Survey says…

Last night, I was looking around on the internet while thinking about a Hebrew tattoo I have wanted for a few years now. I happened upon a forum on a certain site where some poor soul had asked for the correct Hebrew spelling of a saying. He was then thoroughly raked over the coals by a few members who felt he had no business getting a tattoo in a language he could not speak and had no ties to.

It seems that this is forever a hot topic, particularly when you see so many celebrities getting misspelled tattoos (I’m looking at you David Beckham) because they really don’t understand the language. Our friend Tian over at Hanzi Smatter has a blog devoted to those hapless individuals who have attempted to get Kanji tattoos to represent certain ideas and wound up with a whole other meaning altogether.

While I feel my connections to both Hebrew and my Latin tattoo (“carpe diem” – I’m an English major, shush) are fairly solid, I’m also not sure where I stand on the argument that a person should have actual ties to the language if they’re going to permanently ink it into their flesh.

So, I turn to you dear reader and ask the following, should people only get tattoos in a language that they have a personal connection with and understanding of, or is it simply enough to enjoy the way it looks or what it represents (particularly in the case of Kanji)? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers so let’s play nice while we debate this!

This “memento mori” piece was sent to us by Chad who was inked by Timpac over at Forever Tattoo in Sacramento.


Memento Mori - Remember your mortality

49 thoughts on “Survey says…

  1. I think that just liking the meaning of a language tattoo is sufficient for getting said tattoo. However, I also think that if it’s going to be on your skin permanently, you should really do your research and be good and sure it means what you think it does.

  2. I think that’s part of the obnoxious “holier than thou” attitude that runs rampant in the mod community (and pretty much every other community, ever).

  3. I really like Latin tattoos. I suppose they don’t quite fit into the same category as say, someone who doesn’t speak or know anything about the Japanese language getting a Japanese tattoo.

    BUT, it was a nice lettering tattoo so I figured I’d use it with this post. :)

  4. Well, I am one of those individuals who have gotten kanji tattoos without any real ties to Japan and the language of Japanese, aside from a general interest. I think it comes down to how one goes about ensuring that what one does get in another language is accurate. I’m sorry, but I have no sympathies for those morons who get a piece of flash off the wall and simply assume it says what it claims to say and then finds out that its wrong. Do a little research for accuracy if you’re going to get something done in another language.

    Getting a tattoo with cultural meanings that have nothing to do with your own culture, on the other hand, I think is a completely different (but related) issue and there I think one has a lot more room to condemn it.

  5. As a Pole, I’m really tired of all these wrong spelled or even worse translated or even non-existent mottos whatsoever in foreign languages i.e. Latin or Chinese (very popular to-get-a-tattoo-in languages).
    And every time I see polish words tattooed it makes me smile, as not only we have language that’s really nice visually (what I find very importand when it’s about tattoing), but it’s sounds nicely, ands above all – it’s my mothertongue:)

  6. Amanda – What is? For the record, this poor soul who was lambasted on another site was not on a body modification site at all but a site for people who like languages.

    Vampyremage – Definitely marching into different territory when it’s something inherently cultural.

    I was actually kind of surprised at how angry some people were about this person asking for a Hebrew translation so that’s why I brought the question to this blog. I’m curious if others feel the same way. At least this person was asking because they wanted to make sure it was right!

    I don’t really have a problem with it as long as the person actually makes the effort to ensure that the word or phrase is correct. Sometimes I wonder about people’s motivations though I suppose when you get right down to it, if they’re happy that’s all that matters. Doesn’t hurt to discuss it though! :)

  7. why not get one of a different language. tattoos are ment to be what you want them to be and not worry what others think about it. If we are to stick to our own culture then that would really limit the ink that one can get. If it makes you happy and you enjoy whats going to be on you for life then get it. Its your body to do what you want with. lets not put limits on ones self when thats what body modification is about pushing. If its what you want put in the time and make sure its correct!

  8. mod people are the most accepting folks I have ever met in my life. EVER.

    they may express it on their bodies, for themselves, but I don’t think it’s a shove down your throat, or “holier than thou”. Of course there are some in every group.. but I wouldn’t encompass the whole community. In my opinion of course.

    On another note, that’s really nice work. I’ve always loved lettering tattoos.

  9. I don’t think you have to have any ties to a language to use it on your body – if it means something to you as a person, that should be enough. It is for me…

  10. i find my language boring so get carpe diem what i i wouldn’t make now, because if you wright in google carpe diem tattoo the resaults are amazing, but i think: what ever language as long as you are happy.

  11. the whole concept of NOT getting a type of tattoo because its of a culture you are not directly a part of, or in this case speak the language of, is totally stupid IMO.
    should that idea extend to cultural symbols & styles as well?
    should we all be locked into the box of only our culture forever and always?
    should we not celebrate the diversity of the world as we see fit?

    besides, have not we as humans learned to move beyond racial and cultural boundries and has not Body Art done the same?

    i like to think so.

  12. we’re all human. even if something isn’t from *your* culture, it might still have deep meaning to you. also, it may not translate well to your native tongue, which would be a good reason to get it inked in its original language. people who like to say it’s not *your* culture don’t understand that we’re all the same.

  13. I think foreign language tattoos get a bad rap because of mistakes, but most of them look very interesting. I think the tattoo is more interesting if you can speak the language or have some connection to it, but its not nessesary.

  14. I still have to wonder why a community full of people who tend to be somewhat misunderstood in their motivations needs to questions the motivations of the others. haven’t you gotten been asked ‘why?’ often enough to know how old that gets?

    as long as the person who has to live with it is satisfied with it, so am i. i don’t even care if your kanji is incorrect.

    so uh, long story short, i don’t care either way. just be happy.

  15. Why should there be rules about what someone does with their body? Furthermore, I feel that it goes against the nature of bme to try even pose this question

  16. I’m half and half, I really feel like people should get whatever they want but I also have an aversion to things like kanji.

    With that being said, my feelings are this: Tattoos done in other languages should be checked thoroughly (especially considering how often we see tattoos misspelled in english, done by people who speak english..) and that the language should be relevant to the tattoo. Proverbs or passages from other languages have a lot more reason to be done in that language than something like “power” or “strength” which could easily be done in your own language.

  17. I really agree with what allmessedup said about different concepts and how they might not translate to your native tongue.

    I try not to, but I find it hard not to judge people (I think if most people were honest, they would say the same). Its hard for me to understand how a person would want kanji when they have no ties or personal experiences with eastern cultures.

    But I do understand that maybe a person has a concept like say love or honor, and maybe for them that concept wasn’t really fully realized in their mind until they were shown how love or honor is understood within another culture. And so to them that whole concept of love or honor or pride or peace is intrinsically tied to a certain culture. I think we’ve seen this a lot with the lotus and ohm symbols on westerners, but when it comes to kanji, something is triggered in our heads that its a lesser light of heaven that belongs with mid 90′s tribal and the other pigs.

    Latin is used so often because there are so many sayings still used today that originated from that language. I think Hebrew and Greek are used a lot by Christians because those were the languages their scripture were originally written in.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think things have to be deep in order to be meaningful. I asked someone once about why they got a piece of kanji and they said “its just such a beautiful way of writing”, and I dont believe theres anything trite about that. But let me say, if that is your reason, then PLEASE go to a good artist and get it done big and beautiful.

  18. Noemi, I think you make a really good point. It’s quite possible a lot of the negativity directed towards tattoos in languages the wearer doesn’t speak may come from how many people get misspelled and otherwise nonsensical tattoos because they have a complete ignorance of the language.

    That said, I’ve seen plenty of misspelled English tattoos on people whose first language is English!

    The moral of this story is always make sure you have your lettering proofread before the ink goes in.

    I know that I’ve checked and double checked the spelling of the Hebrew tattoo I want because I can’t read the language myself beyond a very bizarre attempt at sounding it out because I recognize the letters. This is what happens when you’re a Hebrew School dropout. Even with all of my double and triple checking I still have this tiny bit of nervousness because of the fact that I can’t actually read it myself to know with absolute certainty, as I would with English, that it’s correct.

  19. If you like it enough to have it tattooed on you, that’s all that matters. Personally, I’m way too paranoid to get a tattoo in a language that I don’t at least partially understand, for fear of getting it wrong.

    Just be smart enough, do your research, and make sure it’s the correct translation.

  20. And now I read Cory’s post and see I just echoed some things he said. That’ll teach me to post without reading the other comments!

  21. :-) its alright Jen. I think that the major part of what we’re saying is that if you want another language, at the very least you should take it to someone who knows their stuff…not just a friend who kind of speaks the language or can look it up online, ask a professor or someone fluent. Take the time to get it right and then at least its respectable.

    That being said, think about how disrespectful it is to get something done in another language and getting it done wrong…

  22. same could be said for tribal tattoos i suppose…my opinion is that people should do what makes them happy and say fuck everyone else…it’s your body, not theirs.

  23. As someone who’s studied Latin for about a decade (and planning a Catullus tattoo, after a couple others), I can understand people getting especially famous and/or “stock” phrases– memento mori, carpe diem, and so on– but I don’t see the appeal of getting some original sentiment translated into an unfamiliar language. Latin’s gorgeous and has some fantastic, intricate works, but why would one care for the language if they haven’t ever experienced it?

  24. Cory, indeed. I asked my old rabbi about the tattoo I plan to get. Ha ha. I wanted to be extra sure it was right! I’ve also asked a few Israelis.

    Also, L, I agree, Latin is gorgeous. I had a professor, back when I was doing my first degree, who thought it was terrible that we weren’t still required to study Latin. That always amused me.

  25. The way I see it, we inhabit the same planet and are all interconnected due to being human(!), and that is enough for me to believe that we can all share and be inspired by the beautiful things that have come from every culture. Personally, I see no difference between someone with no ties to Japan or Japanese culture getting a traditional sleeve (which is rather common these days) to someone with no ties to Jewish culture getting a tattoo in the Hebrew language. One and the same!

    Personally though, it ain’t my bag.

  26. I have the Chinese symbols for “star” and “Light” on my chest, and while I don’t speak Chinese, I have always felt a connection to all languages that use , including Hebrew, the Asian languages, Egyptian, ect… I think that a tattoo is a personal thing and it’s not up to the rest of us to judge what someone chooses to adorn their body with. I do however think it’s important to research the meaning of anything that you plan to put on your body before you get it inked!!!!

  27. I remember my English teacher trying to explain why you can not translate literally from English to Spanish, she said that the English language is very limited and basic;
    is not surprising that people who speak english feel that certain words sound or look more interesting in other languages.

  28. I think that when you are looking to get another language as a tattoo, it is more acceptable if it is a common word or phrase (if you don’t speak that language). For example, ‘C’est la vie’ is understood by many people, because it has culturally become less of another language’s grammar and more a popular phrase. This means it is less likely that the person will inadvertently offend or make a grammar mistake.

    ‘Memento mori’ may literally mean remember your mortality, but it also has a significance in the art world- it is a very common phrase, used to describe paintings when the subject matter is used to remind people of their mortality. For example, it can apply to a still life with plates balanced precariously on a table, because it is a reminder that humans are similarly teetering, unsure when we are going to fall. If this person has an art background, it will have more of a meaning than someone looking to get a cool phrase in Latin.

    In regards to kanji, I think it depends, again, on your view. Some people like kanji because they are in style right now. But others may be more educated. For example, while I am not of an Asian descent, I have studied Asian calligraphy enough to understand the rules of composition and form that make kanji an art form. I would be comfortable getting a tattoo of, perhaps, famous poetry written by someone else, but I would never trust someone else to pick a character off a chart for me.

    Also, I may point out that there are exceptions to everything. The boy mentioned who asked for the Hebrew translation could have been honoring a friend or family member; he may not speak it himself, but he is tied to it in another powerful way.

  29. The “idea” of getting a tattoo in another language that perhaps requires less characters to write is appealing to me, but only because I can’t stand the noise. Then again, sometimes a drawing is just easier

  30. I’d be interested to know where people are getting the phrase “memento mori” from, because unless it’s from the newer christian version of latin (which I am not familiar with) and not classical roman latin, it doesn’t quite say “remember your mortality”, especially since ‘mori’ is a conjugation of the verb “morior” meaning “to die”, instead of the noun “mortalitas” meaning the state of being mortal.

  31. Sure they can get it right under their dumb, first google image result for grim reaper, too. But in all honest, I think it’s a stupid idea.

  32. Actually I changed my mind… I think people should be allowed to get things they have no clue what they mean, so when they find out what it REALLY means, they can be branded as a complete moron.

  33. I started to read comments and realized that’s kinda like caring what others have to say. :) Consenting adults should get whatever they want tattooed on themselves. I’m usually only BOTHERED when adolescents do it. But seriously, do the research. Unless you are ok with looking like total tool, make sure the symbolism you’re getting inked on yourself means what you think it means. As for foreign words/characters. I’m partial to Japanese/Chinese (have studied both), but I’m not sure if I’ll get kanji tattoos – though as part of a larger piece perhaps.
    When you get it wrong, I think you pretty much deserve any ridicule you get… as you make the tattoo culture look dumber for it.

  34. Kristen – Memento mori is a very common phrase. I think it’s been in use for many hundred years. Type it into Google and you’ll see how widely it’s used and how common it is. There’s even a novel titled “Memento Mori”. Remember your mortality, or remember you will die, it’s a phrase that appears often and as Sara pointed out is used in the art world as well.

  35. I personally think that ‘foreign language tattoos’ can be put into 2 categories. Phrases and translations.
    -Phrases (like in this case Memento Mori), I feel, are better left in their original language. So what if that language isn’t your own? Translation doesn’t only often make it sound crappy, but can actually diminish it’s meaning. People forget that when you translate, you interpret. Sometimes a word can have a dual meaning, and when translated, the subtlety of the original word is completely lost. It would be like trying to literaly translate a pun; it would cease being funny. It’s true meaning would then be – literally – lost in translation.
    -Translations. I’ll be honest, I really dislike this category. For me, it includes all those people who ‘want to get their name in Chinese’. Simply because they’re aparantly too ignorant to realize their western name can’t be accurately translated to any chinese symbol. The only fairly acceptable solution to that one, to me, would be to find out what your name means (like pure lily in my case), and to get that correctly translated. That way, you at least get the essence of your name, which I can sort of understand. But to just start taking random things and have them translated to another language ‘just because it’s cool’, is truely abhorring to me.

  36. I once met a very sexy lady who had “Memento Vivere” tattooed near her collar.
    I think it’s great. The twist on Memento Mori in the right direction makes me smile every time I think about it.

    RE: tattoos; Language does not matter. Smiling does.

  37. It’s not on my body or I’m not paying for it, I shouldn’t have a say in it.
    If I don’t like the tattoo, I won’t look at it.

    Maybe I’m being to naive about it but I just don’t see how it’s my business to judge other’s decisions.

  38. I’m proficient enough in French that could could easily create a tattoo written in the language without a problem. Do I have ties to France or the language itself? Hell no, I’ve never been to France, I’ve only ever met one individual from there in all my years.

    I also have tattoos of videogames that I adore, but I’m not a gamer. In fact, the only time I pick up a controller is when I’m cleaning up after by boyfriend. So, according to some my boyfriend should be the one with the tattoos, or and this irks me, they assume I got them for him.

    I say all that to say this, you get the tattoos that you like! It’s no one’s business what you do to your body.

  39. Damn fine tattoo. There is a book of poetry by the same name written by a guy in Switzerland that kicks ass too! If you get a chance check it out. The guys amazing!

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