Be it Japanese (see: Ariana’s 7-rings-comma-BBQ-grill fail), Arabic (see: Lil Wayne’s embarrassing “Mama’s Boy” forehead fiasco), or Chinese (see: below) — there’s nothing an A (or B, C, D…Z) Lister loves more than botching a different language in permanent ink on their flesh.
Perhaps, like the appropriation of yoga and astrology and incense by White Angelenos, they think it gives them some Eat, Pray, Love exoticism; perhaps they think it makes them look worldly, well-travelled, and well-read; perhaps they think it just looks pretty. Regardless, as any native in any of said botched languages will attest, such tattoos can really only be measured on a scale of (1) marginally embarrassing to (5) *major side-eye* to (10) *fully-body flinch, second-hand cringe*.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words: and really, these celebrities ought to have listened.
1 Megan Fox
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 3/10
It's a pretty inoffensive tattoo, albeit incredibly generic and equally boring. 力 (lí ) means "strength". There's really nothing more interesting to say about it. It's not even that pretty: it's like the Chinese version of Times New Roman or Calibri. My clumsy, elementary level handwriting is just as boxy and (sub)standard.
It's not a 0/10 though, because as much as I love Megan (Jennifer's Body is an iconic feminist work of art) any non-Chinese person with a Chinese tattoo is some base-level of cringe. And it's still a tedious, unoriginal choice.
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 2/10
Here is another celebrity with a 力 tattoo. Cher's is ranked slightly less embarrassing than Megan Fox's almost identical 力, because, at the very least, it has prettier calligraphy. There is a clear attempt at making the tattoo aesthetically pleasing (by *Chinese* standards), beyond the bland, myopic use of Not English.
3 David Beckham
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 3/10
Although on a personal aesthetic level, I think this tattoo is objectively sort of tacky, I must give props where it's due. Beckham is really the only celebrity that's really given much of a spare thought to the Chinese perspective. Instead of using some tedious textbook font as is very common among tattoos of this nature, Beckham's chosen a fairly lovely calligraphy style to sweep along his abdomen. And - unlike some random, boxy typeface, good calligraphy is highly validly appreciated on both sides of the Pacific as an artform in its own right.
Not to mention the tattoo itself is Actually, Factually Real Chinese: an old proverb, meaning "Death and life have determined appointments / Riches and honors depend upon heaven".
4 Nicki Minaj
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 4/10
Another Real Chinese phrase: 上帝與你常在 (shàngdì yŭ nĭ cháng zài), translating to "God is always with me". I give her points for a more original and - most importantly - linguistically correct choice of phrase; but again take points must be taken away for the use of a boring font.
To be honest, I'd probably have given this tattoo at worst a 2 or 3/10, because it is just very inoffensive, but Nicki herself regrets the ink - so I simply defer to her opinion on the matter.
5 Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 6/10
Allegedly, these once-lovers had matching tattoos of the character of yes, say it with me: 力. And yet again, say it with me: it is an utterly uninspired choice.
But what is inherently more embarrassing for this (exact same as above) tattoo is that it a matching couple tattoo. Which, as their unfortunate split goes to show, is categorically never a good idea. "Strength" indeed.
(Note: both since seemed to have had these tattoos removed or covered up - which, I think, speaks for itself.)
6 Justin Bieber
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 8/10
If there was a dictionary definition for "Why You Should Never Get A Tattoo In A Language You Are Not Proficient In", it would show you these two of Bieber's tattoos. One of the first things any student in Chinese learns is that each character has a wildly different meaning depending on its context and the other characters it's matched with. Very many apologies in advance for the following language lesson:
- 曲 (qu) is probably meant to mean "song" - for a famous singer. And it does mean song, if paired as 歌曲 (gē qŭ). It is, indeed, the 歌 and not the 曲 which actually lends the term the meaning of "song". 曲 is one of those nonsense almost suffix like characters that can just mean really anything depending on the prefix character. Example: 弯曲 (wān qū), meaning "bend".
- 怂 (sǒng) appears at first glance to be a compound character, meaning "to follow [从] your heart [心]". And points for originality and a vaguely sweet intention. But for a native speaker, it is has the derogatory and painfully awkward (for a tattoo emblazoned on one's skin) meaning of "useless". Or it could be used as "怂恿" (sǒng yǒng), which, quite unfortunately translates as "to incite another into doing something bad". Points, perhaps, for a Prelapsarian philosophical musing about the nature of the human condition; albeit unwittingly.
The ranking really should be upwards of 9/10, but we'll allow a slight lenience for Bieber's young age, and his very swift removal of 怂.
7 Britney Spears
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 9/10
On her pelvis, Britney tattooed 奇 (qí ), believing it to mean "mysterious". It was meant to be a little cheeky - and the little colored flower makes it at least marginally more interesting to look at than many other Chinese character tattoos.
But, much like Bieber and Timberlake, here lies another parable in "Don't Get A Tattoo In A Language You Are Not Fluent In". 奇 is much more naturally paired together to be 奇怪 (qí guài), which means "weird" or "freakish". Not exactly what you want to be in that precise physical location on one's body.
8 Justin Timberlake
EMBARRASSMENT LEVEL: 9/10
In Timberlake's defence, his only real tattoo in Chinese is the 曲 on his ankle. This, however, deserves a harsher ranking than Bieber's (despite being the same linguistic error) because, on a purely objective aesthetic level, his tattoo is frankly just uglier.
(Honorable mentions also go to the fake - and absolutely random - tattoos Timberlake was covered with to shoot his movie Alpha Dogs. From left to right:
- 风土水 (fēng tǔ shuǐ) meaning "wind, earth, water"
- 罪 (zuì) meaning "crime"
- 溜冰 (liū bīng) meaning "ice skating")