How *not* to get a tattoo

A buddy of mine over at Facebook posted this picture which made me laugh out loud – really, I’ve sworn not to say “LoL” unless I really did:


But that got me thinking, because so many people in this country (and probably others) get Chinese/Japanese characters tattooed in various places on their bodies, thinking their tats mean “bravery” or “samurai” or “golden lovebird” or “Tadgh Ó Suilleabhain”, only to find out when they bump into a native speaker that it really means something else again, or nothing at all.

An example from the wonderful website “Hanzi Smatter,” dedicated to identifying bad tats and what they mean (or don’t):

Fast Stupid

The customer wanted a tat that said “Fast and Furious”, but what they got was “Fast Foolish”


This one, on the other hand, is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s based on a gibberish asian font which was deciphered by Alan Siegrist, a professional Japanese-English translator and member of both Japan Association of Translators (JAT) and American Translators Association (ATA); with Alan’s help, tian (writer of Hanzi Smatter) compiled this chart, which has been widely circulated around tattoo parlors:


(note this website, which is currently selling this chart along with some other character sheets for $64.99).

The very clever user DavidR created this website, where you can generate your own garbage tattoo text for your amusement. But for the love of Mogg’s holy grandfather, don’t use it! (Note: At this writing, only the “to nonsense” function works – the other direction throws a DB error.)

If you’re still not quite sure what’s going on, have a look at these pictures, which give you an idea of what a native speaker might see if they looked at your sic tat:


This girl thought her tattoo says “Lord of the Dance”


She was hoping for “Grace Under Pressure”


“You mean, it doesn’t say ‘passion’?”


“But you swore this meant ‘Hot Stuff’!”

So why does this happen with far-too-common frequency? First of all, we can’t heap coals on the head of the average tattoo artist, no more of whom are total idiots than you would find in the average business establishment (law firms excepted). The answer appears to lie in the fact that kanjis (or hanzi) look cool to many non-Asians, but take a gruntload of specialized education to understand properly – and that would hold true even if you didn’t speak the language but were simply trying to understand the general concept of ideographic writing, and what it would take to incorporate that into your artwork in a professional way. But the fact remains that when you extract the vast majority of well-meaning and honest tattoo artists out there,

  • Some of them are downright malicious, and think it’s funny to write “醜” (bad looking; shame; ugly; unclean) on some young lady’s arm;
  • Some of them have no more than a third-grade education to back up their admirable art skills, and just have no idea that the character chart they bought online is worth less than the powder to blow it to Hell with;
  • And some of them are incompetent and just draw crap, hoping the customer will never know the difference.

So what’s a body to do? Here are some helpful hints:

  • If you want a character tat, find someone you trust (and I mean, really trust, not your buddy who will draw dicks all over your face the next time you pass out at a party) who speaks the language, and let them help you design something that both looks good and means what you want it to mean.
  • Don’t trust a dictionary, either hardcopy or online. Dictionaries are only useful in direct proportion to your knowledge of the target language. That’s why


is not a good thing to use if you want “freedom,” because it means “free”, as in “no charge” – it’s also poorly drawn.

  • Take your artwork to the tattoo artist of your choice, and have them design on paper what you’re going to have emblazoned on your body forever and ever worlds without end (remember these suckers are permanent unless you have more money than Donald Trump) and take that design back to your expert to make sure that a) it means what it’s supposed to mean, and b) it looks good. Doing this will mean working with a tattoo artist who doesn’t have severe ego issues and will be willing to work with you. Remember, it’s your money and your body, so you have the right to make sure you get what you expect.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

3 responses to “How *not* to get a tattoo

  1. Those tattoos are no sillier than some of the ridiculous things one finds written on Japanese products. I’m having trouble finding it, but I’m thinking of things similar to it, like Hello Kitty stuff. I mean, yeah, you can say hello kitty, but it’s kinda dumb.

    By the same token, I love the shirt that my daughter Meg got me in Israel. It has the Atlanta Braves logo and their name in English—and in Hebrew! At least, we hope that’s what it says. (No, I’m not a baseball fan. I’m a Braves fan just out of loyalty to my family, most of whom love the Braves.)

  2. Pingback: It pays to get some cultural education | Playing in the World Game

  3. Pingback: So let it be written! | Playing in the World Game

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