Tag Archives: tattoos

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.