Korean Tattoos: The History of Norigae

On the Korean peninsula, tattoos have an interesting legacy. For centuries, permanent body art was considered unsuitable for the working class and nobility and reserved for those on the outskirts of Korean society.

However, as tattooing gained acceptance in Korean culture in the 20th century, a new generation of ink enthusiasts is looking for unique ways to reinvent the art form with traditional Korean design elements.

Part of this project is the interpretation of an ornament known as norigae, which loosely translates to “playful objects” or “decorative trinkets.” In this article, let’s explore the meaning and aesthetics of norigae and see how tattoo culture has embraced the design in Korea, Japan, and beyond.

Norigae History and Meaning

Before we see how norigae and tattooing have come together in recent years, we need to go way back to the origin of the norigae trend in Korea. Here’s a closer look at how norigae is designed, what it means, and how it’s worn in a traditional sense.

Basics and Background

Because norigae has been around for centuries, we need more context to see its significance. To understand norigae, it helps to understand some basics of traditional Korean clothing, mainly the hanbok.

The hanbok is a set of garments featuring a vest, top jacket, and pants for men, while women wear a jeogori robe with an underskirt, shirt, and lightweight pants underneath. Norigae have traditionally been used as ornaments paired with hanbok outfits, specifically for women.

These trinkets were made up of strings with intricate knots, interwoven charms, and tassels that added length and elegance to the ornament. They were tied to the skirt's high waist to add a dash of flair to the hanbok while providing good luck and fortune.

No matter a person’s class or background, norigae were widely accepted throughout Korean culture for centuries and still appear on various outfits and, more recently, tattoos.

Types of Norigae

The most interesting part of norigae is that it’s simply a format for a design — there’s plenty of room for interpretation. With so many different knots, materials, and trinkets, It’s up to you to put your own twist on the norigae format, literally or metaphorically!

Color is a key component for any norigae design, whether using rich red strings, jade gems, gold or silver pieces, or representations of animals and nature elements. Many norigae designs include flowers and geometric patterns, while others are very minimal and only feature a few subtle markings.

Religious symbols, characters, and everyday objects are also part of many norigae designs. Ultimately, you can choose any type of design you wish, so long as you find it visually appealing and meaningful in your own way.

Norigae Tattoos: Trends and Techniques

The versatile nature of norigae makes the design perfect for customization and sets the stage for amazing, memorable tattoos. This explains why the trend has caught on quickly as Korean culture shifts to a more modern identity.

Let’s explore why the norigae tattoo style is so popular and how people tend to get a norigae design inked in their own ways.

Why Norigae Tattoos?

When looking at the structure and significance of norigae, it makes sense that this design became a staple of Korean tattooing as the culture has shifted.

Consider your favorite tattoo motifs, and you’ll see that the meaning has roots in history, popular culture, religion, or family structure. For instance, people in the United States proudly wear designs with symbols of faith, memories of family, or allegiances to organizations like the military or cultural movements. The concept is not far off with norigae, a broad symbol of Korean culture and respect for tradition.

Additionally, norigae is simply a great format for tattooing, featuring an appealing design and offering plenty of room for customization. While many designs follow a familiar structure, it’s rare to see two norigae that mirror each other exactly. This means that each norigae tattoo is truly unique, and the wearer can input their favorite colors, shapes, symbols, and other elements that matter to them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that tattooing in Korea is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in its accepted modern format. Those who get tattooed in Korea or abroad often want to maintain a cultural connection rather than simply adopting the latest trends from other places.

There’s something to love about tattoos of all kinds, but norigae offers that sense of familiarity and comfort that many Koreans want to keep close to their heart.

Popular Norigae Tattoos

There’s no denying that norigae designs make for great tattoos, but what are some popular ways to tattoo this classic ornament on the skin?

You’ll find some common threads throughout many norigae tattoo designs, but you’ll likely first notice that most tend to be on the small side. The shape of norigae lends itself nicely to smaller tattoo designs already, as this showcases the delicate and subtle nature of the ornaments.

Next, you’ll find that many norigae tattoos use dark black ink and a limited range of colors, including reds and occasionally blue, green, or gold. This rings true to the original set of norigae colors and happens to match the usual colors of tattoo artists’ favorite ink selections.

Finally, norigae tattoos are often placed in less conspicuous areas of the body, such as the upper back, the shoulder blades, the upper arm, the side of the torso, or the upper thigh. This likely has to do with the history of tattooing in Korea and the fact that many people want to keep their ink discrete in everyday situations.

Of course, there are no concrete rules around where you can place your norigae tattoo ideas, what colors you choose, or the other design elements you select. These are just a few common findings that go with norigae tattooing in its latest iteration.

Tips for Getting a Norigae Tattoo

If you find Korean tattoo designs appealing, you’re not alone! This is one of the more popular recent tattoo designs available, especially with the rise of Korean popular culture on a global scale.

However, we have some tips for you to follow if you want a high-quality norigae tattoo that will last a lifetime and exceed all expectations. You can get a norigae tattoo no matter who you are, but these recommendations will pay off.

Find a Korean Artist

Anyone can design and administer a norigae tattoo, but if authenticity is important to you, consider looking for a Korean tattoo artist with a deeper familiarity with the design.

This will help ensure your tattoo is closer to the source material, and a Korean tattooist will likely have a better eye for what looks good in the norigae format. An experienced tattooer will always be ready to help you create a unique design and execute the technical aspects of the art with greater skill.

Fine Lines and Detail

Speaking of skill, norigae traditional tattoos are best done with extreme precision and attention to detail. These tattoos are meant to be reminiscent of delicate ornaments, so thick and bold lines are typically not suitable for this format.

Of course, you can take a different angle on norigae tattoos and request a design featuring elements from other tattoo methods, such as neo-traditional, blackwork, or photo-realistic.

However, these unique tattoos may not turn out exactly as you imagine, so it might be best to stick with what works.

Come Up with a Custom Design

Remember, norigae is meant to be designed on your own terms, including your favorite colors, symbols, characters, and thread-and-tassel configurations. Gather plenty of source material and share it with your tattoo artist, and do your best to articulate the design you have in mind before they draw something new by hand.

Better yet, try drawing a norigae design on your own and let your tattoo artist make their best interpretation with a more skilled hand. This is common practice in the world of tattooing, so don’t hesitate to try.

You can other lean into other Asian-inspired tattoo themes such as watercolor, cherry blossoms, or a Korean dragon tattoo or tiger tattoo.

Take Care of Your New Tattoo

All tattoos need to be cared for after they’ve been inked, and norigae designs are no different. In fact, the intricate details of norigae need to be preserved with extra caution, especially if the artist uses small needles to execute the imagery with precision.

Therefore, be sure to follow the proper care and recovery methods after receiving a norigae tattoo, using the right cleaning and moisturizing methods. The Mad Rabbit tattoo aftercare starter kit has everything you need to heal and protect your masterpiece from the moment you leave the studio.

Fine lines tend to run together over time, so don’t let the sun fade your norigae ink! An SPF and lotion combo will protect your intricate ink for the long haul, even with the most detailed designs.

Celebrate Korean Culture with Norigae

Whether you’re a proud Korean or just have a love for the culture, norigae designs are a great way to showcase beautiful, meaningful tattoos. Be sure to find an artist who knows best and always take care of your tattoos, new and old.

Korean tattoos are finally breaking through to the rest of the world, and norigae is a great place to start! Stay tuned to what the top Korean tattooers are doing so you don’t miss a beat.


Norigae | Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Norigae Attire | Tenement Museum

Korea’s Traditional Costume, Hanbok | Visit Korea

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