Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Chinese tattoos can be really, really dumb

This is the first and last time you will ever see a blog post on Harvard Extended that mentions Justin Timberlake.

But I have to get it out here, because Hollywood has used him as a platform to promote a most disturbing pop culture fad: Chinese character tattoos.

Justin Timberlake's prison tattoos for Alpha Dog, photo is from Biteus.orgMy wife draws my attention to an article on the front page of the entertainment section of the World Daily News (世界日報) for June 12, 2007. It shows Justin Timberlake posing for a picture with two large Chinese characters decorating his left bicep. The characters are nicely painted (see the picture at right), but there's a bit of a problem. They don't fit in with the streetwise persona that Timberlake is famous for, or the other gang/prison tats on his body. That's because the characters are 溜冰, which translates to "ice skating" in English. The article is incredulous -- why does a well-known star have such a ridiculous tattoo?

There's more. On his right torso, he has a four-character decoration (seen here in the bottom two photos) that reads 風土水火, lit. "wind earth water fire". While Mandarin has hundreds of common four-character idioms (人山人海, 一路平安, etc.) the example that Timberlake uses is not one of them.

But don't blame Timberlake. The tattoo designs are temporary, affixed by makeup artists for his film Alpha Dog. Someone in the crew probably thought the four-character tattoo looked cool, in a New Age kind of way. The "ice skating" tattoo is harder to explain -- someone playing a joke?

However, this example only reflects the tastes and fashions of the larger popular culture. Basketball stars, rappers, and Hollywood celebrities have been sporting Chinese characters for years. I remember one starlet who had the character for "death" (死) proudly displayed on her leg.

Back in the early 90s, Chinese tattoos were not so mainstream. They had an alternative cachet -- this was right around the time tribal tattoos were all the rage. When I lived in Taiwan, I noticed a Canadian friend had an unusual combination on his arm. It read, 外人, which seemed very strange to me -- it means "outside man" in Chinese. Turns out it was Japanese kanji for gaijin, or "foreigner."

This is not to say that Chinese people don't have tattoos. They do. Gangsters in Taiwan sometimes have detailed dragons drawn on their backs and upper arms. My wife says that some veterans from Chiang Kai-shek's army had anti-CCP slogans inked on their arms and torsos "to remind them every day" of their desire to fight. They said things like 反攻大陸 ("counterattack the mainland"). These dropped in popularity as the "retake the motherland" dream died, and age withered the ranks of militant KMT loyalists. I only saw one or two of these tattoos when I was in Taiwan, worn by men in their 70s.

But meaningless Chinese tattoos on Western youths has another parallel with Chinese culture -- meaningless English phrases on shirts, jackets, and food! Slogans include phrases like "Happy family acorn house" and "dream funny playtime No. 8". Food products also feature such phrases -- we have bought "Vermont Curry" down at the Asian supermarket, and my kids like Strawberry Pocky.

But my personal favorite: A baseball hat I spotted in a Jiayi night market about five years ago. It had the Calvin Klein emblem ("CK") but the English below it read "Cavalier Killer Diller." It was only NT$100 (about US$3). I bought two of them to give to friends when I got back home. They looked kind of cool ...

8 comments:

John said...

Nice post. Regarding the meaning of "liubing" or "ice skating" - I've been told by an acquaintance who works in bars in Shanghai that the phrase is used sometimes to refer to the injection of drugs, especially methamphetamine ("ice" or "bingdu").

ian said...

Thanks John. If that was indeed what they were refering to, it makes sense -- not only does Timberlake play a drug dealer in the film, but colloquial language is littered with obscure, often innocent-sounding terms to describe drugs and drug use ("Riding the white pony," "dime bag", etc.)

armslover said...

Lots of white girls sport tattoos of Chinese characters. To them, that's all Chinese culture is good for. They don't care for the people. How many of them actually date Chinese guys? None!

ian said...

umm ... yeah.

liche said...
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liche said...
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Megan Pot said...

Most of those tattoos it that picture are fake (just to let you know). They were for the movie "Alpha Dog" where he played a 'gangster' involved in a kidnapping over drugs, that ends in murder.