SOCIETY

Botched in translation

NANCY MACDONALD August 7 2006
SOCIETY

Botched in translation

NANCY MACDONALD August 7 2006

Botched in translation

SOCIETY

With Asian characters, it’s often the blind tattooing the blind

NANCY MACDONALD

Yao Ming of the NBA’s Houston Rockets must wonder why the Indiana Pacers’ Marquis Daniels has “Healthy Woman Roof” tattooed on his forearm. Or why the Phoenix Suns’ Shawn Marion chose “Demon Bird Mothballs” for his right calf. He’s probably most confused, however, by Marcus Camby. A big fan of kung fu movies, the Denver Nuggets’ centre thought the Chinese lettering looked sweet. But to some Chinese speakers Camby’s tattoo looks like gibberish.

It’s not just basketball players. Kanji and hanzi tattoos (that is, written in Japanese and Chinese characters) are as trendy as the tribal armbands of the late 1990s or the butterflies and dolphins of the ’80s. But all too often it’s been like the blind tattooing the blind, as few artists are familiar with Asian languages—not to mention the semantic sensitivity of a single mis-stroke. Reproducing the lettering from books or photocopied templates, they often string together characters that garble the meaning. “One Love” becomes “Love Hurts,” or, in the case of a distraught Britney Spears, “Mysterious” effectively reads “Strange.” Tian Tang, whose popular blog tracks the misuse of Asian script in tattoos and elsewhere, has seen worse— notably, the tattoo of an American woman (presumably the target of a prankster) that read, “Crazy Diarrhea.”

Tang’s blog, Hanzismatter.com, came about by accident. On a road trip through New Mexico, he spotted a Mitsubishi Mirage, on which someone had added lettering identifying it as a Honda Prelude. Laughing, he and his friend snapped a photo—the first, it turned out, of many. And since Tang launched his site in 2004, pictures (most from Americans curious about the meaning of their tattoos) have been pouring in (the site gets 2,500 hits daily), as Tang and his team of amateur linguists analyze the malapropisms, to often hilarious results.

6ix Acheson, of Vancouver’s Twin Villain Tattoo and Gallery, has heard the horror stories—such as the one about the B.C. girl who wanted “Love” but ended up with “Toilet.” Acheson thinks accuracy is a responsibility shared equally by client and artist. “Even if the client comes in carrying a drawing,” he says, “the shop shouldn’t just blast it on.”

Twin Villain recently tattooed a Confucian quote across a client’s back. “It was 20 lines deep, and took us about 40 hours,” Acheson says. “Before we started, we told him: ‘You have to get it translated.’ When he came back to the shop, we said, ‘go and check your sources again.’ Then, when we stencilled it out on his back, we triple-checked it against the text he’d provided. And the artist who applied it checked it again.”

Thomas Lockhart, of Vancouver’s West Coast Tattoo parlour, one of the country’s oldest shops (they’ve been at it since the ’50s, when tattoos were the domain of sailors and toughs), also takes precautions to protect his clientele. He buys his templates in Japan, which he’s visited a half-dozen times, avoiding books whose sources are unknown. Lockhart dates the kanji fad to the mid1990s, when all things Eastern, from feng shui to yoga, became mainstream. Many tattoo artists now keep templates on hand, and

ONE B.C. GIRL GOT ‘TOILET’ INSTEAD OF ‘LOVE.’ BRITNEY WANTED ‘MYSTERIOUS’ BUT GOT ‘STRANGE.’

see Asian tattoos as their most generic, along with astrological symbols. They’re among the cheapest that the parlours offer; often, they’re an impulse choice, particularly among women.

To Tang, who left China as a young teenager, this reeks of the American penchant for instant gratification—another example of a culture that likes its food fast, and its news summed up in a line. “Young people, they just pick a design, or they’ll go to a Chinese restaurant and get someone to write something down,” he says. “They just think a character from a Chinese language is a pretty picture. They don’t understand, or care, that there’s actual meaning attached to it.” The breezy appropriation of Asian iconography Tang describes is like a modern take on 18th-century chinoiserie, a popular design style that romanticized Chinese, or, more accurately, pseudo-Chinese motifs.

But the horror stories are having an impact, even if cultural sensitivity is not. Before getting his “Love” tattoo, Chicago Bulls cen-

tre Tyson Chandler double-checked the design with Yao Ming. For some, however, it’s too late. “Unfortunately, it’s a buyer-beware market,” cautions Dr. Gerald Boey of Vancouver’s Arbutus Laser Centre, a specialist in tattoo removal, noting that about 20 per cent of those with tattoos are considering removal. So do your homework—or risk being saddled with something a little more permanent than buyer’s remorse. M