Why You Shouldn’t Get Chinese Script Tattoos (If You Can’t Read Them)

Why You Shouldn’t Get Chinese Script Tattoos (If You Can’t Read Them)

Chinese characters are beautiful. That’s perhaps why many Westerners find the notion of the script etched on their bodies so appealing. If only they could read the tattoos!

Enter blog Hanzi Smatter. For years now, the site, which is run by a blogger named Tian, has been helping readers decipher the meaning of Chinese (or Japanese*) language items they send in.

*Note that the Japanese language uses adopted Chinese script, which is called “kanji.”

Perhaps the best service Hanzi Smatter does is translating people’s ink and explains how the tattoos often either misuse characters or are completely wrong. The result is some truly odd body art.

Let’s have a look:

Amy writes: “My friend just got this tattoo but he won’t tell any of us what it means. I’m beginning to think it’s just gibberish after seeing all of the older posts. Any help is appreciated!”

Hanzi Smatter replies that the tattoo is a grammatically incorrect translation based on, perhaps, Google Translate. The arms read, “Destroy / Them / Total” and “Let / Deity / Organise / Them.” More like “Destroy Chinese Grammar!”

Daryn writes: “[Here] is my sister’s new tattoo, it is supposed to be both of her daughters initials (ESO and EGO in English). But what are we really looking at?”

Hanzi Smatter replies: “所, place 狗, dog

place dog, dog place?” 🙁

Collin writes: “My friend asked me to find out what she’s had tattooed on her shoulder since her teens. Can you translate it or identify it as junk?”

Hanzi Smatter replies that the character appears to be “大過“, which means “serious error; gross mistake.” Ain’t that the truth.

Philippa writes: “Hello, My boyfriend got this tattoo a while ago, he initially thought it meant ‘freedom.’ After a trip overseas we had a strange interaction with a tourist after he saw it- but he was unable to tell us what it meant.. Are unable to help us?!”

Hanzi Smatter replies that the tattoo “無料” means “free” as in “no charge.” Hopefully that’s the price paid for this ink.

Angel writes: “my girlfriend has this tattoo and she thinks it says friendship. can you confirm this thank you.”

Hanzi Smatter replies that “” means “bad looking; shame; ugly; unclean.” 🙁

Amanda writes: “My brother recently got a tattoo that he believe translates to ‘fast and furious.’ Is this the case at all?”

Hanzi Smatter replies, “Yes, it does say “fast” and “foolish“. Sums up those movies rather well, no?

Tom writes: “Can you please tell me what this means. My brother got this last week and is an idiot.”

Hanzi Smatter replies, “自律 means “autonomy” and 樂 means “joy”. However due to the location of the tattoo, one can make a cheeky remark of this young man is “taking care of business himself.'” So…it’s not a mistake, then?

There’s much more on Hanzi Smatter. Check out the link below (via Laughing Squid), and if you have one, send in your tattoo request!

And if you are thinking of a Chinese or Japanese language tattoo and don’t know either lingo, might I suggest English? Though, I’ve seen that misused in tattoos, too. How about a big-arse falcon? You can’t screw that up.

Hanzi Smatter [Official Site via TimIsHungry via Laughing Squid]

Photo: Shutterstock

To contact the author of this post, write to bashcraftATkotaku.com or find him on Twitter @Brian_Ashcraft.

Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.


  • The arms read, “Destroy / Them / Total” and “Let / Deity / Organise / Them.”

    This would be a loose translation on a quote attributed to papal nuncio Arnaud Amalric during the crusades: “Kill them all, let god sort them out” referring to the population of Béziers following a query as to the risk of killing orthodox Catholics along with the “heretics”. The actual quote is “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius”, which if translated properly would read “Kill them. For the Lord knew those who are his own”

  • Sheldon: Why do you have the Chinese character for soup tattooed on your right buttock?

    Penny: It’s not soup, it’s courage.

    Sheldon: No, it isn’t. But I suppose it does take courage to demonstrate that kind of commitment to soup.

  • The one on the woman in the pink top is clearly a knight in armour kneeling down to pick up a giant jalapeno (or maybe elephant tusk)

  • The problem is they can often be read multiple ways……for example the characters tenchu and chaos when together can mean heavens wrath!

    I think it best for the inked to tell the story and not be to caught up in actual meanings

    • Uh no, Tenchu on it’s own translates to heavens wrath, or more correctly as divine retribution, adding chaos ruins the context of the word. You wouldn’t even read it as divine retribution chaos which would be twice the characters to achieve

      • And this is why I don’t want people telling me this shit, thanks man…i think I’ll stick to my story

    • Best let the inked tell the story? lol, and what happens when those being told the story can actually read the characters? There’s a reason why this article exists and why a lot of people shy away from Chinese characters. I once saw a man have the words to the effect of “Daddy’s little girl” (in Chinese as opposed to Japanese) on his forearm. While the sentence was correct, I was thrown off as to why HE had it on his forearm. If he wanted to be reminded of his daughter, there are plenty of better phrases.

      • I’ve heard plenty of stories that I have known to be inaccurate but I’m not gonna be douche and point it out!

        and all my tattoos have stories.

        • Nema I don’t understand your logic…it’s a grammatical/translation mistake, not an exaggerated story. Some grossly misspelled English language tattoo would not be “ok” just because the original idea was cool, would it? By your reasoning, I could get “idiot” tattooed on me and just tell people “oh it means AWESOME to me, so don’t correct me!” haha.

          • If the country was non-English speaking and I saw someone telling a story to others but it was inaccurate then let it be and no I wouldn’t point it out. Ignorance is bliss…….ok say I got a tatt after my halo clan “tenchu chaos” and now I found out it actually only says tenchu, I’m still gonna tell ppl it means “tenchu chaos” after my clan regardless what it really means grammer or what Eva. And yeah don’t correct me!

      • Heh. Wow. Good rule of thumb: If someone who speaks the language translates it and you wouldn’t wear it on a t-shirt, you probably shouldn’t put it on your skin.

  • First off if you want a Hanzi/Kanji tattoo and you don’t speak Chinese or Japanese, then your just an idiot asking for trouble. Why not get a tattoo that actually means something to you when you see it?

    Also, this being especially true in this part of the world, the populations of Aus and NZ are like 10-15% Chinese/Japanese, you probably already know some! Why not go ask one of them their opinion first?

  • I’ve always found the best reason not to get a Chinese script tattoo, is that I’m not a douche bag that appropriates other peoples culture in a racist way.

  • “place dog”.. maybe he was going for 狗窝 “gou wu”.. “dog house”?

    I dunno.. there are some really terrible ones around… then again, there are some really terrible English t-shirts in China as well.. though admittedly it isn’t as bad a “permanent” tattoo 🙂

  • From the translations I see next to those pictures, it appears to me that Hanzi Smatter is translating word for word and not the entire meaning of it…

    For example, the very first tattoo is slightly grammatically incorrect, but the general meaning of it was pretty much picked up by @allanon1010

    The one I have the biggest issue with is the 4th image, it does not mean free or no charge at all!!
    Each of those individual words mean ‘None/Don’t have’ and ‘Material’. But the actual meaning behind it is usually interpreted as ‘bored’ or is used to describe someone’s comment/remark as ‘stupid/silly’

  • Don’t you hate it when facts (aka ‘shit’, apparently) get in the way of some fantasy scenario inside your head?
    Assigning a personal interpretation to the ‘My Little Pony’ on your forehead is just fine but words have inate meaning and trivialising this because they’re not words in your language is exceedingly ignorant.

    I can only assume that every bogan with a Southern Cross tat has a unique, rich and enlightening tale behind it.

  • I remember being down the local shops once when I was younger, and this girl came in from the tattoo shop, with a bandage over her wrist. The shopkeeper asked him what she’d gotten done, she took off the bandage to show the character 力 (I don’t know the Chinese pronunciation but it’s “chikara” in Japanese, meaning power/force/strength), and proudly said “it means ‘power’, isn’t it cool???”. He had this bemused look on his face and said “oh, that’s… interesting…”. He was Chinese.

  • Yeah, it’s pretty stupid getting a tattoo of something you don’t know what the meaning is. That is why you do plenty of research on what you want before getting it done.

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