Los Angeles’ tattoo scene is as popular as ever. One artist making a name for herself in the West Coast tattoo scene is Sion Kwak (whose tattooist name is simply Sion), a South Korean tattoo artist who works at Vism Studio in LA
A common theme in her work is the “norigae,” a traditional jewelry accessory based on tasseled knots, which means “playful object” in English. It dates from the Joeson Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. This accessory is traditionally worn with the Hanbok – Korean formal dress – in society, which was worn around the waist as a decorative pendant, along with other symbolic ornaments. It is known as a fashion accessory and a good luck charm. Some are traditionally made from stones like jade, amber, and even coral, as well as gold and silver and are even sold as high-end jewelry (some sell for up to $20,000).
Today, it is a popular tattoo design 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 rapidly growing in popularity. Sion explains how this trendy accessory is becoming popular in the tattoo world.
Forbes: What is your own relationship with norigae?
Sion Kwak: About six or seven years ago I started drawing and tattooing the mink. These folk knots are deeply connected to people’s lives and knowing the meaning behind them allows us to understand their multifaceted history. Until now, it is still an element that can express everyone’s stories, and their journey, which is what I intend to express in my tattoos as well.
Why is it popular in Asia?
Knots have been closely related to people’s daily life for a long time, so many people are familiar with and fond of knots and ornaments. The meaning it has also makes it more special, which is why it is popular in Asia.
Some people use the norigae as iPhone accessories, right?
Just as it was once attached to people’s everyday items, such as their clothing, ornaments and furniture, today it can also be used as a fashion accessory, such as their smartphone.
How is the norigae being popularized as a fashion accessory in the West?
It became popular worldwide due to the rise of K-culture, Korena Idol, and Korean TV shows and movies. K-pop groups like BTS and Black Pink reinterpret traditional Korean attire and adornments on stage. Korean dramas are very popular these days and I believe that historical dramas where actors and actresses wear hanbok with the norigae have helped spread awareness of the beauty of this traditional adornment. It has people asking, “What is that?”
What do tassels represent in fashion, in your opinion? There is something traditional or historical.
Tassels are one of the ornaments that have been used historically and are elements that complete the ornament or that give them more emphasis. I love this use of tassels, especially in tattoo work, as they flow like waves in water along a person’s body. The fact that many threads make up a delicate tassel shape, is something symbolic for 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 items with symbolic meanings, in connection with their life.
What do the nodes represent?
Each knot symbolizes different things, such as luck, protection, strength, love, beauty, health and longevity. Historically, knots have been used based on this symbolism and now it is being expressed on everyone’s skin and adapted to everyone’s own life story.
Why is red a popular color among minnows?
In Asia, there are traditional stories about red strings that are passed down. I think the images that are related to 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 put more emphasis on the elements and nodes of the design, in terms of the symbolism and the meaning it carries. Colors can be determined by individual taste and balance with the overall design and color.
What kind of symbols are people using in these norigae tattoos?
I incorporate symbolic elements to the norigae. Each person’s life, memories and families can be intertwined in the work. For example, it can be a plant that grew in someone’s childhood home, or a specific item that symbolizes a family and the time they spent together, or simply their identity. There are more, but most items are related to plants or flowers. This is the most important and best part of working: how I can express each person’s precious stories and interpret them in my own style.