Tattoos Sacred and Profane

You may have heard about Engrish.com, the site that tracks amusing abuses of the English language in Japan (“Let’s happy and feel the lucky!”). But what about the view from the other side? Are Americans abusing Asian languages by any chance? Yes they are, and whereas Japanese have a knack for zany T-shirts and signs, Americans prefer to make their mistakes in the form of permanent tattoos. Tian Tang, an engineering student who lives in Arizona now but was born in China, has a site called Hanzi Smatter that is dedicated to airing the kinds of mistranslations, mistransliterations, and textual nonsense that pass for Chinese in American pop culture. Recently he’s been getting some high-profile press:

Cool Tat, Too Bad It’s Gibberish – New York Times
Indelibly lost in translation – Los Angeles Times

The whole concept of what people look for in a tattoo, and what constitutes magical writing, has fascinated me for some time, so I collected my thoughts in the somewhat longer ramble below.

Tattoos Sacred and Profane

Have you ever wondered why people who don’t speak Chinese get Chinese tattoos? One thing seems clear: they don’t do it to communicate with Chinese people. Or if they do, they are often sadly misguided. Here, for example, is a person who was told his tattoo means “courage”. In fact it means “big mistake,” thereby changing it from a statement about the owner to one about the tattoo.

big-mistake.png
(photo courtesy of Tian at Hanzi Smatter)

Some people say they chose a Chinese tattoo because it’s “exotic.” By itself, this hardly seems sufficient. What does “exotic” actually mean? I think I know: Chinese characters are beautiful, compact, ancient, and secret. Each of these things adds to the overall force of Chinese logograms in the Western mind. That they are beautiful is a simple matter of aesthetics. They are indisputably compact, and therefore more expressive per square inch of flesh than our alphabet. They are also the oldest form of writing still in use. As with Egyptian hieroglyphics, we may therefore imagine their deep roots confer some extra power beyond their direct declarative value. But the most important factor is mystery: these things are secret.

Why is secrecy important? Secret knowledge has the power of magic and can therefore connect with a deeper sense of meaning than a naked word straight out of the dictionary. If you tattoo the word SMART on your ass, you just look like a smartass. You are open to ridicule. But if you tattoo a cryptic symbol that only you and a select few know to be SMART in an ancient runic language, you get to feel cryptic, ancient, runic, and smart all at the same time.

However, this being Chinese, there is a problem with the “secret” part. What is secret to you is the primary language for more people than any other language in the world. This underscores the obvious point: exoticness is in the eye of the beholder. There is nothing exotic about the language you use for your grocery list. As a result, the joke may be on you. It may, instead of saying SMART on your ass, say SMRAT. Or worse: FART. How would you know the difference? There you are, smugly revealing your mystic brand to friends and confidants when one day you see a picture of your tattoo on a web site with the correct translation: FART.

As it happens, this topic is of more than passing interest to me. I design Elvish tattoos. Or rather, people send me money to get their name written in Elvish which they often then use for a tattoo. The people who contact me tend to come from one side or the other of the Lord of the Rings fan spectrum. On one side are the serious Tolkien geeks who know their Quenya from their Sindarin and can quote “Elbereth Gilthoniel” from memory. On the other side are the mild fans who happen to like the way Elvish looks.

The first customer wants to make sure I get it exactly right. It’s a tattoo after all, so I can’t blame them, but sometimes they harangue me about Elvish grammar and orthography and agonize that they might be laughed at by an Elf on the subway someday. They don’t need me to tell them that Tolkien’s trilogy is a work of fiction, and yet there is something terribly important about knowing that the elegant script they receive is genuine. But genuine what?

The second customer just wants the cool Elvish writing because it would make a nice tattoo. They take their writing and leave happy. They don’t worry too much about authenticity because they assumed that from the outset. This may seem unsophisticated because they completely trust me to tell them how Elves write. At the same time, maybe they realize that’s not exactly the point. They are the more pleasant customer to deal with, and my bet is that they are happier with their tattoo in the long run.

One lesson here is that if you’re drawn to cryptic tattoos, you’re better off choosing Elvish over Chinese. If it’s a botched job, you’ll never be ridiculed by the waiter at an Elvish restaurant. But the real question is: Do you define your tattoo, or does it define you? In Connecticut, there is a river called the Thames. It is pronounced not TEMS like its namesake in London; instead it rhymes with SHAMES. Is that laughably provincial or irreducibly authentic? A Londoner may sniff, but this river isn’t in London. This river is in Connecticut, so shut up.

The biggest joke of a mistranslated tattoo may succeed, just as the most perfectly rendered tattoo may fail. It all depends on the secret message and the owner. That your message appears foolish to my interpretation does not deprive you of its secret. If I tear down your church, what have I done to your religion?

So: a good tattoo is meaningful, beautiful, and secret. But secrets come in two sizes: little and big. Little secrets, like where you hide the spare key, can be found out. The rituals of the Freemasons, with their handshakes and special orders, used to excite respect and envy. But these all turn out to be little secrets. We live in an age that dissolves secrecy. You can look up everything you want to know about Masonic secrets in the next fifteen minutes. What’s the point?

The point is that big secrets don’t dissolve. The point is that all writing, even the writing of grocery lists, is magical, no matter the language or location. Because we use it all the time every day, we forget this. So we have to wipe some exotic on it. “Magic” is something we rub on ordinary things to remind us that ordinary things are magic. That’s why we employ so many little secrets; they’re useful tools for holding on to big secrets.

The little secret contains the big secret. How does it fit?

That’s the big secret.

10 thoughts on “Tattoos Sacred and Profane”

  1. *laugh* Funny to read this on the day you delivered my translation to me. I think that I am a mix of the two types of people you chose and I did double check the translation, but my decision is based on the beauty of the writing as well.

    Thanks again. :D

  2. Excellent. I think there’s a smugness or coolness factor that plays in. If you think you’re really cool because of your tat or smug in the knowledge that you know(think you know) what it means, there’s a chance that the guy who applied it picked up on that and decided a little humble pie was in order.
    Speaking of pie, can you reccomend any good Elvish restaurants?

  3. There’s a good Elvish place on Van Ness in San Francisco (I recommend the Lembas tacos), but the neighborhood is pretty dodgy. Smells of goblin urine and no parking anywhere.

  4. I understand what you mean by what you say on this page, your right, tattoos should mean something and say what they mean. People are fools to have something etched into their skin and will never be able to realize it’s just a sweet looking jumble of crap. Oh and elvish tattos are so far beyond geeky, but i will hand it to you, your “elvish” work is some of the most beautifully designed / written artifical languages i have ever, in all my years, come across.

  5. hi i just been introduced to a few designs an i think they are cool i was just wondering if you could help by translating my name(matthew) and also my daughters name (rebecca) thanx if you can help

  6. hey..im goin to get my first tattoo sometime durin this summer n i decided on elvish cuz its really beautiful n mysterious..i noticed in the pic that there are no spaces in between the words so i was wonderin if that is how it’s supposed to be written or not..

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