Why you shouldn’t get a Chinese tattoo

…or at least not before having read this article

So it seems like everyone and their mum have a Chinese tattoo now. What’s up with that? Has everyone suddenly started learning Chinese or discovered that their ancestors came from China? The answer is much more straightforward – the simple fact is that Chinese characters have an inherent elegance, because they convey a lot of meaning in just one symbol. They also look like miniature paintings, with intricate details.

Yes, I’ll admit it, Chinese tattoos can look stunning. The crucial fact, though, is that most hanzi tattoos just look plain awful.

Whether it’s the fact that the designs are in the Chinese equivalent of Times New Roman (boring!) or worse the fact that the designs are mostly always wrong, there are plenty of reasons why you should avoid getting a Chinese tattoo inked on your body. The two main categories into which bad designs fall are:

1. The plain wrong

Wrong Hanzi translation-Goddess

Wrong Hanzi translation for the word Goddess

I’m a native speaker of Chinese. Point out a random tattoo using Chinese characters to me from among a crowd of people and – more often than not – I won’t be able to tell you what the tattoo is supposed to mean. Not because I’m stupid, but simply, because the actual writing used in the tattoo doesn’t make any sense, is using the wrong strokes or means something like “angry bear nurse hello”, which is nonsensical in any language. Do people choose to get an incorrect design? I almost want to say yes, because to me it seems grossly negligent to use Google translate or other automatic translation tools to get a tattoo design. Copying a random design you found on some random website is just as bad and might simply perpetuate the mistakes other people made before you. Ah yes, of course there are the infamous Chinese tattoo catalogues at your favourite tatttoo artist. The trouble is, though, there is no way of telling whether their contents are in fact accurate or have been chosen by a native speaker.

2. The ugly

wrong hanzi for hope and plain font

wrong hanzi for hope and plain font

The truth of the matter is that a large proportion of Chinese tattoo designs seem to be based on the Chinese equivalent font of Times New Roman or Arial. While such a font is fine for writing documents or reading a book, it always amazes me that people are not more creative. Chinese calligraphy offers a myriad of ways in which to write the same character and there are dozens of appealing fonts available. So, why go with the most boring font? The answer is simple – most people simply select their design from the tattoo artist’s catalogue, oblivious to the alternatives. Or, just as bad, they go to Google translate and copy and paste the “translation” (or whatever nonesense Google comes up with) into a Word document.



So, what should you do if your heart is still set on getting a Chinese tattoo?

1. Make sure the translations are correct

Whatever Chinese tattoo design you want to get, the most important aspect to consider is whether or not the translation is correct. Some people have unwittingly ended up with a dish from a Chinese takeaway menu instead of some wise words they wanted to get. Don’t be one of them. If you can, get a Chinese native speaker (or two) to verify your translation. You can also take a look at my ebook that contains over 220 different words and phrases that have been translated by me, a native speaker. Whatever you do, stay away from Google translate or random designs you see posted on the internet on websites that are less than trustworthy.

2. Get a good looking design

Example of a Nice tattoo

Example of a Nice tattoo

This step is a little more difficult. If you have Chinese friends, you can ask them to write the designs in different fonts for you on their computer. Just make sure they they sent the designs in picture format of PDF to you. Otherwise, the designs might get messed up. Our ebook contains at least four different designs for each word or phrase, so you can choose in confidence the design you like the most. The ebook comes in PDF format, so there is no chance of any of the Chinese tattoos getting messed up on your computer.



3. Go to someone who has experience in tattooing the intricate Chinese symbols

This step is not always realistic. In some places you will have to settle for someone who has experience in inking intricate designs, not specifically of inking Chinese tattoos. However, if you live in a big city, the liklihood is that there are a few tattoo artists who have experience in this field and can ink you with an exact replica of the design you so carefully chose.

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Comments: 5

  1. Robin October 28, 2012 at 11:08 pm Reply

    Great points. If you are set on getting a Chinese tattoo be sure that you know what the translation is because it could be a big embarrassment to you if you find out that your tattoo translates to something mortifying.

  2. Tim October 31, 2012 at 6:19 pm Reply

    Yea, makes total sense. I actually did think of getting a Chinese tattoo but something told me not to go ahead with it. After reading this I am now even more hesitant.

  3. Wayne November 5, 2012 at 10:02 pm Reply

    I have always been curious about Chinese tattoos but now I feel it is best if I stay away. Too risky. Thanks for the heads up.

  4. Jim November 15, 2012 at 12:33 am Reply

    Chinese tattoos are beautiful but I can see how risky they are. You could end up being the laughing stock of the century if you are not careful.

  5. Shane November 16, 2012 at 12:21 am Reply

    Agreed Jim. You have to be so careful.

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