Tuesday, July 27, 2004

moneky see, monkey do

Culture is Skin Deep
Tattoos with Asian writing is a fashion must-have, but does it symbolize cultural insensitivity?
By LYNDA LIN, Pacific Citizen Assistant Editor

Some people describe the act of plunging a needle into flesh to create a permanent tattoo as nothing short of being a divine experience. The joining of man, art and culture in one sharp point hearkens to traditional tribal tattooing rituals of the past, but the only difference is that these days, rituals are being replaced with convenience. People can now walk into nearly any tattoo shop and pick out a cultural identity of their choice and spell it out on their skin, all within 30 minutes or less.

The popularity of Asian-influenced tattoos in the mainstream is undeniable — dragons and swords have been a fashion staple for years, but a new wave of interest in tattoos with Asian writing, characters or words have created a veritable alphabet soup out of ink and flesh.
Some of the more common tattoos involve words of empowerment spelled out in Chinese characters that mean “strength” or in Japanese kanji like current Denver Nugget’s star Marcus Camby’s proclamation of “to strive” on his right arm.

“The use of kanji has always been popular since the 1980s because there’s always a desire for something different. It’s the allure of exoticism,” said San Jose-based tattoo artist Horitaka.
But like Asian-influenced clothing, tattoos with Asian characters are saturating pop culture and becoming the latest fad for cultural consumption. Vending machines dispense temporary tattoos with Chinese writing for children and neighborhood walk-in tattoo shops carry a large selection of Asian characters.

The most popular form of tattoos with Asian writing is something Horitaka calls a strictly American tendency — tattooing one’s own name onto the body.
A small kanji character that translates to “Haru” sits on Amy Wakayama’s right hipbone. In the summer of 1998, when “tattoos were the rage,” Wakayama summoned her language skills learned from past Japanese classes and chose the character because it represented her middle name “Harue” and her father’s name “Haruo.”

But for others, getting a self-referential tattoo is a very personal attempt to reclaim their diminishing heritages.
Ken Arata, 25, is planning to get his family name tattooed down his spine in kanji to show that his Japanese heritage is the backbone of his existence even though he does not speak the language.

Megan Carriero, 20, is South Korean but she was adopted at a young age by a European American couple in Connecticut who kept reminding her of her Korean name, which means “Silky Girl.” The tattoo on her lower back is the Korean characters for “Silky Girl,” which she researched by rifling through her adoption papers and then showed to the tattoo artist to have etched into her skin.

“Not that I want to combine both my lives, because I am who I am. I am American, but from Asian descent. It’s just my way of giving tribute, in a way, and remembering that I am originally from Asia,” said Carriero.

Because of her own experience, Carriero said that she finds the current popularity of tattoos with Asian characters silly for people to get unless they have a real connection with the culture.
But Nicole Conley defends her decision to get the Chinese words for “Year of the Ram” and “Year of the Rooster” tattooed on the front of each shoulder next to her collarbone. Even though she is not Asian, she has a love for the culture. And her tattoos are not just fashion accessories, but are symbols of a special bond between herself and her husband who has matching tattoos.
Still, Conley said that when Asian Americans see her tattoos, they give her a “quick quiz” and seem pleased as long as she knows the true meaning of the characters.

In his 13 years of experience as a tattoo artist in Los Angeles, Kirk Alley estimated that one out of every 20 customers goes to a walk-in tattoo shop to get a tattoo with Asian characters, and from that percentile most of those are Caucasians and African Americans. He attributes this popularity to a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude.

However, the popularity of these tattoos has created another problem — nonsensical writing and unintentionally funny denotations.
“The Chinese-Japanese written language is very complex. Unless the tattoo artist speaks and writes the language, it’s impossible to translate correctly,” said Alley. “One wrong brush stroke and it says something completely different.”

Stories about tattoo artists wreaking revenge on nasty customers by inking derogatory phrases like “slut” and “ugly” float from one tattoo shop to another like urban legends, but Horitaka has seen a lot of really messed up kanji that declare gibberish.
Whether for cultural or fashionable reasons, he has advice for the burgeoning group of young people scrambling to get their ethnic phrase inked in their skin: do your research.

“People come [into the tattoo shop] and say, ‘I got this off the internet,’” said Horitaka. “Well, the internet is a toilet bowl. Others come in and say, ‘We were at a Chinese restaurant and someone helped us translate this.’ Well, did you tip well?”  from

early this month, i got another tattoo on my back. it is a kanji inscription with the title 'freedom of love.' considering my current blissful & sometimes neurotic state, its timely & now i can say, it feels great!  which comes to my next point. that shit hurt! man, it hurt like hell. right down my spinal cord, four teeny weeny inscriptions that made me holler like a child. the poor guy at the tattoo parlour was kinda scared. there i was, clenching my hand onto the backside of the chair thingy bitting into two paper towels, my eyes bulging out of their sockets wondering what the fuck i'm i doing.
& now, im thinking hehehehe.. i still have space towards my sacred chakra. more space..more ideas..

i'm not new to piercing. i have a thing with & about needles, holes and ink.  i think of it as my ritualistic ceremony. just like last summer, this is an marker to another jucture in my life. few days, before coming to the states, i had several piecerings on my ears and a third one on my nose. the nose is significant because of the celebration of the trinity: body/mind/spirit. also, it looks cute with three teeny weeny studs. i had pierced my bellybutton twice and twice had gotten 'lost' in some activity or another.  i also did my yoni, which now, its purely aesthetic than anything else.

i like tattoos alot because i find it as a bridge between mortality (the flesh) and the expression of human-ness (art). i feel like im naming myself into whatever it is i bring into my space. may it be in music, art or human interaction. i also think its a labour of love, seating and watching an idea take form.


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