Le Jardin de Zihwa

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In South Korea, tattoos are still a deeply imbedded taboo. Associated with organised crime for generations on generations, the stigma associated to ink on the body is entrenched in the very core of the culture. Looked down upon. Thought of as disgusting.

Though not technically illegal, the law hasn’t exactly caught up and stipulates that a tattoo can only be administered by a licensed doctor. (Because imagine the beautifully crafted piece of art you’ll get there?) But you know what’s kind of magic about tattoo culture, wherever in the world you find it? It has roots – really deep, really stubborn roots – that have a special talent for growing quietly, in the dark.

All it takes is the smallest glimmer of light, and the culture shifts. 

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Globally discussed artist Zihwa is a relative newcomer to the tattoo game, but that hasn’t hindered her ability to make a tangible, palpable impact on the culture that grows underground in Seoul. She followed her husband, Happy, into ink – making the leap from graphic design. They're muses for each other - he taught her everything about tattoos and she works beside him out of Reindeer Ink, in the HongDea district, inspiring him every day.

Wispy, petal-delicate blooms caress curves with the gentlest of touches, sliding over hips or making a murmur soft climb up vertebrae. Zihwa is a floral arranger, a manipulator of the organic and the beautiful, except her medium is ink. Her art accents and compliments the lush curves of the female form with weightless flowers and “eternal springtime”. Effortless, powerful, as natural as if they’d grown on the skin themselves. 

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Using a single needle – the thinnest needle, in fact, that you can get your hands on in any market –  allows her the agility to magic such detail and dimension into skin, as if sketching with a very fine pen. This lightness of touch has defined her style and the intrinsic femininity it portrays.

It’s this style that has turned heads around the world, in turn stoking the flames of a fledgling tattoo subculture in Korea. The community of artists is there and working, waiting for the law to catch up, but meanwhile wasting no time in refining what their art means to them and their people. Zihwa’s work offers a softer, feminine, but most of all positive depiction of tattoos – one that brings light to the darkness of negative associations and generations of taboo. There’s an innocence about her art that’s truly breath taking – a pureness to forge a new path for, not just South Korean tattoo subculture, but for tattooed femininity, too. 

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Carter Gore