Tattoo culture in Japan, especially among Japan’s gangster element, has a rich history. While some young Japanese are breaking the traditional taboo and obtaining discreet tattoos, they almost never opt to have Chinese characters etched permanently on their bodies. Kanji tattoos are a Western phenomenon.

My own introduction to kanji tattoos began two years ago, when questions such as the following, in English and Spanish, came pouring into the newly opened Kanji Clinic Web site: “How do you write ‘Crazy Witch’ in kanji? My sister wants to tattoo it on her ankle.” Or how about “Unconditionally Loved,” “Agony and Ecstasy,” “Unborn Child,” “Larry,” “Drink-Get Drunk-Vomit-Pass Out”?

During our family’s summer vacation in my hometown, Asheville, North Carolina (pop. 68,000), I resolved to find out why kanji-illiterate Caucasian Americans have Chinese characters indelibly inked on their bodies. I instructed my 8-year old son, who currently can write 300 Chinese characters, to keep his kanji radar out for potential subjects. Sean’s first sighting took place at a minor-league baseball game. “Hey, Mom,” he whispered, “Why does that man over there have the kanji for ‘leg’ tattooed on his arm?”

To Sean’s horror, I walked right over to the man and inquired about the artwork on one of his iron-pumping biceps. His response? “Oh, so it means ‘leg’? Well, I just saw the symbol somewhere and liked the look of it. I didn’t think about the meaning.”

I decided to have a chat with a tattoo artist, “Moto,” at Morpheus, his shop in West Asheville. Moto estimates that 25 percent of his work involves reproducing Chinese characters. He thinks that the popularity of martial arts and Japanese animation have helped create the kanji tattoo boom in the United States that began about 10 years ago.

Moto says many tattoo virgins choose to start with a kanji because such a tattoo packs a lot of meaning into a limited space. About half of his kanji tattoo clients enter the studio with a clear idea of their desired character(s); the remainder know only they want kanji of some sort. Moto keeps a dictionary of Chinese characters on hand. For obscure requests, his clients go to a Chinese restaurant and ask an employee to write out the desired kanji. Moto has never formally studied kanji or calligraphy, but he lovingly creates brush-like strokes in his kanji tattoos, instead of simply stenciling the outline of the character and filling it in with dye, as many tattoo artists do.

At Morpheus, the most popular kanji tattoos for women are “Love” and “Beauty,” and for men, “Dragon,” “Tiger,” and zodiac signs. Some clients elect to have their first names transliterated into kanji — many have the mistaken idea that kanji can simply be substituted for the ABCs in an English name.

Typing “kanji tattoos” into a search engine brings up photos of Caucasian arms and backs bearing a smorgasbord of kanji. Some two-character tattoos like “Woman-God” (megami, “goddess,”), “Heaven-Envoy” (tenshi, “angel”), and “Without-Limit” (mugen, “infinity”) are actual Japanese words. But creative combinations like “Girl-Power,” “Life-Change,” “God-Belief,” and “Big-Daddy,” do not exist in Japanese or Chinese.

East Asians and Asian Americans may view these bizarre creations with amusement or disgust. For example, Dan Wu and Jean Chen, writing in Stir Magazine, view a kanji tattoo as “the superficial possession of a cultural trinket without [the owner] having an understanding, or even a willingness to understand, its true significance.” Their censure calls to mind the complaints from English-speaking ex-pats in Japan about Japanese distortions of the English language (a la “Enjoy human life”) known as “Japlish.” The goal of Japanese designers who relentlessly pump out Japlish is not to put “good English” on T-shirts and the like, but to appeal to Japanese consumers’ tastes.

In the same way, kanji tattoos are created by Westerners for a Western audience. If this audience were not kanji-clueless, the bearer would lose the power to decide whether to reveal the character’s “secret” meaning to others. This, according to Moto, is what makes kanji tattoos so enticing in the first place. In this context, the literal Japanese or Chinese meaning of kanji tattoos — or the lack of it — seems of minimal importance.

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