Do a little googling on Chinese tattoos and you’ll quickly find horror stories involving tattoos meaning something different than the recipient intended. Last week an article in Want China Times shared the story of a tattoo artist in Sao Paolo, Brazil, who was arrested for foul tattooing. Instead of inking a special quote from The Little Prince, that tattoo artist tatted the client with “Chicken Noodle Soup.”
This reminded me of an instance last summer at the beach in Southern California when the woman’s back in front of me caught my attention. Two characters were inked onto her lower back: 空闲. While 空闲 (kòngxián) means “free,” it’s the “free” that means you’re not busy, as in you’re available to hang out for lunch. It’s very likely that the woman desired instead to get “free” as in “freedom,” which would be 自由 (zìyóu). Waygo translates the two different “free” words.
You’d be surprised how often incorrect Chinese characters are forever inked on someone’s skin. We recommend doing ample research to make sure your tattoo is actually correct—here’s our Waygo Tattoo Test to ensure you don’t end up with a tattoo reading Chicken Noodle Soup:
1. First off, make sure at least one—but preferably a few—native Chinese speakers read the characters to ensure it reads the correct sentiment.
2. Decide if you’d like the tattoo in simplified or traditional characters. While neither option is more correct than the other, it would be unfortunate if you didn’t know you had an option until the tattoo was already inked. Most people choose traditional characters because they are more elaborate, and perhaps more beautiful, but it’s really a personal preference. Whichever you choose—simplified or traditional—make sure all of the characters in your tattoo are either one or the other, not a mixture. Check out below the different characters for 爱 (ài): love.
爱 (simplified) vs. 愛 (traditional)
3. Find a tattoo artist that knows how to write Chinese characters. One cannot simply copy a character without knowing the correct method and stroke order. It’s extremely apparent when you see handwritten characters by someone who did not study Chinese handwriting. Plus, if they mess up a single stroke, it changes the meaning of a character. For example, these characters all differ from one another just by a single stroke, but each yield different meanings: 大 丈 尢 犬 太 尤 六 . To a tattoo artist who has never studied Chinese, the differences are difficult to see, but are definitely 大 (dà), or big.
4. Test With Waygo. While Waygo cannot read vertical text, you can translate the characters one by one:
Highly stylized text is difficult for Waygo to translate. If you don’t have a Chinese friend nearby, you can always take a picture and post it to our Facebook wall. We’d be happy to help you out!
Waygo can (usually) translate tattoos with horizontal text with normal font:
If you’re unable to complete at least 3 of the 4 steps to the Waygo Tattoo Test, we recommend waiting until you can, or else you might just end up with 鸡汤面 (jītāng miàn), or Chicken Noodle Soup, forever inked on your arm!