3 Rules of Chinese Character Tattoos
Chinese characters are among the fastest growing types of tattoos being chosen. However mistranslations and poorly executed pieces are two leading causes of tattoo removal. How do you make sure yours doesn’t become a permanent mistake? Follow the rules.
In contrast to the Western alphabet, Chinese calligraphy holds a rich frequently alluring symbolism. Motivational phrases, names and even poetry which would require larger areas if spelled out in a Latin based language can be compacted into just a few characters. Chinese calligraphy may be considered a form of semiotic art – with the additional appeal of exclusivity due to a relatively low fluency rate amongst many tattooed groups.
We were able to catch up with Joey Pang for her advice on Chinese calligraphy. For those of you unfamiliar with Joey – she is the only professional Chinese calligrapher who is also a tattoo artist. Renowned for her unique techniques that recreate the details of traditional brush stoke calligraphy – the vast majority of her clientele actually travel to Hong Kong for her artwork. And more often than not, those requesting Chinese calligraphy pieces are themselves Chinese. A fact that is in stark contrast with other studios around the world.
1) Speak Chinese.
If you’re writing or tattooing Chinese characters – you should be able to speak Chinese. A huge percentage of calligraphy tattoos that go wrong are down to the tattooist not being able to read the language. This is the absolute basic requirement of any artist offering character tattoos. Unlike divergent spelling in English – where ‘Krispy Kreme’ still conveys the same idea despite its technical inaccuracy – a single wrong stroke can result in an entirely different meaning. A quick image search yields a glut of pieces missing essential strokes, containing extra strokes along with characters tattooed in reverse or completely upside down. Even if you paid a professional translator for the right character – if the tattooist doesn’t speak the language then there is no way to guarantee the correct application. 侍(to serve / samurai) can easily become痔(hemorrhoid). If the tattoo artist does not speak Chinese, do not get a Chinese character tattoo from them.
2) Know calligraphy.
There are many different font types in English. Yet common Chinese font script cannot be called calligraphy. The same level of instant malleability of the Latin alphabet cannot be applied to Chinese characters. Being held in as high regard as painting, the life of Chinese calligraphy comes from the artists’ individual interpretation and unique movements. With thousands of years of cultural history, there are also a range of calligraphy styles that have developed throughout the dynasties. From the ‘seal’ style most commonly used in chops to the ‘running’ comparatively modern cursive script, each has distinct character-istics. For all calligraphy tattoos Joey first hand-writes the characters around one hundred times whilst considering the placement on the body as well as the requested style. Afterwards only the best are selected for the piece. And similar to tattooing, every stroke on paper or skin is permanent. The second rule is when commissioning a calligraphy piece go to an artist that has studied calligraphy.
3) Understand your request.
No one can decide what you like. Don’t allow a similar restriction to be imposed on your choice of body art. Joey has been asked to provide ‘meaningful quotes’, suggestions for ‘good’ characters and even open invitations to simply complete any character as a tattoo. Instead of choosing from a selection of potential characters understand what words are meaningful to you, in your native language, and then work with your artist on the best possible translation. Also understand that Chinese is different from Japanese. This has been a source of constant confusion for many. The two share a common ancestor but ‘kanji’ and Chinese are not the same.
Know what you want. Understand that for a real artist there are potentially infinite variations within calligraphy. Collaborate with them on how it should be done.
As the saying goes – ‘you wouldn’t go to a hardware store for a loaf of bread’. If you pick out a character and take it to the wrong artist; you’re set for a painful mistake. If you want Chinese calligraphy – choose the right artist to work with.
Special thanks to Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong & the Unique Living Art Organization Ltd.