Gye-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

At a narrow alley of Bukchon (Gye-dong), we climb up the steep stairs along the hanoks aligned on our sides and push one of the heavy doors open, where we catch sight of a neat pile of fedoras and the pink neon sign that spells ‘PAPER PLANE.’ We have just set foot at the studio of tattooist Novo. Based on his unique taste and needs, he has rendered it into a place that breaks the conventions of a typical hanok. A space different but not too different, here he talks about his tattoos and the narratives he longs to mark.

Yoojin Jung

We noticed the ‘Gamrakjae’ signboard at your doorstep.

The ‘Gam’ is for ‘sweet’ and ‘rak’ is for ‘joy.’ I named it so hoping at least the guests that I conversate with and perform my tattoos on live a sweet and happy life.


What inspired you to settle in Bukchon?

It was during my military years based in Samcheong-dong when I first found out about the Bukchon area. And after returning from my 2 years in France, I had to find my own place and one day I casually browsed through Samcheong-dong and decided to move into this house the moment I saw it.

The regional emotion of Bukchon and your tattoo practice has a surprising match.

8 years ago when I first moved in, I had long hair which made the neighbors think that a shaman had joined them. It showed how incredibly conservative people were about tattoos. There were even some that thought of me as an actor who had yet to take off makeup.


You’ve been here for a while but do you still get the looks from people?

Frankly, in the beginning the neighbors couldn’t get more cold-hearted. Nobody ever asked what I did for a living. But thankfully, time went by and as we grew familiar with each other we began to say hellos and exchange small talks. It took 2 years to break the ice with the elderly at the local supermarket or the dry cleaning.

Being a hanok, does the place influence your practice in any way?

Before moving in, my studio was located underground where I started to miss the daylight and sun. Working when the sun is up and getting off from work when the sun is down made more sense to me. So I had longed to work at a place with good amount of daylight which got me here. Hanok as a studio didn’t mean much to me at first but as the years went by, I realized that the house was building up its own story.


You’re engaged with a wide range of activities; tattoos, workshops, exhibitions, art book making and brand collaborations.

Most of the time the magazines introduce me as a tattooist but actually for me tattoo is just a tool. As a matter of fact, I wish to break away from the tattooist title. I don’t bound myself in a single field—I use my ‘tool’ to work on various projects which I long to keep doing. And through my performances, I wish to take part in changing the bias against people like me, for many think we’re merely ‘technicians’ that make drawings on the body.

Korea seems to be the least open-minded country about tattoos compared to other places around the world. 

Practicing tattoos had long been existing, dating way back to the ancient days before the birth of letters. Historically speaking, it’s worth keeping the record. In the meantime, Koreans had very strong Confucian beliefs in the past, of which people were not to violate any parts of the body the parents have passed down, let alone a single strand of hair. So the tattoo culture was something this country had denied and obviously lacks any record of it.


What is the tattoo Novo seeks to mark?

An authentic Korean tattoo. I seek to make recordings of the tattoos drawn on today’s grandmas and grandpas and listen carefully to their thoughts. Once these recordings are gathered and my works archived, I believe an authentic ‘Korean Tattoo’ be handed down to our next generation.

What’s the biggest magnetism for being a tattooist?

It’s only natural that I make contact with the body of someone else, which I think creates a great connection. While I work on the tattoo, I feel the warmth of the body, the tension upon the moment when the needle enters the skin and get a sense of the type of person he/she is. And it’s because they’re all living beings and not just paper or objects. Through my practices, I’ve found people that understand and appreciate my sincere heart and their existence is the force that helps me endure everything.

Yet there are many out there that feel nervous or scared by tattoos.

If people around you feel uncomfortable with your tattoo, then I think you’ve got the wrong tattoo on you. You can easily take off clothes or shoes that don’t suit you but that doesn’t apply with tattoos. But there are a very few that makes an unsuitable tattoo suitable and I think those people are capable of changing the rather negative perceptions of tattoos.


Are there definitions of good tattoos and bad tattoos?

It’s not like drawing on paper but on the skin so an exchange of deep conversations with each other must take place in order to perform the best tattoo for you. And I can instantly tell whether or not the person is in a good condition when working on one. It’s like biting into a soft apple. It’s actually quite exciting to work on one’s body after achieving a good understanding and observation of that person.

What’s your future goal?

While in my 20s I thought that once I reach my 50s I should put an end to this job and leave it to the younger generations. But after attending a lecture held by a veteran tattooist who was still active in the field at an old age, I came to realize that age didn’t matter as long as you have a strong will to keep doing. And now I think the age of 50 is when the real beginning starts. So in order to stay concrete and continue to do what I do now at 35, I decided that I work my hardest for the next 15 years.


The streets of Gwanghwamun

161 Sajikno, Jongno-gu, Seoul
5 Gwanghwamun

“A lot has changed but it still recalls my old memories.”

Gwanghwamun is the south gate of Gyeongbokgung. Viewing the Gwanghwamun from the Gwanghwamun plaza leads to a great scenery, framed by ridges far ahead below the wide open sky. And to your back, there’s the full lineup of the Government Building and numerous skyscrapers. Among the buildings where the white-collar workers head in and out of are the restaurants that claim themselves to be the best and ‘the original.’ These are the streets of Gwanghwamun where the past and today coexist. Novo had attended kindergarten here and still remembers heading to Insa-dong with his mom for some tea. Today the new Four Seasons Hotel and D Tower structures a refreshing cityscape of the area between Gwanghwamun and Jonggak.