Google "Asian tattoo" and you'll get a slew of sites boasting about and bemoaning the Western trend of Asian language tattoos, primarily Chinese and Japanese. Those against Asian language tattoos usually argue on the points of frequent mistranslation, but I've come across numerous articles declaring that getting a tattoo in a language whose country and culture the wearer usually knows nothing about can be disrespectful and offensive.
My opinion on this matter is both valid and not valid. I have five Chinese language tattoos (one being my wife's name on my ring finger, the other four are on my back- see the small photo on the right). However, these tattoos were applied in China by a Chinese person and I have spent considerable time in China which has allowed me more than just a tourist's familiarity. I have never encountered any contempt or ridicule from Chinese people because of my cultural ink- quite the opposite actually. And when I have visited America, I didn't display my Chinese ink in public, so I didn't receive any negative reactions there either. Yet I've heard about many instances where someone's Asian language tattoo was criticized, embarrassing mistranslations and gibberish aside, simply for cheapening another culture, one far older than America's.
This argument sometimes holds water, but can't be applied to every instance. The most important aspects of choosing a tattoo are meaning, appearance, and placement. Asian languages, particularly Chinese and Japanese, are very concise and aesthetically pleasing. For many people, it simply looks better and saves space (and money and pain) to have a phrase tattooed in one of these languages rather than in English. However, if someone is getting an Asian language tattoo to "connect" to Eastern cultures, this is very superficial and somewhat insulting.
The most common Chinese tattoos that I've come across are ”力“ (strength), “爱” (love),“龙” (dragon), and “美” (beautiful). In the Chinese language, a character is rarely isolated and is usually contextualized by other characters, so just having one character emblazoned on your skin is cute and fashionable but doesn't hold the same meaning as it would if it were displayed in China. However, the Western wearer isn't looking to appropriate Chinese semantics- they want the Western meaning with an Eastern flair, and I believe this is okay, even if it is a bit trite. Imagine a Chinese person with the English word "cool" or "lovely" tattooed on them, and you get the idea.
A closer view of my Chinese tattoos
Besides the single character on my finger for my wife's name (it would have been too crowded to have her family name in there too :-P), the four words on my back are made up of two characters each. And while they don't form a coherent phrase, there is a sequential meaning, and it's one that Chinese people understand when I explain the placement. My first character is “和平” (peace), followed by three words: “尊敬” (respect)， “仁慈” (kindness)，and “牺牲” (sacrifice). These three elements are what lead to peace. Of course this makes no sense initially but when I explain it to people, they immediately understand. I admit that being in China was a big reason why I wanted to get Chinese tattoos, but in a way I realized I was showing respect rather than disrespect by getting tattoos with very personal meanings in a language that represents a country I have spent time getting to know. A foreign language tattoo can be a sort of homage, and unless there is a deep or personal meaning, it is just cheap and superficial.
Beckham's Chinese cursive script tattoo. Chinese people say it's accurate and well-done. It's a proverb about fate.