The Complicated Relationship Between Culture and Tattoos

Credit: David Clifton

In the early nineties, it was as if all Westerners woke up and decided to have a Chinese symbol tattooed on their body. Perhaps this sudden trend owes credit to the dawn of the internet, where people could translate words like “hope” and “strength” into characters from both the Chinese and Japanese languages. Or maybe it was a lack of their own culture and identity that drove (mostly white) people into tattoo shops asking for a word in a language they’d never heard spoken aloud. The impetus of adopting cultures through tattoos is hard to pinpoint, but we do know many of these tattoos lead to regrets, arguments over cultural appropriation, and deeper conversations of what it means to be part of a group.

Tattoos are as important a monument to culture as sculpture, food, and language. The art of tattooing dates back to Ancient Egypt, where hand poked tattooing was born. In the context of culture, tattoos have been connected to religion or rites of passage, marks of criminality, or membership to an unseemly group. So when we think about how tattoo culture has spread across the globe through a long and complicated process, we must remember that the historical and cultural significance of a particular tattoo or symbol has likely been mangled or mishandled along the way.

Some are quick to label a white person with a Kanji tattoo, which is the Japanese writing of Chinese symbols, as an appropriation of culture, and in all likelihood it is. However, before we judge a person for their misguided tribute to a culture that’s not their own, intentionality is a consideration often overlooked. In January 2019, singer Ariana Grande debuted her newest tattoo. It was the Kanji symbols for “7 Rings”, the title of her latest album, or so she thought. Grande’s tattoo was quickly pointed out by Twitter and Reddit to mean “Japanese charcoal grill”. She poked fun at her mistake and had it fixed but, depending on who is reading it, the tattoo either says “Japanese BBQ grill finger” or “ring seven finger”. Grande had no idea that translations from English to Japanese are not literal and that the interpretation varies depending on the region.

In a conversation with Evan Stewart, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and the editor of Sociological Images, he expanded on the many blunders of cultural appropriation. “Many of the controversies I see with cultural appropriation happen when someone starts playing fast and loose with symbols that are really important to group identity or belonging. When someone gets a tattoo in another language that does not mean what they think it means—or is even just gibberish—people may laugh or get uncomfortable and angry, because it shows how that person has not necessarily done the work to build relationships with people in another culture.”

The gibberish Stewart points to is chronicled in the blog Hanzi Smatter, where people can send in their tattoos for translation — and are often told their tattoos are written in a faux-Japanese style that ultimately means nothing. One commenter noted they even asked someone at their local Chinese restaurant to translate or write out the tattoo they wanted prior to getting it or after it was complete, which is a common refrain from individuals who don’t speak Chinese or understand the alphabet but want a tattoo with it. Another said their friend got a tattoo and “has no idea what it means”. The translation turned out to be “toilet demon”.

Garbled meanings aside, getting a tattoo that’s linked to another culture has more significant implications. In Japan, tattoos were outlawed in 1868 through 1948, when an adviser of General Douglas MacArthur befriended a famous tattooer and used their influence to lift the ban on irezumi, the Japanese word for tattoo. But during the period when tattooing went underground, irezumi took on the reputation of criminality. To this day, tattoos are widely seen as taboo and, in some public spaces, visitors with visible tattoos are banned from entering. So when Westerners visit Japan with their kanji tattoos on display, they’re met with laughter and disgust from locals.

The method used to create these tattoos is as important, if not more, than their meanings and is often removed from the conversation entirely. Due to the proliferation and appropriation of Samoan tattoos, there is a global effort to safeguard the tradition and knowledge of their ritual. In the Pacific Islands, the tatau (tattoo) is “performed as a rite of passage to adulthood,” and is a symbol of one’s heritage. These tattoos are performed by specialists known as tufuga who are members of a hierarchy of tattooing families, each with distinctive trademarks, and the process is often spread over the course of a few days. As more non-Samoans perform and get the tatau, the Samoa state claims that all intellectual property rights over “all aspects of tatau” must be granted to the tufuga. This would give them the right to decide who can perform the ritual and use their trademark symbols. Similarly, in Japan, irezumi is part of a time-consuming ritual that requires a special ink, zumi, and wooden handles with needles attached by silk thread. Having one done with a tattoo machine means it loses its cultural significance.

The effort of Samoans to safeguard their culture brings to light an important question: who gets to decide whether a person can be part of a particular culture or group? According to Dr. Tricia Wolanin, a clinical psychologist, people who get tatau or irezumi do so because “there is a longing for that connection to exist. Getting a tattoo that is tribal could, for some, be trendy, but I think the impetus lies deeper than that. People align to the principles of what the symbol and culture underneath it stand for.” With the definition for everything in arm’s reach, thanks to the internet, those looking for something to latch on to can quickly find symbols or words of a philosophy with which they identify, without having to study the texts for years.

But an internet search in a particular culture, philosophy, or religion is limiting and that is where misuse happens. On Reddit, a person posed the question: “Are tattoos of chakra symbols offensive?” The person resonated with one symbol but before having it tattooed, they asked the question. And, despite their due diligence and willingness to learn more, they were quickly accused of cultural appropriation. One response, from someone who identified as a liberal-leaning Hindu, said “there are bits about cultural appropriation that really annoy me. Stuff like getting Sanskrit or Chinese or religious symbols tattooed on you because they ‘look cool’ without trying to understand its meaning.” When you consider this person was asking permission rather than forgiveness, the response could be seen as over-the-top. Stewart suggests that someone wary of cultural appropriation should ask themselves what the symbol tells others about their relationships and the groups they belong to, whether that message is true and whether others will interpret the message in the same way.

Tattoo artists also find themselves at odds when confronted with cultural symbolism. Whitney Marie Donohue, a tattoo artist at Rise Again Tattoo in Billings, MT, is not always able to follow “the customer is always right” mantra. She says, “I can only control myself when it comes to being respectful to other cultures. For example, I don’t do Koi fish tattoos. I don’t have enough knowledge about the history behind Japanese tattoos and understand it’s important to make sure I stay respectful in regards to that old art and the history behind it. Until I’m satisfied I’ve learned enough in that area, I won’t do them.” On the other hand some artists, like Penelope Tentakles, from Melbourne, Australia, aren’t opposed to culturally-linked tattoos, regardless of their own knowledge. “There’s a huge amount of traditional tattoo material that is borrowed from various cultures and there are various reasons why people would want it,” Tentakles explains. For many artists, it comes to context. Does the symbol currently mean something offensive?

Despite attacks of cultural appropriation and people having tattoos whose meanings are unknown, it does not appear they’re willing to part with them. Of the artists interviewed for this piece, all noted that they’ve been asked to cover up tattoos as a matter of routine, but not because of an inaccurate meaning or lack of connection to the culture. These cover-ups are done more because the art is not great or has faded, or they simply changed their mind.

As with other choices we make, what we tattoo on our bodies is a visible expression of the type of person we are. So, when we cannot back up those symbols with our actions — or when the symbols are misunderstood or incorrect — it’s worth keeping in mind that how we’re viewed in the world might not align with who we are internally.

Related: 13 Important Things to Know Before Getting a Tattoo

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