tattoos of Chinese characters / kanji

Tian of the wonderfully amusing Hanzi Smatter Web site was kind enough to respond to some comments of mine by blurbing my site. I’d like to return the favor.

On a related topic, here’s a section from the FAQ, which should be going up in June:

I want to get a tattoo with kanji / Chinese characters. What do you recommend?

This is probably not what you want to hear: Don’t get the tattoo. Most tattoos with Chinese characters are seriously flawed.

The chances of you getting something that looks good — and not just to you but also to others, including the hundreds of millions of people who can actually read Chinese characters and know how they’re supposed to look — are quite low. Moreover, tattoos of Chinese characters are seldom written properly or represent a correct, idiomatic translation of the wearer’s desired meaning. On the other hand, the chances of you ending up looking more or less like a fool — at least to those who know Chinese characters — are uncomfortably high. These are important considerations, given that you would need to go through pain and expense to have someone permanently stain your skin with an image that very likely will be done wrong in some important way.

Maybe with some assistance I could get a tattoo done right. Would you help me?

Sorry. I like to help people, but this just isn’t something I’d want to get involved with, especially considering all the things that could go wrong.

I already have a tattoo with Chinese characters. Can you tell me if it’s correct or not?

You might want to try Hanzi Smatter, a site “dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Hanzi or Kanji) in Western culture.”

8 thoughts on “tattoos of Chinese characters / kanji

  1. I would like to get a chinese tatoo with the symbols ‘Love’, ‘Stength’, ‘Unity’ & ‘beauty’on my lower back. What do u
    sugest good idea or bad. I read what u said, and now i’m not sure of what to do.


  2. Chinese characters aren’t really symbols, despite what lots of people say. (You might want to have a look at an explanation of the ideographic myth.)

    I still stand by everything I wrote in the main post. I think getting such a tattoo is a bad idea. Also, because you want not just one character but at least four, the chances are even greater that a mistake will be made or the result of the combination will end up implying a meaning other than what you intended.

    If you’re still considering getting the tattoo, be sure to read through some of the entries at Hanzi Smatter before taking any action.

    But it’s your body, so it’s your decision. I wish you luck, whatever you decide.

  3. hi mary. i’m a taiwanese and i speak chinese also.
    according to your requirment, there would be “lots of ” chinese characters needed to be done.
    so i suggest you just to pick one from the four or you would have too many characters on your back, which i believe wouldn’t look nice in any way.
    good luck

  4. I am looking at getting a tattoo with chinese symbols on my right inner bicep. It needs to say faith family eternity. Any help on finding the right symbols/caracters?

  5. I just recently got an armband in Thai. (means “good heart, good friends, good times”. Had a friend of mine over there actually do the translation and the tattooist could speak a little english too, so I ended up with a very accurate one. Just to check I showed a few street vendors, and they repeated exactly what the tattoo was supposed to mean. Theyre great when they’re done correctly.

  6. I’m not so sure about Thai society but in territories where Chinese characters are widely used that method would probably be hard to use since tattoos are kind of taboo…

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