If you “Kanji tattoos” in Japanese, you get a bunch of sites devoted to making fun of all the foreigners with ridiculous, cringey tattoos. This fact should make all those thinking about daubing themselves in a little Asian ink to take pause for thought. There are a lot of horror stories out there.
And while I’m usually not someone who likes to stick the boot in, it’s hard not to find some amusement in some of the chinese character tattoo combinations you see floating around on shoulders, biceps and midriffs.
If nothing else, let this article be a siren song to all those who have hanzi hankering. Hopefully it gives an appropriate pause for thought to think about first principles of should I get a kanji tattoo at all?
Oh, and I’m no out-and-out hater of Kanji tattoos. In fact I’ve put together a whole page devoted to how to get a good Japanese letter Kanji and Japanese letter tattoo.
I also did a talk with my Japanese friend about these tattoos on japanoscope.
With that out of the way let’s get started.
Cringey Chinese Character Tattoos Top 10
1. 馬鹿外人 “Stupid Foreigner”
This one is the “classic” bad kanji tattoo that you hear whispered about on the internet and beyond. I actually thought this was probably just a hoax. Surely know one is both that dumb to get these from someone and noone is mean enough to do this to someone else. But, no, the photos are there to prove that I’m wrong on both counts.
Adding insult to injury on this one is the fact that this one is not even grammatically correct. Strictly, “Stupid foreigner” should really be ”馬鹿な外人” in Japanese. So if you tried to render this phrase back into English, maybe you would get something like “Me stupid foreigner”.
Indeed the “pigeon-Japanese” way this is written actually makes this burn all the more biting.
That being said, this one is so in-your-face racist that you wonder whether it is actually intended as an ironic statement by the person who, hopefully, chose to have this done. From this perspective, the grammatical error is something of a stroke of genius. “Me stupid foreigner” becomes comment on the state of racism in Japanese society.
2. かんたん 愛 くれまん Easy love no givee (?!)
This one is so grammatically incorrect it’s hard to make out what was even intended. かんたん means easy, or simple. 愛 means “love” and くれまん seems like it was intended to be くれません, which would mean “not give,” but has a Hiragana character missing, making it incorrect and perhaps better rendered back into English as “no giveee”.
You get the sense that the tattooee was going for something along the lines of “I don’t give my love easily” or “my love don’t come cheap”. How they arrived at this particular garbled Japanese construction is not easy to say. Perhaps they looked up several of the key words in a dictionary, cut them out, and drew them from hat, wrote them down on a piece of paper, ran out of room and then crossed out a letter here and there to compensate?
This one also has a classic confusion with Japanese verbs kureru, morau, and ageru. These can be easy to mix up for non-Japanese speakers because they depend on being used in transitive or non-transitive forms to make sense. I get the feeling this is also the case in this tattoo.
Bottom line? Check with a Japanese person before inscribing your waistline.
3. 時間治療 “Time Treatment”
So this Kanji tattoo is a good example of trying to find a straight-forward, literal translation for an English word or phrase. The problem is that these direct equivalents usually don’t exist, or don’t exist in a way that delivers the same message.
This one was intended as “Time heals all wounds”. It’s a great phrase. For me, it’s too much of a common cliche to think I would want it written forever on my body. But I can see how you might.
The translation here is, unfortunately, comically over simplified. 時間 jikan is “time” and 治療 chiryo is treatment. “Time Treatment” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Time Heals All Wounds”.
4. 七輪 Ariana Grande’s “Coal-BBQ” Tattoo
I feel a little bit bad about including this one because celebrity Ariana Grande received quite a lot of flak online for this one when she first had it done. It is probably the most high profile “Kanji tattoo fail” on the list.
Ariana got this tattoo around the time she released an album called Seven Rings. To commemorate the release she decided to get a Chinese Character tattoo of the words “Seven Rings”. So she found the words 七 shichi, meaning “seven” and 輪 rin, meaning ring/circle/wheel/loop and put them together. Makes sense right?
Unfortunately, Ariana and her team forgot to look into what these characters may mean when placed together. Side-by-side, they make up the word used to refer to a charcoal BBQ that looks like this:
As to why a shichirin is called by that name in the first place is debated. The rin part of the word clearly refers to the fact that these cookers were traditionally all circular in make. The leading theories as to why it has “seven” in at are: a) The cookers used to have seven holes in the bottom of them b) that they cost seven units of the old currency to buy C) that the coal that went within them cost seven units in the old currency to buy.
So this tattoo example illustrates the perils of simply trying to translate several words from English in Kanji before placing them side by side.
Remember that Kanji go together to make up words! The letter “P” by itself and the letter “C” by itself are very different to the letter “PC” placed side by side!
5. ンリコ “Nriko” or “Colin”
For some reason or other, people getting their names written in Chinese characters on their body is a thing. This seems to me to be the ultimate meta-statement a la “Hi I’m John, the names written on my back if you need to check”. If that’s the angle you’re going for, wouldn’t it be better to design the tattoo like a name tag conveniently placed on your upper chest?
But writing the name in a different language gives it a degree of separation. I suspect it is quite simply just the easiest idea for a tattoo that you could possibly come up with.
If you are going to do this, though, it’s not the sort of thing you want to muck up.
This one seems to be an attempt at writing the name “Colin”, (which in all fairness may well be the name of an important loved one of the person getting the tatt) but upside down. If it was back-to-front you could lodge an argument that it would make it appear correct in a mirror. But upside-down?
Perhaps there was confusion about Japanese writing conventions here? Namely, perhaps the writer thought Japanese is written from bottom to top. Traditionally, Japanese was written right to left, top to bottom. Modern Japanese switches between this traditional writing style and conforming to the Western convention of left to right, top to bottom. Japanese is not written from bottom to top.
This means that anyone reading this tattoo would never think to read this tattoo as anything other than “Nriko”.
If that’s not sure to cause an identity crisis, what is?
6. 性行為 “Sex act” or “Sexual activity”
There is nothing grammatically incorrect in this Kanji Tattoo. In fact, it’s all admirably above boards from a language perspective. From a messaging perspective, it is hard to know the motivation here.
性行為 seikoi could mean “sex act”, “sexual deed” or “sex activities” depending on the context. The only context we are provided with though is slice of flesh, canvas of skin on a human being.
Does it assert the tattooee’s sexual activeness as in “hey I’m doing the deed”. Or is it a warning that touching the person would be perceived as a “sexual advance” and dealt with accordingly (presumably not in a positive manner)? If it is a warning, shouldn’t it be placed on a more overtly sexualised area of the body such as the breasts or groin? Perhaps if we pealed down the shirt we would move from vocabulary for “sex act” to “foreplay” to “let’s do it” in a “warm”, “warmer”, “hot” style format?
We can only speculate.
7. 中毒者 “addict”
Ok, so given the word “addict” has some badass cool vibes to it. But you’ve got to remember that different words in different languages have totally different nuances attached to them.
For example, the word 中毒者 chudokusya is made of the characters 中 “middle/inside, in between” 毒 “poison” and 者 “person/someone that does something”. So the word Chudokusya is perhaps closer in feel to “a person that is in the middle of poisoning him or herself” than it is to the word “addict”.
That’s a heavy load to have hanging around your head for life.
That being said, you do hear of reformed addicts of various substances that like to remind themselves regularly that the addict that was still, and always will, lurk within. This seems like a healthy self-awareness to maintain. But does that need to be the thing people see every time they look at your face (or more precisely, the upper side of your neck)?
That is a question only the person themself can answer.
8. 大英帝国 “The British Empire”
This kanji tattoo seems to take the “Canadian flag on your backpack” concept a little too far.
大英帝国 Daieiteikoku means “British Empire”, with all of the imperialism, colonialism, invasian and subjugation that implies. To write that in the script, Chinese, of one of the many countries to have been on the wrong side of the stick in regards to that imperialism, seems, shall we say, jolly insensitive, what?
Once again, we can guess that perhaps the tattooee was aiming at “Great Britain”? But even then, it takes a certain level of nationalism to tattoo your country name. Perhaps this would make sense if the person is, say, an Olympic athlete? But then, wouldn’t you want your comrades to read and be fully cognizant of your patriotism by writing it in your native script?
The most appropriate arm for this one would seem to be that of a ultra-nationalist bigot, determined to spread their message not only within their own language sphere, but that of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?
9. テキトーな日本語です “Any old Japanese letters”
Ok, so if tattooing your own name on your body seems a little “meta”, this tattoo tries to take that to the next level.
テキトーな日本語です means “Any old Japanese letters”.
In fact, the tattoo is structured as a complete sentence replete with connecting な and a です at the end, so perhaps a better translation would be “This is some random Japanese text”.
In this tattoos favor, it really calls a spade a spade in that it peels off every artifice of the Kanji tattoo to what it most essentially is; a bit of exotic script used predominantly for decorative purposes.
Look, the more I write about this tattoo the more I’m coming around to it. In fact, I think if we are going the whole “full-sentence meta-reference” then they really should have included the Japanese full stop at the end 。
Thankfully, the tattooist seems to have thought ahead here by leaving a little room between the palm and the wrist.
10. Badly drawn/executed Kanji tattoos
The number 10 spot on the list here is actually shared between three entrants. The three examples here are of Japanese lettering that, arguably, doesn’t have any glaring problems in their messaging but does pull up short on the execution. Who wants to live with bad handwriting for life?
This one aimed at 木、火、土、金、水 in their senses of “wood, fire, soil, metal, water”.
Unfortunately, it looks like the tattoo has been sketched into the skin with a jagged stone by a preschool child. The first Kanji failed to join up the two out-jutting lines that make up canopy in the character 木 for “tree/wood” meaning the character is closer to the Katakan letter ホ.
At least with that one, you can still basically make out what it is. A worse culprit lurks at character four of the five inscribed. What is presumably meant to be 金, meaning “metal” or “gold”, leaves out the two dots in the bottom half, meaning it actually says 全, meaning “complete” or “totally”.
In fact, it is lucky that the character without the dots at the bottom said “complete” rather than happening to be something like “dimwit”, “nincompoop” or “latrine”. Or indeed, “incomplete”, which would have actually been more accurate…
This one is a rendering of one of the most popular Chinese character tattoos 神 kami, meaning something like “deities, gods, spirits”. I translate this here as “gods” rather than “God” because Japan is, overwhelmingly, a polytheistic society where kami are believed to be in all things from trees to rocks to electric kettles.
It’s actually a rellay popular tattoo for people to get, up there with Japanese tattoos for love, the Japanese symbol for dream
The problems here, though, is not so much with the meaning as with the dot at the top of the character, as it is drawn here, which seems to have launched itself off from the rest of the pictograph to go flying off into the fleshy ether of the tattooee’s forearm. It’s almost as if someone had given the character a good old jolt from the side and the speckish swish at the God-head had fallen off.
Imagine walking around with a permanently dislodged pictograph on your arm. Imagine the neverending, excruciating urge to just reach over and push the little top-spot back into place. Imagine how you could just feel it jingle-jangle rattling around as you walked.
Oh hellishness of it, the ungodly hellishness of it…
These kanji feature one of the two alternative combinations that can be made to make a word commonly translated as “hero” in English.
Here it is 英勇 eiyuu, in the sense of a hero that is strong and courageous as opposed to a “hero of the people” which is more commonly seen and would be written as 英雄 eiyuu.
Once again, no issues here from a messaging perspective (although it’s certainly a hard tatt to live up to).
The problem here lies in the sloppy execution. Everything seems a little wonky. In fact, this is what a kanji tattoo would look like if I had written it.
The 勇 part of it, meaning courage or bravery, is hopelessly over proportioned in relation to the first character. It looks a bit like when you try to write a large heading across a big piece of paper and you get to the end and notice that you still have ⅓ of a page left to fill up and you try to make the letters take up more room to compensate.
I would suggest that it is best not to be heroic when doing your tattoo and go ahead and measure out the space that you have to write your Kanji characters.
Hopefully I haven’t been too harsh on any individual here. But if this post guides a few people on what not to do when looking for a kanji or hanzi tattoo, then that’s something. If you want to see some general guidelines on what I think works in Kanji tattoos
What should you watch out for when getting a Chinese Character tattoo?
- Make sure you know at least roughly what your Kanji tattoo means
- Check your kanji tattoo with a native speaker to make sure it is grammatically correct
- Don’t try and find Direct A=B equivalents between words in different languages. The Japanese symbol for faith for example will have very different connotation in the East than in the West.
- Remember that two, or more, Chinese characters placed side-by-side have different meaning a Chinese character by itself
- Don’t write from bottom to top – no one reads that way
- Don’t write something in Chinese characters because you are too afraid to write it in English
- Make sure the person that does the tattoo knows how to write Chinese Characters correctly