English Tattoos All the Rage in China

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We are painfully aware of the fondness of NBA players for sporting Chinese tattoos that they don't understand. The misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture has long been diligently documented at Hanzi Smatter.

But it wasn't until I read an article in my local newspaper and Benjamin Zimmer called a similar article in the Telegraph to my attention that I realized a similar phenomenon has been occurring in China recently.

Incidentally, Hellenophiles will be delighted to see in the Telegraph article that at least one person has some elegant Greek lettering on his / her derriere.

According to the Telegraph, Zhang Aiping, a tattooist at Tattoo 108 in Shanghai, said: "Around 30 per cent to 40 per cent of our customers are choosing tattoos in English letters now. This has happened really suddenly, since the beginning of this year."

That figure seems much larger than the proportion of Chinese character tattoos chosen by Americans. After all, we in the United States have such a vast catalog of designs from which to choose, including angel tattoos, Aquarius tattoos, Aries tattoos, armband tattoos, astrology tattoos, Aztec tattoos, back piece tattoos, barbed wire tattoos, bear tattoos, biker tattoos, biomechanical tattoos, bird tattoos, bull tattoos, butterfly tattoos, calligraphy tattoos, Cancer tattoos, Capricorn tattoos, cat tattoos, Celtic tattoos, clover tattoos, cross tattoos, dagger tattoos, death tattoos, demon tattoos, devil tattoos, dog tattoos, dolphin tattoos, dragon tattoos, dragonfly tattoos, dream catcher tattoos, eagle tattoos, Egyptian tattoos, evil tattoos, fairy tattoos, fantasy tattoos, fire – flame tattoos, flag tattoos, flower tattoos, frog tattoos, gambling tattoos, gay – lesbian tattoos, Gemini tattoos, grim reaper tattoos, Hawaiian tattoos, heart tattoos, horse tattoos, horseshoe tattoos, Indian tattoos, Irish tattoos, Japanese tattoos, Jesus tattoos, knotwork tattoos, koi fish tattoos, ladybug tattoos, laugh now cry later tattoos, Leo tattoos, Libra tattoos, lion tattoos, lizard tattoos, memory-banner tattoos, military tattoos, moon tattoos, muscleman tattoos, music tattoos, naked beauty tattoos, Native American tattoos, panther tattoos, phoenix tattoos, Pisces tattoos, praying hands tattoos, religious tattoos, rose tattoos, Sagittarius tattoos, Scorpio tattoos, scorpion tattoos, skull tattoos, snake tattoos, spider tattoos, star tattoos, sun tattoos, Taurus tattoos, tiger tattoos, torn skin tattoos, tribal tattoos,turtle tattoos, vine tattoos, Virgo tattoos, warrior tattoos, wings tattoos, wolf tattoos, word tattoos, yin yang tattoos, and zodiac tattoos, not to mention guns and motorcycles.


  1. Nathan said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    First time I saw a real blog post on a real blog that looked like a spam comment!

  2. jfruh said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    The phrase "English letters" is interestingly misguided. I guess it speaks to the dominance of English that the Latin alphabet is now thought of as the English alphabet, at least in China.

  3. Stephen Downes said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    Love the reference to Hanzi Smatter, which was a riot, but I think you really overdid the SEO on this post.

  4. tian (www.hanzismatter.com) said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    Thanks for the plug on HanziSmatter.com.

    I am sure my friend Steve Caires (the man behind Engrish.com) would love to get his hands on these incorrect English tattoos done by Chinese.

    Schadenfreude (幸灾乐祸) all around!

  5. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    jfruh, it's probably not too much different than Russian v. Cyrillic in the United States at least. If I were to show someone a document written in Macedonian, someone would probably assume it's Russian just because it's the most commonly seen (or perhaps better said, heard of) language written in that script in the US.

  6. Fluxor said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    @jfruh: Even the US government uses the term 'English letters'. In many of its application forms for a variety of situations, the applicant is asked to fill out his/her information using 'English letters' only.

  7. John S. Wilkins said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    Do Chinese men get tattoos that say "Stupid Yellow Boy"?

  8. Karen said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    Yes, none of those furrin non-English letters like é or ñ for us!

  9. Tom said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    Here in Japan, "English letters" is very commonly heard. I was most struck when my junior high students described using the Roman alphabet to write their names as writing "英語で" ("in English") when Japanese has the much more accurate term "ローマ字で" ("in roumaji") for what they were doing.

  10. Rhodent said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    jfruh, I suppose that if one wanted to be anal-retentive then one could argue that if J, V, or particularly W are used, then it's not the Latin alphabet that is being used.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    Karen: if you didn't use é or ñ, how would you write latté or habañero?

  12. Chaon said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    The tattoo on *my* derriere reads: 出口,請勿進入

    I understand this to mean "Mighty Dragon Warrior of Ten Thousand Years"

  13. Fluxor said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    Chaon, are you sure you got the character order correct? I think you meant to write: 入口,請進勿出 ;)

  14. Nate said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:27 pm


    I remembered seeing this article during the Olympics last summer and thought the tattoo looked pretty neat. I mean, I don't know if I'd get it across my own back, but then I've never been an Olympic athlete.

  15. Chaon said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    Impossible. That would be… "Years Dragon, Warrior Ten Thousand of Mighty", which doesn't make any sense at all.

  16. Spectre-7 said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    Coby Lubliner: In the case of habanero, the answer to your question is: correctly. ;)

  17. Brandon said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:22 am

    Chaon, are you sure you got the character order correct?

    To be fair, Fluxor, it is in a place he has to check using a mirror, so it's understandable that parts may be backwards.

  18. Mohamed Idris said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 1:45 am

    These tattoos remind me of pseudo-English on products made in Japan and other countries. They all show that many people use, or try to use, English because of the prestige it lends rather than for utilitarian purposes.

  19. Dierk said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 3:11 am

    Reminds one of Japanese companies desperately trying to give theri products cool Western names like Pajero [an early SUV marketed under that name in most of Europe; guess where it wasn't a hit].

  20. Alex Case said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 3:22 am

    I'd never heard of the Pajero until I saw one with the name in big letters on the back in Tokyo. I'm not sure my extreme reaction did anything for the reputation of Westerners in Japan

  21. Kellen said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:12 am

    comedians have been predicting this for ages. i knew it was only a matter of time.

    latin smatter anyone?

  22. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    @Fluxor: Even the US government uses the term 'English letters'. In many of its application forms for a variety of situations, the applicant is asked to fill out his/her information using 'English letters' only.

    No doubt because many people would not know what to make of "Latin letters". This reminds me of the time I was stumped by a math problem which asked for an answer "in Arabic numerals". I was about 9 years old at the time and knew about Roman numerals but did not know that our ordinary numbers were called Arabic numerals.

  23. Lazar said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    @marie-lucie: The matter is further complicated by the fact that the Arabic script has its own version of Arabic numerals which, although functionally equivalent, look quite different from our own. So perhaps we've got "romanized Arabic" and "Arabic Arabic?" ;)

  24. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    @Lazar: indeed! I discovered the difference later. Unfortunately, the longer the description, the less likely it is to be used.

  25. bunsen_lamp said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    In Russian, the Latin alphabet is sometimes incorrectly referred as "German letters" (немецкими буквами). In late 1980's when Molotow/Ribbentrop pact between USSR and German Reich was first time ever being discussed in public in Soviet Union (as part of Gorbachov's glasnost policy), some hardline commie apparachik tried to deny it's authenticy as, like he said to everyone's amusement, Molotow's signature was in "German letters" (he meant Latin alphabet).
    When you google for немецкими буквами (= in German letters) you get suprisingly many hits.

  26. rpsms said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    regarding government forms: "english letters" is probably the best way to refer to ascii/ansi encoding in their directions.

  27. Andrew said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    The (modern) Greek tattoo pictured in the Telegraph article, for what it's worth, is completely correct. τίποτα δεν είναι αδύνατο = nothing is impossible

  28. Spectre-7 said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    Oh bollocks… Latte doesn't take an acute accent, for that matter. Either Coby chose two bad examples or I utterly missed a rather clever joke. I'm betting on the latter.

  29. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    I've always wanted a "stupid gweilo" tattoo in Chinese characters. Never had the guts to do it, though. I'd definitely buy a T-shirt, though.

  30. Fluxor said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    rpsms: I agree. Its use minimizes confusion. In casual conversation, using "English letters" also minimizes confusion.

  31. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    Spectre-7: in Italian it's latte, and in Spanish it's habanero. Latté and habañero are only found in English.

  32. Spectre-7 said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    I caught on… eventually. I'd offer some excuses for my utter denseness, but I seem to have left them in my other pants.

  33. K. said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    "No doubt because many people would not know what to make of "Latin letters"."

    Actually, I'm fairly sure this is aimed at those of us who are fully aware of the meaning of "Latin" or "Roman" script, as Karen and rpsms get at. I never had a moment's hesitation when reading a form that instructed me to use "English letters," I simply took this to mean that I ought to use the common transliteration conventions (ñ-> gn; ü->ue)

    Somebody's already mentioned Arabic numerals, but I'm surprised the "Arabic" script has thus far escaped mention.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    K., I mentioned the "Arabic" numerals, but I am not sure what your point is about the "Arabic" script. Do you mean that it is also used for other languages besides Arabic(Persian, Urdu, etc)?

  35. Robert said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    The book "Sheaves in Geometry and Logic" by Saunders Mac Lane and Ieke Moerdijk mistakenly refers to Latin letters as "Arabic letters" in the appendix on notations, presumably by confusion with Arabic numerals. I have also seen people in web forums mistakenly refer to Latin letters in that way when they have to distinguish them from Greek letters.

  36. marie-lucie said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    Robert: … people in web forums mistakenly refer to Latin letters in that way when they have to distinguish them from Greek letters

    Is the mistake the use of "Latin letters" instead of "Roman alphabet"? This is not a smuch of a mistake as "Arabic letters" for the same characters. (I guess that's what K. was referring to earlier, but I had never encountered if before).

  37. Paul Wilkins said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    No love for the fuzz? What about the PO-PO and their Shark tatoos? >\\\\))o>

  38. Christophe Strobbe said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    Chaon, you are joking, right?
    As far as I understand "出口,請勿進入" (or "出口,请勿进入" in Simplified Chinese characters) means: "Exit, please don't enter". Which is rather apposite for someone's "derrière".

  39. Aradheya said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 1:16 am

    We are emotionally aware about the NBA players for sporting Chinese tattoos that they do not understand . Chinese people there most are choosing alphabet tattoos and this is suddenly happened on this year.Chinese character tattoos mostly chosen by American people they like a lot this kinds of tattoos .

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