Thursday 15 May 2003

Tattoo what?

I’ve always been intrigued by the fashion for tattoos displaying Chinese characters, so much so that a couple of years ago I set up Though I never pursued the idea, my intention was that each post would comprise separate photographs of a tattoo and its owner with an accompanying text about why they’d chosen the particular Chinese character(s).

In the trendy inner-city area where I live there’s no shortage of pierced and tattooed men and women, so I still try to decipher the tattoos I see—though a necessarily brief glance and my imperfect knowledge ensure that I’m only occasionally successful. A month or so ago, when the weather was still warm, I noticed a young woman on the platform at Newtown station, with a single character inscribed on her tailbone. “Why on earth would she want the character for ‘water’——(in Japanese, sui/mizu), tattooed just above her bum?” I asked myself. Then she shifted her weight from one foot to another and I saw the top of the character that had been obscured by the hem of her T-shirt. It wasn’t “water”, it was “eternity”——(ei/naga•i).

Newspaper clipping about a young man whose Chinese tattoo doesn't mean what he thought it didImagine my delight, then, when Victor sent me a JPEG of a newspaper clipping (dated Thursday, June 6, 2002) about a young Englishman, Lee Becks, who thought he’d been tattooed with the characters “Love, honor, and obey” but learned from a woman in a Chinese take-away shop that the tattoo actually said, “At the end of the day, this is an ugly boy.” When he went back to the tattoo shop to complain the next day, he found it had closed. Lee’s boss summed up his trusting employee’s predicament: “I don’t think Lee stands much of a chance with any attractive young Chinese lady he may meet.”

Detail of tattooI can recognize the characters for “evening”——(seki/yū) and “man”——(dan/otoko) but the character used in Japanese for “ugly”——(shū/miniku•i) bears no resemblance to that in the tattoo.

There is, of course, a fair chance that the entire story—which looks as though it comes from an English tabloid—could be a beat-up. But it’s good for a laugh, particularly these alternative tattoo phrases, attributed to the “University of Cambridge Department of Oriental Studies”:

Chinese phrases: A fool and his money are easily parted; Always read the small print; I'm stupid enough to think this tattoo looks cool

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The middle character, 丑 (see if unicode works here, as well), is chou3 and is just the simplified equivalent of the character that you mention as meaning ugly in Japanese.

丑 originally also meant ugly (as well as a few other things), but more like "shameful" or "disgraceful." In Simplified, they just took used it to mean both.

Posted by John on 15 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

i don't know how this translates back to chinese, but here's a character that to me looks close, and means "ugly" in japanese: 妛 (シ - shi).

Posted by scott reynen on 16 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Fabulous! I've always wondered if that had ever happened to anyone. Hee hee hee!

Posted by David (TEFL Smiler) on 16 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The other thing that's interesting about this tattoo is how badly drawn it is, from the point of view of calligraphic style. It's not the worst I've seen -- there are plenty of people walking around with "ren" (forbearance) or "ai" (love) tattooed on their bodies in the handwriting of a first grader. This guy's tattoo is more like the writing of an indifferent adult.

Now, granted, I am an art historian, but still -- it's interesting to me that the calligraphic quality of the character -- something I think of as indissoluble from its form -- totally disappears in this kind of Western usage. What you see is sort of a case of Chinese character as design element (and in that vein, see You'd expect that the kind of constellations of meaning that coalesce around kanji in their classical usages would disappear in such a context, but on top of that the most design-crucial qualities of the characters seem to evaporate as well.

Posted by xiao long nu on 16 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've never really understood the penchant of some people to get tattoos of a language they don't read drawn on them by someone who also doesn't read or write the language. It always seemed like a recipe for disaster to me...

Posted by Liz on 21 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour