck.
Many of your tattoos incorporate traditional Korean images and iconography. When and how did you decide to start working with these images?
Most of my drawings used to depend on my mood and thoughts, but a couple of years ago, I began to search for a proper Korean tattoo style and culture. (I had been thinking about it all the time since I started tattooing.) It is common to see Chinese or Japanese art for Asian-related images, but not many people know that Korean traditional art is spectacular. There are historical reasons behind [the dominance of Chinese and Japanese iconography], such as the Japanese colonial period and Korean War, but I would like to share it now before it’s too late.
What about your Korean lettering project?
There are countless languages used in lettering tattoos, but oddly not so many people know how cool Korean letters are, especially Koreans! There is a talented graphic designer ‘Kijo Kim‘ in Seoul who’s also a good friend of mine and gave me inspiration to do this project with his insanely cool Korean typography art. We decided to collaborate on a Korean lettering tattoo project. It is not really out of patriotism but rather preference of design itself.
One of the things that’s super interesting to me about your work is that with your tigers and magpies, you’ve created an alternative symbolism: contorted tiger as government, magpie as person laughing in its face. How does your personal interpretation of these images differ from traditional/historical interpretations? Do you find that people interpret your tattoos differently within Korea vs. abroad?
The interpretation of tigers and magpies as being against power was my favorite of the many interpretations of Korean folk painting that I found, so I chose to draw them symbolically. To me, the tiger means Korean government and the doctors who use and abuse the unjust law [that only doctors can tattoo]. And the magpie stands for the weak: the tattooer in Korea. The government and doctors I criticize are violating the territory over money, so I can’t help but rebel.
People outside of Korea approach my tattoos with an interest in design and style first and love them more when they hear about meaning afterwards as I explain. Koreans are quite proud of it because it’s hard to find or see a “Korean-style tattoo.” It can be some sort of patriotism about our culture.
It’s very interesting to me that now that you’ve been at East River Tattoo, there are tons of New Yorkers walking around with traditional Korean images tattooed on them, and I’ve noticed that you explain the origins of these images on your Instagram. How has it felt to find that so many people are interested in these traditional Korean images through your tattoos?
When the GOV and Police were busy suppressing Korean tattooers with no reason, I at least found a way to show Korea outside the country. Frankly, it feels good, especially when people are not aware of Korean art and imagery. I give them another reason to google it.
Where have been some your favorite places, both to travel and to work?
London is always the best. Barcelona and New York is also my favorite now.
Lastly, I know you’ve been doing an ongoing donation project “Tie the Knot for a Heart” for Doctors Without Borders. What attracted you about that cause in particular? How does it work, and how can people get in touch with you to be part of it?
As I recall my beginner days, I was always eager to get my hands on people’s skin to tattoo because I needed to practice. I got all the help I needed from kind people and since then, I always have been thinking about returning their favors. Free tattoos or discounts weren’t an answer, but focusing on the word “help” led me to a better idea.
I designed a knot symbolizing the heart, and it stands for the will to help on others against poverty, racism, religion, war, etc. And whoever gets this tattoo pays as much as they want with a minimum of $100, and every single penny is donated to “Doctors without Borders.”
“Tie the knot for a heart” donation project information is on my Facebook page all the time (or through word of mouth), and to be part of this project, all you have to do is to make an appointment with me through e-mail.
[All images for this interview: courtesy of Apro Lee]