Monday, March 23, 2009

Are Asian Language Tattoos Disrespectful?

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.


Ryan said...

I have three Hanzi tattoos and am always interested when this debate comes up.

Though none of my tats were done in China, and all were done before coming to China, they all connect directly to China in more than a peripheral way, as they all centre around my loose Daoist beliefs.

My first tattoo was (a rather poorly done) 水 by some dude in a Daytona Beach tattoo parlour. Positioned on my forearm so as to be visible to me while performing most actions, which at the time was mostly guitar.

The 2nd was an impromptu 求 at the base of my neck, which was meant to kick off a large piece of work down my back - and will still one day.

The 3rd is a largish piece on my arm/shoulder, which along with various symbolism that is meaningful to me, contains 無爲, as another reminder to myself.

I've heard many detractors of Hanzi tattoos argue that you wouldn't get English words tattooed on you, why would you get Chinese words? To me this argument is weak at best, as it doesn't take into account the logographic nature of Chinese, nor does it recognize that writing Hanzi is very much still an art form and suits well being part of body art.

At the end of the day, if you're willing to let someone repeatedly jab a needle into you to permanently mark yourself with something - anything - whatever anyone else says about it is irrelevant. Whatever the cultural or linguistic origins, a tattoo is always a purely personal thing in my opinion.

PS: Awesome to see you blogging again and great to hear about getting married! If you guys are ever up the Suzhou way, let me know.

Anonymous said...

I think only Americans (White, Asian, etc.) really care about whether or not something like this is disrespectful. It also seems like most of the tattoos (those done in chinese at least) are either ugly (poorly done and this matters more to native Chinese than non-chinese), miss their intended meaning (like when an American says, "I want it to say "trust"" and what they end up with is literally that word but that isn’t how Chinese actually use the word), try to directly translate an english phrase into chinese ("Truth through power" for example) and it ends up effectively jibberish or the get the characters out of order (a friend did this all down his back but we (my wife and I) didn't have the heart to tell him that instead of "My honor is my power" he had "My power my is honor". Chinese don't even laugh when they see it because they don't realize it's supposed to mean something).

Asians (well, non American asians anyway) couldn't care less about the respect issue and pretty much come down into 2 camps: Those that think tattoos are stupid no matter what and those that find some flaw in the implementation. It is rare to find a tattoo in chinese that is well executed, actually makes sense AND is a phrase or word that Chinese actually might use the way the wearer intended. The end result is that almost all of them (98%?) look rather silly to Chinese.