Tattoos are pretty cool but there’s one simple thing you should know before you get one: don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t speak. Seriously, either don’t do it at all or take your time and learn the language before you put something permanent on your body. Because if you don’t, one day you might find out that your Chinese “faith” tattoo actually translates to “soup”.
Someone on Reddit recently asked fluent Chinese/Japanese speakers to share the dumbest things they saw tattooed on someone and the answers really highlight the importance of learning the language before you get inked. Check out the most ridiculous things Chinese/Japanese speakers saw tattooed on people in the gallery below!
I (27F don’t understand Chinese/Japanese) have the characters for “Strawberry” on my shoulder. Was at a gym changing and gal 1 who could read the language says “Oh! Strawberry! I love your tattoo”. I explained why I had gotten the tattoo (long story involving strawberries) and gal 2 overheard our conversation. Gal 2 says “I have a tattoo that means “wisdom” and shows us; gal 1 says “… that says Turtle”.
Edit: here is the story behind the tattoo! My grandmother passed away of bone and lung cancer in 2010. I bought frozen strawberries a few weeks later to make smoothies in the morning, and the smell of those frozen strawberries transported me back to my childhood when I would eat frozen strawberries from her freezer. She used to pick SO many and make jam etc etc but I would pick strawberries to snack on instead of ice cream.
After she had passed I decided to get a tattoo, and was thinking of a strawberry with ice crystals around it or something. I went for (American) Chinese food with friends and was telling them about my tattoo idea. When it came time to break our cookies and read our fortunes mine read “to remember is to understand” which I thought was cool, had been remembering and thinking of my grandmother over the last month or so since she had passed. When I turned over the fortune, the “chinese word” was strawberry.
I’ve never seen 6 people turn white so quickly.
I decided to get the chinese symbols for strawberry that day, and I still have the fortune in a special box at home.
Saw a pretty tatted up guy one day with some Chinese markings on his forearm, asked him what they meant and he said “just a bunch of random Chinese letters”, to which I inquired, “which ones?” and he corrected me, saying “no, it says – “just a bunch of random Chinese letters”
Thought it was pretty slick
Guy had “変態外人” on his arm, said it meant “Lover of Asian Beauty” when in fact it means “Foreign Pervert”
Friend of a friend- wanted a tattoo that said “Bad Ass”. It translated to “ evil butt”.
My uncle has “Egg Drop Soup” tattooed on his wrist in Mandarin. He tells everyone it means something different (strength, destiny, etc.) but he got it so that he can go to the Chinese place when he is super hungover. He wears shades and noise-cancelling headphones, points to his wrist and is able to stay in his happy place while getting his favorite hangover meal. And yes, he was hungover when he got the tattoo.
The four elements tattoo with “Dirt, hot, blow, wet” was pretty funny.
Took Mandarin in high school. My teacher told us about a woman who had a tattoo of the word “免费”–probably thinking it meant “free” as in “free-spirited”–but it actually means “free” as in “no cost.”
Not my story but a friend of mine:
She could read kanji and was in class one day noticing this girl’s tattoo for the first time. Confused she inquired about it:
“What does your tattoo say?”
Turns out it actually said pig princess.
Learning Japanese, but I saw someone bragging about a tattoo on their wrist in public being ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’. It was in katakana, which I can read, so I carefully glance at it as I walk by.
It was ‘ケロ’. As in ‘kero’.
That’s the sound a frog makes. They just tattooed ‘ribbit’ onto their wrist.
My mom is from Japan, and she used to point out tattoos to me all the time. I don’t speak Japanese myself, so I can’t give the exact translations or characters.
She told me one of the biggest mistakes people make is when they pair two characters together, without checking what the characters mean as a group. They assume that the characters maintain their original meanings no matter what’s alongside them.
There are two examples I remember really clearly:
(1) a woman with characters like “sexy” and “woman”. What it actually said was whore house.
(2) a dude with “sex” and “freak” on his chest, which actually meant something along the lines of predator or pervert.
She’d see the tattoos and just immediately start giggling. Memories. :,)
I met a girl when I was backpacking in China who knowingly had the characters for “prostitute” tattooed on her hip – she thought it was funny, and the only people who saw it would be ones she chose to show it to.
The Chinese guy who was drinking with us in the hostel was horrified, and suggested that she get another tattoo underneath which said “only joking”.
I’m half Japanese.
Saw a guy with 田力 tattoo going down his arm. He probably wanted 男 (boy/man)…I’m guessing.
田力 translates to Rice field power. Rice field power.
Dude was so proud of his grandson that he had a tattoo that said “I love my grandson”
Except I’m guessing everyone just googled “I love my grand son” because it came out reading “I love fat boys.”
I have the characters for Shrimp Dumpling (Har Gow) tattooed on me. I knowingly did this, because I’m half Chinese and [friggin] love shrimp dumplings.
I had a chinese girl ask me if I knew what it meant and I laughed and said of course, I love dumplings.
My chinese mother was not impressed but then laughed and said it was very me.
Young white people getting tattoos of Asian symbols
Young white people getting tattoos of Asian symbols that they think they know the meaning of, but really don’t. White guy who speaks Chinese here. I’ve perfected the tactful question: “what does your tattoo mean to you?”
A sample of the tattoos I’ve actually seen on real people:
真实 – “authentic/actual.” Dude’s response “keep it real.”
演 – “perform.” person’s response: “dragon.”
操 – “f**k.” Person’s response: “beauty.”
混蛋 – “moron.” Person’s response: “it’s my name in Chinese.”
鸡 – literally “chicken,” but figuratively “hooker/prostitute.” Person’s response: beautiful woman.
富达而立克 – “Frederick.” Person’s response “It’s my name.” Me: “Fred?” Him: “what?”
生命 – “living/biological.” Person’s response: “Destiny.”
能 – “to be able to.” Pronounced “nung.” The person thought it was 龍 – “dragon.” Pronounced “lung.”
…and my personal favorite:
我从来没有毕业高中 – “I never graduated high school.”
While stationed in Japan a friend got a tattoo by some random guy outside of base, he wanted some Shinto quote for a prosperous life but instead got the kanji reading something like “fat fish eat long” the Japanese workers just called him fat fish for the next 3 years… it caught on life fire even random people from other commands knew his nickname
It wasn’t a tatoo, but I knew a girl who stitched some japanese symbols onto her bathrobe “just because they looked pretty”.
Translation was “Tokyo fire department”
A work colleague (now long term friend) had ‘pom pooey’ tattooed on his shoulder. He had been to Thailand and the locals nick-named him pom pooey and said it meant happy fat man (he was fat, he was happy, lovely man). He did not know how to spell it (or even say it correctly?) but, 20 years later, he still loves that tattoo.
I speak Mandarin, and it works both ways. Here’s one in reverse. On the beach in Taiwan I saw a huge – and I mean huge, ripped Taiwanese guy walking on the beach in Hualien with his girlfriend. On his back in black gothic letters, flanked by swords, was the phrase: “Sl*t Dude”. Told him it was an interesting choice in tattoo….store behind it? Turned out he thought he was getting a tattoo that said “Swordsman”. When he found out what it actually said, well…wouldn’t want to be that artist.
I saw someone with the characters for “Big” and “Father” and figured it was like, an approximation of Big Daddy. The guy got really agitated with me and told me it was Chinese for “eternal wealth”.
I knew a guy who thought he had “warrior” tattooed on his arm but another friend informed me actually read “drunk arsehole”.
He was an arsehole, and often drunk, so I chose to believe this.
I knew a guy who had a full on ‘Yakuza’ style tattoo done before he was 20 with the intention of going to Japan to show it off and ‘join the Yakuza’.
No idea if he’s still alive, but he was always a moron.
A friend of mine has a leg tattoo that says: 我看不懂汉字 Which basically translates as ‘I can’t read Chinese’ It gets a lot of attention in the summer. *we both live in China.
Japanese speaker here. Guy had one that read “トン勝” Someone told him that トン (Ton) means pig and 勝 (katsu) means to win. He thought that putting them together means to win against pigs (police?) とんかつ Tonkatsu means pork cutlet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
A friend of mine did a tattoo he thought it was faith but in reality was soup
Poor girl thought is was “faith” or something stupid.
I didn’t see it myself, but two coworkers of mine were laughing their asses off after coming back from lunch one day, saying they had seen a woman with a (I assume Chinese) tattoo that translated to “Not a Tattoo.”
Once when I was in university, working at a shop, a very fat lady came in with the kanji for “large” tattooed on her shoulder blade. I politely complimented her tattoo and asked what it meant. She said it meant “sassy”.
Very recently I saw someone with the Chinese sign for “Infected” tattooed. Like what is that even supposed to mean lol
Seen a few over the years but one that I remember most was when I first started learning Mandarin.
The guy had a tattoo on the back of his leg that proudly said 牛肉 which means beef