We all know Chinese tats are trendy, and we have probably met someone who tells us he can't read the characters on his arm but love the meaning: "It means 'peace', something I want more of in my life." But non-Chinese speakers beware, your "faith" and "courage" could get lost in translation if you're getting inked in a language that you don't speak fluently.
Chinese San Gabriel Valley residents have recently noticed some hilarious or awkward tattoo mistakes, Annie Zhang reports in World Journal（世界日报). Chinese characters often have more than one meaning, resulting in people permanently labeling themselves with words much different than what they intended.
Alhambra resident Ms. Zhang did a doubletake when she saw a young Latino man at a concert with the Chinese word for “gas” tattooed on his arm. The man told Zhang that his uncle had first gotten the tattoo. He thought it looked cool on him, so he got it too. Zhang told World Journal that the man was embarrassed when she told him what the tattoo meant. We're all a little embarrassed when we have gas.
Mr. Xu was shocked when he spotted a Chinese tattoo on a female colleague's leg that means “chicken", but is also used to refer to a prostitute. His colleague said that her Chinese zodiac sign is a chicken and she thought the tattoo represented her well. Xu did not tell her the awkward truth.
Cal State Northridge student Ms. Shen had a Latino classmate with “my sister” in Chinese on his arm, which has recently been used by some Chinese young people as a curse word. Shen learned after asking another classmate that he had a little sister who passed away several years ago, and he used the tattoo to remember her.
According to Mr. Yao, a tattoo artist in Alhambra, young people are trying to be different and creative with their Chinese tattoos, resulting in some strange choices and mistranslations. Yao said that a white man asked him to translate and tattoo “white trash” to show his dissatisfaction with the inequality in society. No better way to protest economic divides.
Areas with a high number of tattoo parlors often don't have any Chinese-speaking employees. So when patrons ask for Chinese character tattoos, the artist can only use online translations and templates. Yao said that a customer wanted to tattoo “sexy” and “poison” on his left and right hands, but the translation turned out to be “sex” and “disease” in Chinese characters, which could mean “sexual transmitted disease.” That "gas" tattoo isn't looking so bad now.
A version of this article originally ran in World Journal.