A native of Seoul, South Korea, Young Bae’s childhood reads like a painful chapter of Oliver Twist. Using her innate talent – art – to overcome years of poverty, homelessness and abuse, 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 volunteer assistance. Young recalls the cultural reaction to her family’s suffering with clarity,
“Korea is a materialistic country,” confides Young, now proprietor of the marquee Diamond Tattoos shop in New York City’s 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, hence 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 mix in with other more privileged kids, even as she and her family moved around in 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 fresh and fashionable,” says the self-taught tattoo queen has 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, her teachers and classmates acknowledged her ability to sketch, draw as well as paint. Young began receiving accolades for her fabrications, using the sales to buy basic necessities.
Young was able to land a partial academic scholarship to a college where she continued to hone her craft until she was ready to leave Korea.
“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 the bonafide hustler Young took the motto to heart. In 2007, the 22-year-old made a beeline for Koreatown in Manhattan, touching down with just $80 and a student visa to study English, she landed a job at a local nail salon.
Despite a language barrier, she wouldn’t stop there. Young continued job hunting, 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 with roommates in New Jersey.
On the way to the tattoo shop in NYC, the neon lights of New York City brightly shined on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel.
Tattooing was illegal in South Korea so Young had no experience. “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 commenced.
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 Street 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.
“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 fifth season. Heading into its seventh season, Young Bae is a fascinating and loveable character to watch.
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.”
Currently, Young Bae is working on an athleisure line 2one2 and a book sharing her life experiences.
Additional information can be found on her wikipedia.