Korean Tattoos Meaning, Design & Ideas

South Korea has a proud culture full of beautiful artwork and creative methods of expression. However, when it comes to tattoos, there is a very different feel. Tattooing in South Korea has a very divisive past. In South Korea, it is assumed that Koreans choosing to be tattooed are strange and anti-social people. In the eyes of the old-school Korean, tattoos are for gangsters and criminals.

However, that hasn’t stopped some from setting up shop in South Korea offering kids who don’t want to abide by social norms an outlet for their artistic expression.

We all know that in times like these, people of all kinds get tattoos. The kids of South Korea are realizing this as well. For people outside of South Korea who are looking to get a Korean tattoo, there are many options to look at and each version has a different meaning.

In this article, we will go over some different Korean tattoos and talk about their meaning. By the end of this post, we hope you have a better understanding of some of the different kinds of Korean tattoos.

Korean Tattoo History

In the old times, Korean fishermen would get tattoos to protect themselves from bad luck and injury. Over time, tattoos began to have a negative connotation and went from being used in protection to being maligned. During the Joseon Dynasty in the 19th century, tattoos were used to brand criminals and wrongdoers.

Criminals were tattooed with the crimes they committed so all could see. In addition to criminals being branded, slaves were also branded. By this time, it’s clear as to why there is such a stigma to tattooing in South Korea.

Korean Tattoo Meanings

People choosing to get Korean tattoos can choose from a variety of styles and ideas including characters from the Korean alphabet called Hangul to images of flowers and animals. Below are some examples of the different Korean tattoos people have chosen to get over time and some of their meanings.


In terms of flowers, there are a few that are native to or very popular in Korea. Probably the popular floral Korean tattoo to get would be the Hibiscus Syriacus or the Mugunghwa. It’s the national flower of South Korea and is a very popular choice of Korean tattoo. In their national anthem, South Korea is compared to the flower. It symbolizes immortality.

There are many other popular choices for a floral Korean tattoo. Many of these choices would be spring bloomers including the Magnolia, Ginkgo Biloba, Abeliophyllum, Cornus, Hylomecon and the Nakai amongst many others.


The tiger is a very powerful image in Korean culture. Many will choose to get the tiger tattoo as a representation of absolute power and courage. One of the oldest stories about the tiger in Korean culture goes back to the Dangun myth. In this story, a tiger and a bear wish to become human beings.

The bear endured eating only garlic and mugwort for 100 days and ended up turning into a woman. However, the tiger could not go through with this and decided to leave. It is somewhat contradictory that the tiger ran off when confronted with a tough situation.

Even with this being the case, the white tiger is regarded as a divine spirit that is a guardian of the West and still represents strength.

Korean Proverbs/Quotes

There are many Korean proverbs and quotes that seem to be popular choices when deciding to get a Korean tattoo. Wisdom has been passed down from ancestors for centuries and over the years, this wisdom has turned into words to live by. Below are some popular Korean proverbs translated into English.

– Don’t drink the kimchi soup first

o This is said when someone is getting ahead of themselves when planning for future projects. The saying is meant to say that you wouldn’t drink the sauce before eating the kimchi, right?

– Writing Chinese characters in front of Confucius

o Essentially, this quote means to try not to show up the teacher. If a foreigner visits South Korea for the first time, you shouldn’t tell the tour guide the best places to go based on your Trip Advisor research.

– A picture of rice cake

Because of the affinity Koreans have for rice cakes, this proverb is meant to express letting go of things you can’t have. If you liked rice cakes and saw a picture of it, you would want a rice cake, but you couldn’t have it because it is only a picture.


The Korean dragon is very similar to the Japanese and Chinese dragons we’ve seen. The dragon symbol has been used a great deal in ancient Korean art and mythology. In some ancient texts, speaking dragons are mentioned. These dragons were capable of understanding complex emotions like gratitude, kindness and devotion. In one specific Korean legend, King Munmu wished to become a “Dragon of the East Sea in order to protect Korea”. These wishes were made on his deathbed.

You might also see the Korean dragon holding an orb that is called the Yeouiju. It was said that whatever creature could hold the Yeouiju had the power of creation at will and omnipotence. Only the four-toed dragons could hold the orbs because of their extra toe compared to the three-toed dragons.

Korean lore has no shortage of symbols and ideas that could be turned into your next Korean tattoo. This is only a starting point in the journey of learning about Korean culture and all the iconic symbols and proverbs that could be turned into a tattoo. It’s a very interesting culture so if you are thinking about getting a Korean tattoo, we suggest doing your research and going to a tattoo artist that specializes in Asian tattooing.

If you are having trouble deciding on what shop or artist to go see, give us a shout here at Tattoo SEO. We have years of experience in matching up clients and tattoo artists. Happy hunting!

Leave a Comment