A native of Seoul, Korea, Young Bae’s childhood reads like a painful chapter of “Oliver Twist”. Using her natural talent - art - to overcome years of poverty, homelessness and abuse, and witnessing that of her mother and sister, at the hands of her father, alongside her mother and sister, Young managed to escape.
Young’s mom, an artist herself, was consistently unable to provide and care for her children and members of their community refused to offer assistance. Young recalls the cultural reaction to her family’s suffering with clarity:
“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.”
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 high-profile clientele and eager fans of the drama-filled show, “Black Ink”. “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.
Young was able to land a partial academic scholarship to an art university where she continued honing her craft until she was ready to flee to her personal promised land: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.
Despite the language barrier, she wouldn’t stop there. Young continued job hunting t, getting jobs at restaurants, jewelry shops, even illegally hawking her art in New York’s famed Union Square. All this to make her share of the rent for a small place she shared with roommates in Jersey.
The neon lights of New York City shined brightly on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel when Young stumbled onto a Tattoo Shop in the city.
Tattooing was illegal in South Korea so Young had no experience when “I walked in, took a look around at the tattoo sketches on the wall, and thought, hey, I could do this”. “So I offered the shop owners a barter: in exchange for giving me a shot I would clean their shop for free. They agreed.” With that her apprenticeship began.
In no time Young became confident in her skills, and moved to another shop where she could demand a tattoo artist’s wages. Quickly becoming the most requested artist in the shop, Young decided 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 human-sized sign advertising my shop, and miraculously people showed up. Eventually so many showed up I quickly outgrew the space!”!
With Young’s growing credibility and reputation among fellow artists throughout the tri-state area, it was no wonder that reality TV show producers eventually came calling — repeatedly.
“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.
Young was delighted to join VH1’s popular show, “Black Ink Crew: New York” during its 5th season. Heading into its 6th season, Young Bae is an especially fascinating and loveable character to watch. Her watchability is, 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 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. I went through all of what I did so I could come out on top on the other end and eventually go on to help others who are vulnerable like I was. . There is greatness waiting for us all and I’m determined to live and share my best life now.”