What Does Your Skin Say: Ink, Languages, and Meaning

Debbie says:

When we first saw this article on English speakers and Japanese or Chinese language tattoos, we were thinking along the same lines as Wendy Christensen, who wrote it for Sociological Images: basically, how dismissive of the original language it is to get a tattoo in a language you don’t understand, can’t read, and can’t check for accuracy. So English speakers wind up with tattoos like this one:

kanji tattoo on woman's arm

She thought it meant “warrior.” It actually means “waterfall” or “rapids.”

Christensen’s point is that this is cultural appropriation–and it is. It’s taking another culture’s language and alphabet without any real awareness or concern for what your actions mean in that culture.

Then we read the comments, which make some very salient points about how this works in the other direction. In Japan, and especially in China, English-language tattoos have some of the same exotic and exciting flavor that Asian-language tattoos have for us. Here’s an almost exact mirror of the one above:

arm tattoo says Frunk

Yuan Chi Hao in China asked for a tattoo meaning “old soul with young spirit.” He got “Frunk.”

Also, this phenomenon is not limited to Asian/English crossovers. One of the Sociological Images commenters pointed us to this site:

two people holding hands; Hebrew tattoo on the back of one hand

In this case, she wanted “Strength.” And the tattoo would be read as “goat.”

For people who get these tattoos without doing research, the meaning of the tattoo to them is often much more important than the meaning to a native speaker of the language the tattoo is in. People also get tattoos in unfamiliar alphabets not for their meaning, but for their aesthetic value–“I like the way it looks.”

While cultural appropriation (and cultural cluelessness) is often a factor here, it also seems that many people in cultures around the world are drawn to tattoos that lie outside of their experience and knowledge. Although English-language tattoos in French and Latin on English speakers’ skins are common, there does seem to be some pull toward the magic of an unknown alphabet, characters that–by their unknown nature–seem to express something stronger and more powerful than the characters you read every day.

5 thoughts on “What Does Your Skin Say: Ink, Languages, and Meaning

  1. I read a bunch of a website about bad Chinese and Japanese tattoos on people who don’t know those languages. One point it made was how often the work is careless enough that you can’t even say “it means waterfall, not warrior” but is in the “frunk” direction.

    There’s a bit in Terry Pratchett about the rural mountain-dwellers making a mystical path out of the “way of Mrs. Cake,” bits of advice and admonitions a random city landlady has handed to her tenants, and they’ve sent home in letters. Stuff like not leaving their things out in the hallways. A parody of that sort of exoticising, without understanding.

    I probably wouldn’t get a tattoo in a language I don’t know, but none of my four current tattoos have any text whatsoever, so that may not be indicative. But if I did, I hope I would have the sense to find someone who did know it. Not walk into the tattoo shop and say “I want $text in Chinese.” For example, I have a friend who is effectively a bilingual native speaker of English and Mandarin, who I could ask for help on that. (And if he said “don’t do it, I’d take that seriously.”)

    At the same time, there’s space between telling someone “I want a word in English/Chinese/Hebrew/Navajo/Arabic” that means such-and-such” and asking for a word or phrase you know out of your very limited vocabulary in that language. I’m far from speaking French, but for me to put “liberte, egalite, sororite” on my skin (after checking the accents and getting one of my Francophone friends to double-check them) wouldn’t feel like appropriation; finding a bilingual tattoo shop the next time I’m in Montreal and saying “I want something inspiring about persistence in French” would, and probably be foolish besides.

    I suspect this comment could go quite a bit longer, with things about differential power levels: a European-American exoticising Chinese or Japanese in 2012 is a bit different than it would have been decades ago, and not just because some people are taking that in the other direction.

  2. Vicki, re: ‘making a mystical path out of the “way of Mrs. Cake,” bits of advice and admonitions a random city landlady has handed to her tenants … Stuff like not leaving their things out in the hallways.’

    I like to believe that the venerable roots of human culture are exactly those quips and laundry lists of antiquity. Who could have known that those silly and scary stories they made up over the campfire would be taken so bloody seriously, a few generations down the line, that people would actually base entire philosophies, religions, and civilizations on them? Especially at our most somber we are a funny race~

  3. What I found most interesting, was the idea that the characters themselves separate from their original language can have power and meaning.

  4. I’ve been aware of Hanzi Smatter for years, and I’ve certainly seen photos of people in Japan wearing clothes with nonsensical English, but I hadn’t seen tattoos on Asians in garbled English. As the daughter of a man who created a country with its own language, I enjoyed this. Maybe I should get a tattoo in Khorlian in his memory!

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