Beauty and bonehead tats are only skin deep.

We’ve all seen it.

The person thinking he’s uber cool with his tattoo in Chinese characters.

To appreciate the hilarity of hanzai (one of my most favorite sites in the whole wide Web), it’s helpful to know the tiniest basic in Chinese/Japanese.

Think of the language as hieroglyphics. Pictographs. Each (Japanese) kanji character, called a radical, has a pictorial history (with origins in China). Unlike Western language, which is linear phonetics, Chinese and Japanese are visual, conceptual and poetic.

To briefly illustrate, let’s take the very common sound of “ko.”

The single “ko” is communicated by a vast number of radicals. Here are eight. Remember, each is “ko.” Each has a different meaning (indicated in caption).

ko - child

ko - come, due, next, become, cause

ko - door

ko - harden, clot, curdle

ko - lake

ko - old

ko - self, snake, serpent

ko - warehouse, storehouse

So you can see that the selection of the proper kanji is essential in writing and selecting tats.

Go for the cool and/or don’t do your homework and/or pick a dolt tattooist and you may end up, deservedly, with “warehouse” or “curdle” instead of “child” inked on the bicep.

You end up with nonsense. Tats with no meaning. Tats with bizarre meaning.

You end up with, well, plentiful fodder for Hanzi Smatter: Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.

The guy behind hanzismatter fields submissions of photos and requests for deciphering and translation of tats. He responds with linguistic mastery, aplomb and wit.

Ever reminding that stupid is as stupid does:

1. A friend got me this tattoo years ago and I was told it meant “fear no man.” Being young and dumb as most 18 year olds are, I didn’t bother to make sure. Now after looking into it a little more, I’m not sure what it is. Please help!!

棺材ィミ– means “coffin man.”

However, the middle character of 木見才 or 木貝才 does not exist in Chinese character list.

2. Can you please tell me what this means. My brother got this last week and is an idiot.

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.”

3. I was reading your blog- I love it! My father got this tattoo and he won’t tell anyone what it means. It’s been rumored to mean “man with many blessings” or “man with a big stick.” Can you tell me what it really means?

The characters 永 & 石 mean “eternal” and “rock/stone.” Of course, the tattooed phrase is non-sense. However, it is very likely the person got this wanted to “rock forever” if he was into the music scene, or “[to be] stone forever” as a junkie. As many modern day rock stars are both.

4. I have a friend from work who has a tattoo on his arm. Since I knew about your blog I tried taking a pic of it & check with you if he really knows the meaning of what he has or not. He said it’s written in Chinese and it says something like “there’s nothing like mom.” Thanks a lot & love your blog.


The first character does not exist in written Chinese. However, there is one character only exists in written Cantonese, which means “not have.” Of course, that is not what has been tattooed here.

Tattoo does not mean “there is nothing like mom,” rather “not have the likeness of my mother.”

5. One of my coworkers has this tattoo on her wrist which she had done in Bali. She thinks it says the following:

1. live your dreams (Thailand)
2. just fucking dance (China)
3. let nature take its course (Burma)
4. actions/protest (Bali)

Your thoughts?

for hanzismatter

顺其自然, without that extra piece in the middle, would mean “to let nature take its course.”

Besides the terrible calligraphy, what a group of hodgepodge text.

6. Alan spotted this photo in BME’s Kanji tattoo gallery:

Despite the great calligraphy (calligraphy as in fancy artistic penmanship), there is a huge typo on this person’s torso.

Bushido, the way of the warrior in Japanese is written as 武士道, not with in the middle. itself means samurai or warrior, but 武侍道 makes no sense in Japanese. Especially considering Bushido is a Japanese concept.

“Bullshitdo,” the way of bullshit, would be more fitting.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. longeyesamurai
    Mar 30, 2011 @ 03:48:05

    “Bullshitdo” I meet people who are black belts in that “art” every day. And is it just me or this guy’s torso seems unnaturally long?


  2. Invictus
    Mar 30, 2011 @ 09:24:48

    Anybody know the kanji characters for “This space for rent”?


  3. inaformerlifeanexpat
    Mar 31, 2011 @ 02:56:55

    I have seen tattoed nonsensse too, what a larf!


    • allycatadventures
      Mar 31, 2011 @ 13:16:10

      @Expat – Ain’t it! I’ve approached guys with kanji tats (why’s it almost always guys with ’em?!) and asked what it means. “Uh, that’s my kid’s name.” Not in katakana but in phoenetic kanji and they’re clueless what the kanji means! I’m always reminded of the controversy in Japan that erupted when a couple wanted to name their son “Akuma” (devil, demon) and the plentiful discussions that ensued about parental abuse and so on. Never did find out what the final determination was but my guess is that the couple backed down under a ministry’s advisement. And the kid’s probably now Taro!


  4. fotografzahl
    Apr 04, 2011 @ 02:55:37

    We’ve had this period in Germany, too:
    In summer you see Chinese characters everywhere…
    There is a German tattoo internet forum and sometimes people show a photo of their tattoo there. I’d say that it turns out that there is a mistake in at least 90% of the kanji tats shown…

    For about two years we have had a new tattoo trend in Germany:
    Arabic symbols…
    In the forum I mentioned above there is a user who really knows these symbols. And alas, there is practically always a mistake in those tats shown, too…

    So there are at least two reasons why I have no such tats on me (I prefer images as a tattoo):
    1) It is a trend/fashion
    2) You don’t know what you really get – I just imagine someone having the symbols for “Duck sweet-sour, baked” on them… But wait – actually, _that_ would be cool. 😉

    Now for something completely different:
    You wanted to know what the pink object was in that photo on my blog:
    It’s a tulip…


    • allycatadventures
      Apr 04, 2011 @ 13:50:57

      @fotografzahl – Ahhhh, a tulip!!! They mystery’s revealed! Thanks for that and commenting on the tats. The preponderance of bonehead Arabic tats surprises not at all. My view is if you’re dumb enough to put the cool factor ahead of accuracy, you’re dumb enough to live with the result!


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