TATTOO ARTIST, BUSINESS WOMAN
AND TV STAR
“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” – Jack London
London – the American novelist most famous for the classic “Call of the Wild” – could have said the same about female tattoo artist and “Black Ink Crew” reality show star Young Bae.
The Seoul, Korea native – whose childhood reads like a painful chapter in “Oliver Twist” – overcame tremendous obstacles, physically, emotionally and psychologically, to write her rags-to-riches, “happily ever after” story in America.
Enduring years of poverty, homelessness and abuse at the hands of her father, alongside her mother and sister, Young managed to escape the circumstances that threatened to capsize her by leaning into her natural talent – art – and in the process, becoming the proverbial rose to emerge from concrete.
Hardship was a language the now 33-year-old spoke fluently by the time she was 3. Not only was her mom, an artist herself, unable to consistently provide and care for her children, members of their community refused to step in and lend a hand. Young recalls the cultural reaction to her family’s suffering with clarity and regret.
“Korea is a materialistic country,” confides Young, now owner of the marquee Diamond Tattoos shop in New York City’s glitzy Times Square. “No matter how hard you work, it is hard to break away from poverty —nobody gives you an opportunity. If you’re poor, you’re poor for life. They treat the less fortunate like shit, so I couldn’t talk to anybody about how I was living –not even my best friend. So I kept it all a secret, as best I could.”
With shame hanging like a low cloud over her head, Young did her best to blend in with other, more privileged kids, even as she and her family moved around into church basements, abandoned houses, and even a shipping container, throughout her teenage years.
“I may have been homeless with no money but I was always clean and fashionable,” says the self-taught tattoo queen, whose come a long way to now ink hi-profile clientele and eager fans of her drama-filled show. “When my family didn’t have access to a shower I would clean up at public restrooms every morning. I’d also get hand-me-down-clothes from church and create my own fashions, or at least I tried to. My teachers suspected I was poor because there were things I couldn’t pay for, but for the most part I think I flew under the radar.”
She didn’t fly under the radar though when it came to her talent: increasingly renowned among teachers and classmates for her ability to sketch, draw and paint, Young began winning prizes and other awards for her work, even using the sales of amateur pieces to help buy basic necessities.
And as it is so often with educating oneself, enrolling in college was Young’s literal and figurative ticket out of her crippling condition. Young was able to land a partial academic scholarship to an art university where she continued honing her craft till she was ready to flee to her personal promised land of New York City.
“New York is an artist’s city,” says the Chugye University graduate, “so it just made sense.” They say if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, and bonafide hustler Young took the motto to heart. Touching down in 2007 with just $80 and a student visa to study English, the 22-year-old made a beeline for Korea town in Midtown Manhattan, searched for jobs in a Korean newspaper and talked her way into work at a local nail salon the very next day.
Ever on the quest for more dough and despite the language barrier she wouldn’t stop there—continuing on to work at restaurants, jewelry shops, even illegally hawking her art in New York’s famed Union Square, to make her share of the rent for a small place she shared with roommates in Jersey. But the neon lights shone brightly at the end of the tunnel when Young stumbled onto a Tattoo Shop in the city.
“I walked in, took a look around at the tattoo sketches on the wall, and thought, hey, I could do this,” says Young, who says tattoos were illegal in South Korea. “So I offered the shop owners a barter: in exchange for giving me a shot I would clean their shop for free. They agreed.”
In no time Young got confident in her skills and moved on to another shop where she could demand a tattoo artist’s wages. Quickly becoming the best artist that shop had, Young took that as a cue she should look into owning and operating her own business.
“I rented this little ratty spot on 46th St in Times Square. It was literally a storage room in the back of an eyebrow threading shop. I got licensed, worked like three additional jobs to afford the $1000/month overhead and scoured the area to find shelves, paint and other stuff to decorate. I upholstered my first tattoo chairs with fake leather I found on the street. Then every day I’d go hold up this life-size sign advertising my shop, miraculously people showed up. Eventually so many showed up I started outselling the owner of the shop!”
With Young’s good looks, growing credibility and reputation among fellow artists throughout the tri-state area it was no wonder that reality TV show producers eventually came calling, not once but a few times.
“My shop might not have been the fanciest but my work was good and news about me began to spread quickly. It kept getting bigger and busier every year,” she says.
After a few offers with a tattoo competition show fell through, Young was delighted to join VH1’s popular show, “Black Ink Crew: New York,” last year during its 5th season. Heading into its 6th season, Young Bae, who is now divorced, is an especially fascinating and loveable character to watch in part due to her new romance with Robert, a former client. “We’re in a good place,” she smiles. “He’s a good guy.”
Through it all, Young, who considers Kat Von D from “LA Ink” her business role model, gives God the credit for not just where she is today but where’s she’s headed. “I had faith that poverty, homelessness and abuse wouldn’t be the end of my story,” says the immigrant and aspiring philanthropist, pointing to her 8-year-old shop, doting boyfriend and hit show. “I went through all of what I did so I could come out alright on the other end and eventually go on to help other vulnerable teens from all walks of life. There is greatness waiting for us all and I’m determined to live and share my best life now.”