Getting a tattoo is a serious decision: you want it to look great and to reflect your inner values. So it’s natural that you want it to come out perfect. However, tattoos in foreign languages sometimes have a tendency to… backfire. Especially if they’re in Chinese or Japanese and you don’t happen to know either language!
When one internet user asked redditors who speak the 2 languages what the dumbest thing they’ve seen tattooed on someone was, the floodgates opened. Scroll down for the best responses and get ready to giggle like a gaggle of geese. Remember to upvote your faves!
Bored Panda spoke to Japanese language expert and member of the VMU Japanese club Hashi Kotryna Kvietkauskaitė about getting tattoos in a foreign language. Read on for our exclusive interview and some great advice to keep in mind if you ever plan to get a tattoo with Japanese or Chinese symbols!
We’re also pretty sure that you’ll want some more hilarious foreign tattoo stories after reading this list. So be sure to check out our earlier article about people who are fluent in Chinese or Japanese sharing tales of the worst tattoos they’ve seen.
Guy had “変態外人” on his arm, said it meant “Lover of Asian Beauty” when in fact it means “Foreign Pervert”
Saw a pretty tatted up guy one day with some Chinese markings on his forearm, asked him what they meant and he said “just a bunch of random Chinese letters”, to which I inquired, “which ones?” and he corrected me, saying “no, it says – “just a bunch of random Chinese letters”
Thought it was pretty slick
I (27F don’t understand Chinese/Japanese) have the characters for “Strawberry” on my shoulder. Was at a gym changing and gal 1 who could read the language says “Oh! Strawberry! I love your tattoo”. I explained why I had gotten the tattoo (long story involving strawberries) and gal 2 overheard our conversation. Gal 2 says “I have a tattoo that means “wisdom” and shows us; gal 1 says “… that says Turtle”.
Edit: here is the story behind the tattoo! My grandmother passed away of bone and lung cancer in 2010. I bought frozen strawberries a few weeks later to make smoothies in the morning, and the smell of those frozen strawberries transported me back to my childhood when I would eat frozen strawberries from her freezer. She used to pick SO many and make jam etc etc but I would pick strawberries to snack on instead of ice cream.
After she had passed I decided to get a tattoo, and was thinking of a strawberry with ice crystals around it or something. I went for (American) Chinese food with friends and was telling them about my tattoo idea. When it came time to break our cookies and read our fortunes mine read “to remember is to understand” which I thought was cool, had been remembering and thinking of my grandmother over the last month or so since she had passed. When I turned over the fortune, the “chinese word” was strawberry.
I’ve never seen 6 people turn white so quickly.
I decided to get the chinese symbols for strawberry that day, and I still have the fortune in a special box at home.
While Kotryna said that she has yet to personally see a similar tattoo in real life, she’s read plenty of similar stories on the internet. According to her, if a tourist visits Asia and gets a tattoo that turns out to be dumb or a random string of words, it’s usually the visitor who’s at fault.
“The person in question might have done something to offend the tattoo artist. Either that or they’re so convinced of their own personal interpretation of what the symbols mean that the tattoo artist feels helpless to ask if the person understands what the tattoo really means,” Kotryna told Bored Panda.
The four elements tattoo with “Dirt, hot, blow, wet” was pretty funny.
Friend of a friend- wanted a tattoo that said “Bad Ass”. It translated to “ evil butt”.
Took Mandarin in high school. My teacher told us about a woman who had a tattoo of the word “免费”–probably thinking it meant “free” as in “free-spirited”–but it actually means “free” as in “no cost.”
She had some useful advice for anyone who’s thinking of getting a tattoo in any foreign language (especially Japanese and Chinese). “Find a friend who knows the language. Let them check the meaning of the words or phrases you want to get tattoos of, whether they mean what you think they mean.”
Kotryna added: “Not all tattoo artists in the West know Asian languages and they might not be able to tell you that a particular phrase isn’t correct.”
“Asian languages, especially Chinese and Japanese, work differently than we’re used to. Two words combined together don’t always mean what you think,” she said, referring to Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” tattoo that actually means “Barbeque Grill.” Ariana later unsuccessfully tried to fix the tattoo and it now says “Japanese Barbeque Finger.”
Not my story but a friend of mine:
She could read kanji and was in class one day noticing this girl’s tattoo for the first time. Confused she inquired about it:
“What does your tattoo say?”
Turns out it actually said pig princess.
Learning Japanese, but I saw someone bragging about a tattoo on their wrist in public being ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’. It was in katakana, which I can read, so I carefully glance at it as I walk by.
It was ‘ケロ’. As in ‘kero’.
That’s the sound a frog makes. They just tattooed ‘ribbit’ onto their wrist.
While stationed in Japan a friend got a tattoo by some random guy outside of base, he wanted some Shinto quote for a prosperous life but instead got the kanji reading something like “fat fish eat long” the Japanese workers just called him fat fish for the next 3 years… it caught on life fire even random people from other commands knew his nickname
I met a girl when I was backpacking in China who knowingly had the characters for “prostitute” tattooed on her hip – she thought it was funny, and the only people who saw it would be ones she chose to show it to.
The Chinese guy who was drinking with us in the hostel was horrified, and suggested that she get another tattoo underneath which said “only joking”.
My uncle has “Egg Drop Soup” tattooed on his wrist in Mandarin. He tells everyone it means something different (strength, destiny, etc.) but he got it so that he can go to the Chinese place when he is super hungover. He wears shades and noise-cancelling headphones, points to his wrist and is able to stay in his happy place while getting his favorite hangover meal. And yes, he was hungover when he got the tattoo.
Dude was so proud of his grandson that he had a tattoo that said “I love my grandson”
Except I’m guessing everyone just googled “I love my grand son” because it came out reading “I love fat boys.”
I’m half Japanese.
Saw a guy with 田力 tattoo going down his arm. He probably wanted 男 (boy/man)…I’m guessing.
田力 translates to Rice field power. Rice field power.
It wasn’t a tatoo, but I knew a girl who stitched some japanese symbols onto her bathrobe “just because they looked pretty”.
Translation was “Tokyo fire department”
My mom is from Japan, and she used to point out tattoos to me all the time. I don’t speak Japanese myself, so I can’t give the exact translations or characters.
She told me one of the biggest mistakes people make is when they pair two characters together, without checking what the characters mean as a group. They assume that the characters maintain their original meanings no matter what’s alongside them.
There are two examples I remember really clearly:
(1) a woman with characters like “sexy” and “woman”. What it actually said was whore house.
(2) a dude with “sex” and “freak” on his chest, which actually meant something along the lines of predator or pervert.
She’d see the tattoos and just immediately start giggling. Memories. :,)
I speak Mandarin, and it works both ways. Here’s one in reverse. On the beach in Taiwan I saw a huge – and I mean huge, ripped Taiwanese guy walking on the beach in Hualien with his girlfriend. On his back in black gothic letters, flanked by swords, was the phrase: “Sl*t Dude”. Told him it was an interesting choice in tattoo….store behind it? Turned out he thought he was getting a tattoo that said “Swordsman”. When he found out what it actually said, well…wouldn’t want to be that artist.
I saw someone with the characters for “Big” and “Father” and figured it was like, an approximation of Big Daddy. The guy got really agitated with me and told me it was Chinese for “eternal wealth”.
I knew a guy who thought he had “warrior” tattooed on his arm but another friend informed me actually read “drunk arsehole”.
He was an arsehole, and often drunk, so I chose to believe this.
Young white people getting tattoos of Asian symbols
Young white people getting tattoos of Asian symbols that they think they know the meaning of, but really don’t. White guy who speaks Chinese here. I’ve perfected the tactful question: “what does your tattoo mean to you?”
A sample of the tattoos I’ve actually seen on real people:
真实 – “authentic/actual.” Dude’s response “keep it real.”
演 – “perform.” person’s response: “dragon.”
操 – “f**k.” Person’s response: “beauty.”
混蛋 – “moron.” Person’s response: “it’s my name in Chinese.”
鸡 – literally “chicken,” but figuratively “hooker/prostitute.” Person’s response: beautiful woman.
富达而立克 – “Frederick.” Person’s response “It’s my name.” Me: “Fred?” Him: “what?”
生命 – “living/biological.” Person’s response: “Destiny.”
能 – “to be able to.” Pronounced “nung.” The person thought it was 龍 – “dragon.” Pronounced “lung.”
…and my personal favorite:
我从来没有毕业高中 – “I never graduated high school.”
A friend of mine did a tattoo he thought it was faith but in reality was soup
Poor girl thought is was “faith” or something stupid.
I have the characters for Shrimp Dumpling (Har Gow) tattooed on me. I knowingly did this, because I’m half Chinese and [friggin] love shrimp dumplings.
I had a chinese girl ask me if I knew what it meant and I laughed and said of course, I love dumplings.
My chinese mother was not impressed but then laughed and said it was very me.
Japanese speaker here. Guy had one that read “トン勝” Someone told him that トン (Ton) means pig and 勝 (katsu) means to win. He thought that putting them together means to win against pigs (police?) とんかつ Tonkatsu means pork cutlet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
Seen a few over the years but one that I remember most was when I first started learning Mandarin.
The guy had a tattoo on the back of his leg that proudly said 牛肉 which means beef.
I knew a guy who had a full on ‘Yakuza’ style tattoo done before he was 20 with the intention of going to Japan to show it off and ‘join the Yakuza’.
No idea if he’s still alive, but he was always a moron.
Once when I was in university, working at a shop, a very fat lady came in with the kanji for “large” tattooed on her shoulder blade. I politely complimented her tattoo and asked what it meant. She said it meant “sassy”.
A work colleague (now long term friend) had ‘pom pooey’ tattooed on his shoulder. He had been to Thailand and the locals nick-named him pom pooey and said it meant happy fat man (he was fat, he was happy, lovely man). He did not know how to spell it (or even say it correctly?) but, 20 years later, he still loves that tattoo.
Very recently I saw someone with the Chinese sign for “Infected” tattooed. Like what is that even supposed to mean lol
I didn’t see it myself, but two coworkers of mine were laughing their asses off after coming back from lunch one day, saying they had seen a woman with a (I assume Chinese) tattoo that translated to “Not a Tattoo.”
A friend of mine has a leg tattoo that says: 我看不懂汉字 Which basically translates as ‘I can’t read Chinese’ It gets a lot of attention in the summer. *we both live in China.
Colleague of mine wanted his name (Nick) tattooed on his arm in Chinese characters .
To the credit of the artist, the stuff on his arm IS pronounced “Nígū”, 尼姑. It translates to “nun”.
Translator here. So many good ones:
Had a metalhead guy think he had ‘Rock and Roll’ in Japanese on his arm. Turns out it was ‘岩滑り’ which is rockslide/landslide, the natural disaster.
Had a girl with a tramp stamp she thought meant sweet babe, but actually had ‘砂糖幼児’, lit. ‘sugar baby’
Then there’re the ones that are either backwards, incomplete, or non sensical. The latter usually happens when you try and translate an idiom pr phrase or glurgey motivational saying and you end up with ‘passionate passion fear’ or something equally meaningless
Japanese. Meat Tuesday.
Not chinese or Japanese but I have the tattoo.
I got a tattoo that was suppose to mean fearless a friend who majored in mandarin says it means small cake.
I live Tokyo and my SO is Japanese. I speak Japanese and read well enough to be able to understand signs and… tattoos. I’m still studying.
That being said, before moving here, I was in class and noticed someone with Japanese their arm. Looking at it, I knew it was either a mistake or perhaps it was actually a Chinese character as Japanese and Chinese share many of the same symbols. Unfortunately, he had a traditional Japanese demon on his arm…which actually made it more confusing in all reality.
The symbol was 家 which is generally read as house when alone. So, I played dumb and asked what his tattoo meant. Him: oh, I had a Japanese student stay with my family for a year and he said we were family so, I got the kanji for family tattooed on me.
Me: oh I see.
Now, I didn’t say anything, but he was missing a kanji. It should have been 家族.
So, there is a dude with the japanese word for house running around on his arm, but he thinks it means family.
My BF also saw someone with ‘kitchen’s tattooed on their arm the other day on the train. They also had a shirt with a samurai on it, but the shirt said ninja.
Saw a guy with a “今日は金” tattoo on his back which he thought meant something like “Treasure each day”. The literal translation is “Today is gold”. Not the worst one, but to someone who was a native speaker it would be very strange.
Japanese speaker here. Some guy had one that said d*ck in Japanese on his neck. I laughed so hard in the train and no one knew why.
My wife’s boyfriend from college got her name tattooed on his arm — after they broke up. Turns out the tattoo didn’t say “Carrie”, it said “Curry”. So I guess in a way, it probably worked out better for him.
Cantonese speaker here, I saw a white woman on the street with a tattoo that says “fix” on her back, maybe she needs fixing..
A lot of women have “女” written on them. For some reason they think having the word “woman” written in Japanese adds some sort of mystical feminine power to it when in reality people most often associate it with a bathroom door. Imagine seeing Japanese women walking around with “woman” tattooed on themselves. On top of that the kanji is often written rather sloppily like something a five year old would write, rather than elegant script.
I don’t speak Japanese nor Chinese, but I once had an Art Academy colleague who had two kanjis she had tatooed on each shoulder, and she believed they meant “eternal happiness” or something, because she saw them in a book at a flea market.
I copied the kanjis on a piece of paper and translated them on Google. They roughly translated to “foot fungus”. Ew.
The Kanjis are these: 足菌
I’ve seen a guy which had a tattoo 馬鹿外人 (a stupid foreigner). It was LOL. I wonder he’d done it for purpose or not
My friend in highschool got “Italian” in mandarin tattoo’d on his neck… we later learned that it means “Italian food”
I don’t understand either, but a dumb person I know got her son’s name “Aiden” tattooed on her wrist in Japanese along with her baby daddy. I saw it and immediately sent it to my Japanese friend who said the tattoo said “flourish electricity” which is pronounced “aiden” but would definitely not be how they would write it if he applied for a Japanese visa or something.
I don’t know if this was stupid or brilliant but someone had ＂您有小龍湯圓嗎？＂which is respectfully asking if they had soup dumplings. I thought it was really stupid until someone said that they must really like soup dumplings…
“If you’re reading this, your eyes are slanted”
They were correct.
There was a post recently about a tattoo in Thai reading “prawn spring roll” plastered across a lady’s shoulders.
Riley Reid the pornstar has “生活帶來您時檸檬做檸檬水” inked on her back. It means when life gives you lemon, make lemonade but it’s not a saying in Chinese so it sounds dumb tbh
There’s also grammatical error so it makes it even funnier but apparently she did it as a joke? Idk
Sister has an apprenticeship at a tattoo parlor, she sent me a pic of a customer’s tattoo asking what it said. The customer had said that it meant “Inner Power”. The word was ハンバーガー (pronounced hanbaga), in English this means hamburger. My sister chose not to tell her, as it would definitely ruin her day, and I choose to believe she saw some “inspirational” Facebook post meant to trick people into believing things about a culture they only pretend to care about, and I applaud whoever made it.
I speak Japanese and I have seen quite a lot of tattoos that don’t make sense because they are clearly direct translations from english, or because people don’t take cultural context into consideration. Like the kanji for woman and man (女、男) which do literally mean woman and man, but in Japan the singular kanji strongly connotes a public toilet since this is what is on the doors.
Then there’s all the inverted miswritten kanji.
In another direction, I also speak Danish, Swedish and Norwegian and it has become real popular to use the vowels æøå in other countries. I guess, to indicate scandinavian quality/authenticity/coolness, I don’t know… But it never makes any sense. Like the make-up company Kosås. I know it’s just a name, but it sounds really stupid.
She had 教 on her shoulder. It means to teach. So I asked her why she got that on her shoulder.
Girl: No, it means to believe. Me: No, it means to teach… Girl: Maybe in Japanese, but in Chinese it means to believe. Me: … Bless your heart… walks away
Well, I didn’t say the last part, but I thought it after the fact.
*On mobile, didn’t come out the way I thought I formatted…
My coworker has ” female hand” tattooed on her arm because she tried to spell her name in Japanese
A Japanese friend from college shared this one with me.
A friend of his was a huge Chicago Bulls fan. To express his love of the team he got the kanji for bull on his bicept. The kanji he got actually translated to cow/beef.
Seen a guy with 無料 tattooed on his forearm. In japanese it means “free”, but in the sense that it doesn’t cost anything. Poor guy probably used Google translate and was looking for the other meaning of free (自由 in Japanese)
My friends and i went to Japan, my buddy is a huge fan of the culture but doesn’t understand the language so we went and he has a bunch of tattoos of all the places he has been with the sentence
I Visited ____ and so he wanted to get one in Japanese
Note the Japanese can be BRUTAL
He ended up getting “Don’t Speak the Language, Don’t visit the country”
He’s trying to get it covered up.
Not chinese or japanese but relatable.
Korean. Worked with a guy in Korea as an ESL teacher. He had the words ‘미국사람’ in poorly written hand writing or ‘american person’ tatted on his butt cheek and showed me one day the only tattoo he had lol