How Korean Drama ‘Pachinko’ Is Making Waves In Tattoo Design
Pachinko is Apple’s most compelling K-drama. The acclaimed drama based on the bestselling novel by Min Jin Lee, in the series created by Soo Hugh, which is being called “one of the best adaptations of all time.
The series was recently picked up for a second season (the season finale of the first season made its debut on April 29). Hugh is also creating a new Apple Original series called The White Darkness.
With May being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, recognizing the contributions of the AAPI community, it’s no surprise that Pachinko is one of the most talked about series on Apple TV+.
Pachinko—told across three languages, Korean, Japanese, and English—tells the story of a Korean immigrant family across four generations. They leave their homeland in South Korea during the Japanese occupation, survive through the Second World War, and discrimination. The story is told through the eyes of Sunja, a matriarch who triumphs against all odds.
At the show’s world premiere in Los Angeles, actor Jin Ha made waves for wearing a traditional Hanbok, South Korean’s ceremonial dress, on the red carpet. Vogue called it “bringing traditional Korean style to the world premiere.”
As the actor explained in an interview with Esquire: “I grew up very familiar with hanboks; we would wear them often for family events or traditional gatherings in Korea,” he said. “I always loved the women’s hanbok. The colors, the design, the patterns—everything about it was so enthralling. I felt like this was the perfect event for me to finally wear a hanbok. It felt entirely relevant to the story that we were telling, and to the women we were honoring in Pachinko.”
Eunjung Hwang, a 28-year-old artist who goes by the moniker, Eunyu Tattoo, is using symbols from the show, like the Mungunghwa—South Korea’s national flower—to butterflies and the EunJangdo, a knife women would carry for self-protection, as the basis for a new tattoo series. “Butterflies symbolize splendor and hope,” says Hwang. “Using images based on the props of Pachinko for tattoos celebrate Korean traditional clothes and accessories.”
She adds: “The value of these traditional objects is like heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation, much like the themes in the show. Many of the symbols are eternally beautiful, so I would like to see more interest in Korean beauty in tattoos.”
Hwang explains how the symbolism in the show has become a source of inspiration for her tattoos, and these traditional tattoos are popular with the recent release of Pachinko. Many of her clients want to honor their own ancestors, in a way.
South Koreans are required to take rigorous history classes at school. “It’s about remembering how our people overcame the sad and painful history of the colonial era and learning with the hope that the same history will not be repeated in the future,” said Hwang. “I see Pachinko in the same light—if we learn the background of that difficult time in history onscreen, we can better understand the hearts of people who had to flee Korea.”
Hwang, who has been tattooing since 2018, says that the Mugunghwa, Korea’s national flower known to locals as “the rose of Sharon,” is central to the show’s promo poster. At the Pachinko world premiere, the seeds of Mugunghwa were given to visitors as gifts.
“There is a singer who sings on the ship in episode four, which has a shawl with a Mugunghwa flower on it,” she says. “I think that it’s an expression of the heart that is never defeated. Mugunghwa is a flower loved by many Koreans.”
As part of her tattoo series, she tattoos butterflies and flowers taken from the cover designs of the Pachinko novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction in 2017.
And she has a tattoo design based on the traditional Hanbok dress worn by Sunja, the main character in Pachinko played by Youn Yuh-jung. “The design is based on the upper part of the Hanbok, which we call the Jeogori; showing its curved with its ribbon and collar,” explains Hwang.
Hwang also inks EunJangdo, a small, decorative knife that women carried to protect themselves (men carried it, too). “It was used to protect people from dangerous situations, but in everyday life, it was also used for practical purposes, like slicing fruit,” she says, noting that it plays a role in a tragic scene from the fourth episode of the first season.
She also tattoos a kind of butterfly that “is often used as a pattern for ornaments and the Hanbok,” says Hwang, and the Noriage, a Korean good luck ornament women wear hanging from their traditional dresses.
“I feel like I’m rethinking the country’s past by making tattoo designs using traditional Korean ornaments, traditional clothes, and flowers that represent Korea,” says Hwang. “The design is not only history but focuses on the visual aspect of the beauty of these ornaments.”
The book’s title is metaphorical. The author compares life to a game of pachinko, which is a gambling game based on chance and luck (the player drops a ball through rows of pins). In the book, one character named Mozasu explains to his friend that “Life is going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”
The Pachinko tattoos are timeless, too. “Traditional Korean objects are familiar and beautiful, so they are perfect for tattoo designs,” said Hwang. “And because you can feel the classic feel at the same time, it never goes out of fashion.”