The Los Angeles tattoo scene is more popular than ever. An artist making a name for himself in the west coast tattoo scene is Sion Kwak (whose tattoo artist is simply called Sion), a South Korean tattoo artist who works at the Vism studio in LA
A common theme in her work is the ‘norigae’, a traditional button-based jewelery accessory with tassels, which means ‘playful object’ in English. It dates back to the Joeson Dynasty, who ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. This accessory was traditionally worn with the Hanbok – formal Korean attire – in society, worn around the waist as a decorative pendant, among other symbolic ornaments. It is known as both a fashion accessory and a good luck charm. Some are traditionally made from stones such as jade, amber, and even coral, as well as gold and silver, and are even sold as high-end jewelry (some selling for up to $20,000).
Today it is a popular design for tattoos as the design is feminine, whimsical and elegant. It is also a niche design in the western world as a tattoo design, but it is growing in popularity fast. Sion explains how this fashion accessory is becoming popular in the tattoo world.
Forbes: What is your own relationship with the norigae?
Zion Kwak: It’s been about six or seven years since I started drawing and tattooing the norigae. These popular knots are deeply connected to people’s lives and knowing the meaning behind them helps us understand its multifaceted history. Until now, it is still an element that can express everyone’s stories and their journey, which is also what I try to express in my tattoos.
Why is it popular in Asia?
Buttons have been closely associated with people’s daily life since a long time ago, so many people are familiar and have affection for the buttons and ornaments. The significance it has also makes it more special, which is why it is popular in Asia.
Some people use the norigae as iPhone accessories, correct?
Just as it was attached to people’s daily objects such as their clothes, ornaments and furniture in the past, today it can also be used as a fashion accessory such as their smartphone.
How is norigae popularized as a fashion accessory in the west?
It gained worldwide popularity due to the rise of K culture, Korena Idol, and Korean movie and TV shows. K-pop groups such as BTS and Black Pink reinterpret traditional Korean clothes and ornaments on stage. Korean dramas are very popular nowadays and I believe that historical dramas in which the actors and actresses wear hanbok with the norigae have helped to spread awareness of the beauty of this traditional ornament. People ask: ‘what is that?’
What do you think the tassels represent in fashion? It has something traditional or historical.
Tassels are one of the ornaments that have been used historically and are elements that complete the ornament or give it more emphasis. I love this use of the tassels, especially on tattoos, because they flow down a person’s body like waves in water. The fact that many strands form a delicate tassel shape is somewhat symbolic of our lives.
How do you design unique custom Norigae tattoos that each have their own special symbols for each tattoo client?
I express everyone’s stories in their own personalized norigae. I usually suggest certain symbolism based on the stories my clients share with me, or my clients make their own request to include elements of symbolic meaning related to their lives.
What do the buttons represent?
Each knot symbolizes different things such as happiness, protection, strength, love, beauty, health and longevity. Historically, knots were used based on this symbolism and now it is expressed on everyone’s skin tailored to everyone’s own life story.
Why is red a popular color for norigae?
In Asia, there are traditional stories about the red strings being passed on. I believe images associated with red strings have become more widespread and familiar to the public for this reason. There are also certain meanings for each color, which can be reflected in the tattoo. But I’ve put more emphasis on the elements and knots in the design, in terms of the symbolism and meaning it carries. Colors can be determined by individuals’ taste and balance with the overall design and color.
What kind of symbols do people use in these norigae tattoos?
I incorporate symbolic elements into the norigae. Each person’s lives, memories and families can be intertwined in the work. For example, it could be a plant that grew in someone’s childhood home, or a specific element that symbolizes a family and the time they spent together, or simply their identity. There are more, but most of the elements are related to plants or flowers. This is the most important and best part of working – how I can express and interpret each person’s precious stories in my own style.