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Genetics are a strange thing. We know there are certain traits that are clearly passed down from our parents, but could artistic ability be one of them? Seunghyun and Younggi Jo, a pair of brothers from Seoul, South Korea, make a pretty strong argument that it is. As the older brother, Seunghyun took up the trade first, and he currently resides in Toronto where he wows clients with his signature large-scale black-and-grey portraiture. Younggi, who sports a striking sleeve created by his brother, focuses on the black-and-grey micro-realism that is so popular among Korean artists. There are similarities between each of their styles, but each brother’s work clearly stands on its own.

We were lucky enough to join a conversation between the two as they discussed their artistic origins, how they inspire each other and more.

Let’s start off at the very beginning. Tell us a little about growing up together and how you each first discovered art.  

Younggi: We went to the same middle school and high school, so it was kind of fun. [My brother] really loved fashion, so when we were young, we went to the shopping mall every day. We played a lot. He’s four years older than me, but we were still friends. He’s my brother but he’s also my best friend. Four years is enough of a gap where you won’t naturally hate each other and you can still be friends.

Seunghyun: We were always good friends. I believe we were lucky, I have so many friends who don’t have very good friendships with their siblings, you know? I’m happy about this [laughs].

Did you guys draw together when you were younger?

Seunghyun: Honestly, we never really drew or designed something together because we never really learned how to do sketching or painting [as kids]. We don’t have that kind of background. I remember when we were young we would always copy manga or anime stuff, but that’s all we did.

Younggi: It’s sad to say, but we don’t have an artistic background. He loved fashion, which is definitely an art. And I played music, so we did different things, but there was art there. 

We’re guessing that Seunghyun tattooed first, is that correct?

Seunghyun: Yes, I started probably about 12 years ago. My brother started tattooing about five years ago. I am 300 percent older than him so… [laughs].So were you inspired by your brother to become a tattoo artist?

Younggi: Actually, yeah. I didn’t know about tattoos before he started tattooing. I saw some of his work, then I saw his lifestyle, and I really loved his lifestyle. So right after I finished up my military service I asked my brother, can I tattoo? Will I be able to tattoo even if I don’t have an art background? He told me, “Yeah, of course you can! I did it, so you can too.” He introduced me to Bran.D, my master who taught me.

Did you two teach each other anything over time?

Seunghyun: At first, obviously, I taught him more than he taught me. But now that he’s become a great artist, I learn from him. We share information through SMS or Instagram.

I think it’s interesting that both of you have your own signature styles, particularly when it comes to scale. Was this a conscious choice where you each wanted to stand out on your own, or was that just how things ended up?

Younggi: He didn’t tell me that I had to do small things because he does big things [laughs]. I tried to think about what my specialty would be. I really love to express the details inside. When I saw tattoos that were tiny and realistic I fell in love with it.

Seunghyun: Twelve years ago we didn’t really have this kind of micro-realism tattoo. Now our technology has become so much better, maybe that’s why these days so many great artists are doing such great micro tattoos. But I never told him what to do. I wasn’t trying to say that you bullied him into his style [laughs]. I was wondering more if you had a bit of a sibling rivalry involved.

Seunghyun: I think you should ask him since I started first!

Younggi: Actually, I really love big pieces also. [When I started] my brother was already popular, and I wanted to have my own style. At the time, I was thinking that if I did big pieces people would think, “Oh, he’s just like his brother.” So I think that’s why I chose a different style.

Have the two of you tattooed each other?

Younggi: Yep. I’ve tattooed him and he tattooed me.

Seunghyun: Yeah, I finished one of his sleeves.

Younggi: Yeah… this one. It’s my favorite! How is it different tattooing your brother than it is a normal client?

Seunghyun: The first time when I tattooed him, it was my biggest tattoo ever. I was worried about finishing the piece in just one day because it was super big. But he sat really, really well. He sat for probably 13 and a half hours. Straight.

Younggi: It was 14 hours [laughs].

Seunghyun: We talked a lot while tattooing. I liked it. This is my job, right? And then he started doing the same job as me. So it’s kind of weird but at the same time it’s very special.

Younggi: It was so much fun that time.

Fourteen hours? That’s such a long time, both to tattoo and to be tattooed. Seunghyun: That’s crazy, right? The next day we couldn’t wake up [laughs].

Tattooing is not nearly as accepted within Korean culture as it is here in America, so much so that tattooing is illegal for non-doctors in South Korea. How does your family feel about your chosen profession?

Seunghyun: I was worried about my first tattoo because I knew my mom was going to be pissed off. I covered it up for about two months. And then one day while I was asleep I could feel something next to me and it was my mom staring at me. She was like, “What the heck is this?” I said, “Oh, well, this is a sticker, this is a fake tattoo.” I’m not sure if she actually believed it or not, so that’s why when I started my career I was really worried about my mother’s reaction. But after that, honestly, she didn’t really give me a hard time. I think, pretty much, we’re good. I don’t know about my brother, but my situation was fine.

Younggi: Also, I started out after my brother, so I was OK. For now, she doesn’t care if I do tattoos, but she always hates when I get tattooed. For me.

Seunghyun: I think it’s all about history. When I was young I was always making problems. Problems at school… everything was about problems. So I think my mother hates tattoos because of our culture. Korean culture is very far away from this sort of thing. But I think she likes it in time. I work really hard, I think that’s what she likes. She respects that her sons are working their asses off.

Younggi: I remember the time my mother saw my brother’s work, and was like, “OK, he’s doing well.” [laughs]

I figure as the younger brother it’s easier for you to get away with it. Seunghyun’s already done it…

Seunghyun: Yeah, I’m always the one that makes the bigger problems. I think my mother has just gotten used to it.

Younggi: So true [laughs].

Given the culture of South Korea, I’ve always been curious if artists tend towards micro-realism because those tattoos are easier to conceal on a daily basis.

Younggi: Every Korean loves fashion. So I think micro tattoos are, like, the fashion these days. I think they’re more acceptable than big pieces.

So it’s more driven towards fashion than anything else?

Seunghyun: We don’t have a super big, hardcore tattoo culture. In North America, everybody has tattoos, everybody has sleeves, sometimes face tattoos, neck tattoos, it’s not a weird thing. But in Korea it’s really tough if you have a big tattoo because people will be putting some filter on their eyes when they look at me. I think that’s why they’re starting to have smaller tattoos. These days our culture is getting [more accepting], so people are starting to have bigger pieces too. Plus, I think it’s about our personality. It’s not all Korea, but lots of Koreans love to micromanage their lives, their foods, their studying. So I think that’s why the Korean artists became such amazing micro-realism artists. That’s how I view it.

Let’s finish with the most difficult question of all. Which one of you is the better tattooer?

Younggi: Of course, my brother! I mean… so far [laughs]. I’m going to get better and better, but so far, it’s my brother. Just my opinion.

Seunghyun: I want to be better than him. But I hope one day, or even now, that he can beat me. That’s why I wait.

Younggi: I’m going to beat my brother! [Everybody laughs]