Trials, Tribulations, and Tattoos

An analysis on tattoos, language, and cultural nuance.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

What does it mean to get tattoos in languages you don’t know? Over the years, we’ve seen the rise of people, especially white people, getting Asian or otherwise “foreign” languages tattooed on their bodies. This sparked an internet joke that makes fun of the people who thought they had a “deep” and pretty message inked onto themselves, only to find out the characters really meant something like “refrigerated fish.” These people are the same people who deem Asians “exotic.” The search “Asian tattoos gone wrong” on Google generates 22.1 million hits. Perhaps the most infamous example of a poorly executed “Asian” tattoo was Ariana Grande’s Japanese hand tattoo which translated to “bbq grill” instead of the intended “seven rings.”

Another part of the problem is that the people who now fetishize Asian culture are not speaking out about the systemic racism Asians face. The cultural shift of Chinese and Japanese characters now being “kawaii and aesthetic,” when beforehand we were mocked for our cultural food and accents, is stunning but not surprising. Western society continuously shifts between systemic distrust and newfound idolatry. It all comes down to the fact that our practices and lives are shiny bizarre objects to them. They are free to pick, choose, toss, and glamourize whatever appeals to them. We have no control over what new part of our customs will be picked apart for their pleasure.

So, what’s the difference between having “c’est la vie” inked between your shoulder blades and having the strokes of Eastern calligraphy permanently fused onto your skin? The issue comes with the blatant eurocentrism of people who view language this way. Tattoos are a commitment, an expression of identity and individuality, and a way to convey something to people through physical appearance. If your view of Eastern language is that it is something outlandish and exclusive to have on your body, then you don’t really respect it; you fetishize it until you convince yourself that you are somehow morally superior for having the bare minimum knowledge about cultures you dehumanize. Some of the common arguments made for the practice are that the characters are “prettier,” “mysterious,” or even simply for showing off. And while traditional calligraphy is certainly beautiful, not all symbols are profound or pretentious. It is a language that millions of people use in their everyday lives. They are just words, the only difference being that it’s in a language you can’t recognize or explain.

At the end of the day, of course, it’s your body, and if you want to get a Chinese dragon or an ancient Korean quote tattooed, go for it, but think about why you want to get it in the first place, especially if you don’t have a strong connection with the aforementioned things. Too many times, it’s out of a place of frivolousness, not genuine interest.

It’s only skin deep.

The issue doesn’t end at tattoos. To take something that is part of someone’s culture and not even try to go beyond the surface in your understanding of the rich history behind it is telling. It shows that you don’t appreciate ethnic roots and history as you come and go in your allyship as you please—the ultimate privilege of the colonizer. Simply being able to flaunt your frivolous show of diversity, while mere years ago we were taught that our non-Americanized culture was to be hidden, is the biggest example of picking and choosing from stereotypes that are other people’s heritage.

Cultural diffusion is ultimately good, and in this society, it is inevitable. However, it cannot be adopted willy-nilly because of superficial aesthetics that ignore the cultural antecedents that brought it here. I’m personally a big fan of tattoos, and I don’t think they need to have a deep meaning or history behind them. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation nowadays, but it rubs me the wrong way to see people with privilege doing the bare minimum to advocate for the culture they’ve printed on their skin while reinforcing decades-long stereotypes for social credit.

There is nothing quirky about Asian languages, and the oversimplification of them for Western use only goes to prove the eurocentric hierarchy that exists within speech and writing. The European and North American dialects that derive from Latin, Greek, Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic languages are commonly viewed as sophisticated, classy, and worldwide, while tongues in the Sino-Tibetan and other language families are shown as gritty and dully traditional, almost indigenous in their “simplicity” or soullessness. This translates to almost everything that we see in the media. Almost every Asian-American movie or TV show I see has to touch on some form of struggle, link the themes of the story to tradition, or focus on their othering compared to the so-called baseline.

The attitude towards tattoos has become more lax and powerful over the years, especially in the Eastern world, but the exoticization of Asian language and tradition for personal uses borders on appropriation. The discussion of this is not new and extends far beyond tattoos, but when minority cultures are easily dismissed as trend-worthy accessories, it exacerbates the problem.