Do You Know What That Means?

This piece also appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.

By Michelle Wong

Asian symbols are strewn wherever you go.  Whether it’s an orchard full of cherry blossoms, a neighbor’s koi pond or a favorite takeout place, Asian culture is all around us.  Tigers, dragons, yin-yangs and geishas are just some of the images that are around us permanently — etched on people’s skin as tattoos.

Asian-inspired tattoos, mostly kanji (Japanese characters), became popular around the 1990s.  Many young people thought that getting a tattoo with a character for “peace” or “truth” would be the “cool thing to do.”  Sometimes, however, these people would not do their research before choosing a character to permanently etch onto their skin, and end up getting the wrong symbol, or receive a tattoo that made no sense when translated.

Regardless, getting an Asian-inspired tattoo is still very popular today.  At the Halo Tattoo parlor on Marshall Street, there is a huge banner on the wall, filled with many different kanji symbols and their meanings.  For those thinking of getting an Asian-inspired tattoo, Halo also has two experts on Asian tattoos, insuring a minimal chance of getting the wrong symbol or character.

Quinn Shabow, the piercer and occasional tattooist at the parlor, believes that about 80 percent of the students who enter the shop want a kanji tattoo.

“Students want kanji symbols, or other Asian tattoos because they are very traditional, they’re classic, classy and exotic,” Shabow says.  “And [getting the character for beauty] looks better than having the word ‘beauty’ tattooed on your back.”

At Halo Tattoo, the most popular kanji symbols among students who get tattoos are the ones for love, strength, beauty, friendship and sister or brother for those involved in Greek life on campus.  Also popular are tattoos of cherry blossoms, koi fish and geishas.  Most of the students who get inked, however, hardly ever know the meaning behind their tattoos.  They would get the ink more for the look rather than the meaning.

But there are still students who get their tattoos for a reason.  According to Shabow, a few students, mainly those majoring or interested in art, are more knowledgeable about their symbols’ meaning and the history behind them.  Those students are the ones who get the tattoo for personal reasons.

“Students normally don’t care about meanings,” Shabow says.  “They just want what looks good, or what they think is pretty.  So they’ll get a koi fish tattoo, because they like the look of the fish, but then pair it with peonies instead of the traditional cherry blossoms.  They don’t care that the koi represents change, or the start of a new life or a new beginning.  They just know that the fish look cool, and that’s what they’ll get.”

Ashley Mitchell, a junior at SU, was one of those students who could actually tell a story with her tattoo.  On her right hip, Mitchell has a tattoo of a treble clef next to the Chinese character for “music.”  She got it in November 2007 at the Marshall Street Halo Tattoo parlor with her best friend.

Mitchell’s life has always been intertwined with music — she’s been singing and writing songs since she was six years old.  She decided to get a tattoo because she wanted something permanent to symbolize how important music was in her life.  But because a tattoo is so permanent, she chose hers carefully in order to avoid regretting her decision.

“I wanted to use kanji for my tattoo because I’m a quarter Japanese — my dad is half Japanese, half black,” Mitchell says.  “But I couldn’t find the Japanese symbol, so I decided to use the Chinese one instead.  It’s on my hip because it’s small and private enough to hide for professional reasons, but still something I could show off if I wanted to.”

Nicole Sepulveda, a sophomore at SU, was another student who had a story to tell behind her tattoos.  She has two — an orchid behind her ear and the Chinese symbol for “courage” on her right wrist — to always remind her of a personal experience, and to stay strong.

When Sepulveda was four years old, she was raped — something many women, children and even some men are troubled with.  Since she was four, the memory and images of the event weren’t apparent.  It wasn’t until she was in high school, when the same thing happened to another four-year-old in her family, that she realized the extent of the damage.

“I knew I needed a way to cope with the matter and I wanted to make it a positive coping method, so I turned to meditating and mindful practices,” says Sepulveda.  “The Chinese character on my right wrist translates to courage and uplift, and is my personal reminder that I do have courage within me to face any situation.  I got it when I was 16, and still in the middle of coping.  The flower represents the blossoming of my growth.  I finally was okay with the matter and had opened myself to be fearless and more accepting of things pertaining to sex.  I also feel as though the flower symbolizes my maturity overall, as I got it on my 18th birthday, and took this birthday to be the beginning of my journey into adulthood.”

Since getting this tattoo was very important to her, Sepulveda did a lot of research before finally deciding on a character.  She researched different words that meant the most to her, and how they looked in different languages.  She was happiest with the way the word “courage” looked in Chinese, so she chose to use that as her tattoo to permanently remind her that she is strong, no matter what anybody may say.  And although when she first got the tattoo, the girls in her Catholic high school thought that she was “badass” for getting the prohibited ink in obvious places, Sepulveda has never regretted her decision.

Getting a tattoo is an idea that most college students consider.  Getting inked may be a way for the student to rebel against the norm, to show their independence from their parents or to remind them of their college years.  Most of these students will probably end up with an Asian-inspired tattoo.

“I feel as though Chinese aesthetics are a beauty that is very rare to Westerners — Americans,” says Sepulveda.  “Chinese written language is a foreign calligraphy that is simultaneously mysterious and attractive to us, and the physical beauty of East Asia’s scenery is something that many Americans covet.”

But, before getting a tattoo, do some research.  When getting a character, or kanji, make sure the meanings are correct.  When getting a symbol, such as a dragon or cherry blossoms, research the meaning behind the image, and then see if it’s a good fit.  If inking a phrase, make sure the phrase isn’t offensive when translated — sometimes a phrase in English may translate into something obscene in a different language.  And get the tattoo for a reason other than to be different, or to look “badass.”  A tattoo is a long-term commitment, and regretting it will cost a lot of money — money that most college students simply don’t have.

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