How The ‘Norigae’ Fashion Accessory Became A Popular Tattoo – Forbes

A norigae tattoo design by Sion, a tattoo artist based in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles tattoo scene is as popular as ever. One artist who is making her name in the west coast tattoo scene is Sion Kwak (whose tattoo artist name is simply Sion), a South Korean tattoo artist who works at Vism studio in L.A.
One common theme in her work is the “norigae,” a traditional knot-based jewelry accessory with tassels, that means “playful object” in English. It dates to the Joeson Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. This accessory was traditionally worn with the Hanbok—formal Korean attire—in society, worn on the waist as a decorative pendant, alongside other symbolic ornaments. It’s known as both a fashion accessory and a good luck charm. Some are traditionally made of stones like jade, amber, and even coral, as well as gold, and silver and even sells as high-end jewelry (some sell for up to $20,000).
Today, it’s a popular design for tattoos, as the design is feminine, whimsical, and elegant. It’s also a niche design in the western world as a tattoo design, but is quickly growing in popularity. Sion explains how this fashion accessory is becoming popular in the tattoo world.
Tattoo artist Sion inks the norigae onto a client’s leg
Forbes: What is your own relationship with the norigae?
Sion Kwak: It’s been around six or seven years since I’ve started drawing and tattooing the norigae. These popular knots are deeply connected to people’s lives and knowing the meaning behind them allows us to understand its multi-faceted history. Up until now, it still is an element that can express everyone’s stories, and their journey, which is what I aim to express in my tattoos, as well.
Why is it popular in Asia?
Knots have been closely related to the daily lives of people from a long time ago, so a lot of people are familiar and have affection towards the knots and ornaments. The meaning it holds also makes it more special, which is why it’s popular in Asia.
A customized norigae tattoo by Sion
Some people use the norigae as iPhone accessories, correct?
Just like how it was attached to people’s daily items like their attire, ornaments, and furniture in the past, it can also be used as a fashion accessory today, like their smartphone.
How is norigae being popularized as a fashion accessory in the west?
It became popular globally due to the rise of K-culture, Korena Idol and Korean film and TV shows. K-pop groups like BTS and Black Pink reinterpret traditional Korean attire and ornaments onstage. Korean dramas are very popular these days and I believe that historical dramas where the actors and actresses wear hanbok with the norigae has helped spread the awareness of the beauty of this traditional ornament. It has people asking, ‘what is that?’
A norigae back piece by tattoo artist Sion
What do the tassels represent in fashion, in your opinion? There’s something traditional or historic about it.
Tassels are one of the ornaments that have been used historically and are elements that complete the ornament or put more emphasis to them. I adore this usage of the tassels, especially in tattoo work, as they flow like waves in the water along a person’s body. The fact that many strands make up one delicate form of a tassel, is somewhat symbolic to our lives.
How do you design unique bespoke norigae tattoos that each have their own special symbols for each tattoo client?
I express everyone’s stories into 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 with symbolic meanings, in connection to their life.
A red norigae tattoo on an arm by Sion
What do the knots represent?
Each knot symbolizes different things, like luck, protection, strength, love, beauty, health, and longevity. Historically, knots were used based on this symbolism and now, it is being expressed on everyone’s skin tailored to everyone’s own life story.
Why is red a popular color with the norigae?
In Asia, there are traditional stories about the red strings that are passed down. I believe images that are related to red strings have become more widespread and familiar to the public, for this reason. There are certain meanings to each color as well, which can be reflected in the tattoo. But I 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 the 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 lives, memories and families can be intertwined into the work. For example, it can 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 about working – how I can express each person’s precious stories and interpret it into my own style.
Sion tattoo artist in her Los Angeles studio