If there’s one thing you don’t want to take any risks on, it’s a tattoo. If you let someone permanently ink your body, the last thing you want is for an artist to stick you with the Chinese symbol for ‘dumpling’ rather than ‘courage.’ It’s a tale as old as time, and yet we just can’t seem to resist the thrill of an exotic tattoo. From bad translations to blatant misspellings, these people sacrificed their skin so you can learn from their mistakes. Take these stories as a lesson: Always vet your artist, and never trust Google Translate.
I noticed some random white guy with some interesting tattoos (I think it was in an amusement park) and then got a little excited to see Korean tattoos, which you rarely ever see. They were written vertically on his each of his calves. One said left leg, the other said right leg.
Dumb and pretty cool.
2. Mercury Poison, Maybe
Saw a girl with 魚 tattooed on her shoulder who swore up and down it meant poison… It means fish.
3. Wrongly Right
This happened when I was an apprentice. Some woman came in and wanted “heart is everthing” in the Disney font. The tattoo was huge and on her entire side. She had it printed out, and my artist had stenciled it and I had prepped the station. Well, as he was tattooing her, my jaw dropped. I realized that “everthing” was spelled incorrectly (he hadn’t gotten to it yet).
So I frantically told him that he needed to go smoke with me. After a great deal of nagging, he went out to smoke with me and was pretty ticked off about it. I told him about the incorrect spelling and he basically shat bricks. We went in and talked to this woman about it, and even after explaining that it was spelled incorrectly, she insisted that was how it had to be.
4. Not Quite
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”.
5. Just a Foodie
I was on the subway in NYC and there was a guy who clearly lifted a lot. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and on his jacked arms in Chinese were the words “牛肉麵” or “Beef noodle soup” for everyone to see. Man looked ready to get the rest of his favorite restaurant’s menu tattooed on his body.
6. Revenge Tattoo
I know a girl who had “壊疽” (“gangrene”) tattooed on her side and it quickly became her nickname. Even her family began calling her that. She was a very mean person, simply put, and I can only guess the tattoo artist was getting back at her. This was about five years ago, and nobody hears much from her nowadays.
7. This Tattoo Is Not a Tattoo
Two coworkers were laughing their butts off after coming back from lunch one day, saying they had seen a woman with a Chinese tattoo that translated to “Not a Tattoo.”
8. Officer Cutlet
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 (authorities?). He was so wrong. とんかつ Tonkatsu means pork cutlet. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
9. Hi, I’m Stupid
There was a somewhat famous dude among the Chinatown dwellers where I lived awhile back. He was a big, buff white guy who would always hang out in Chinatown with shirts that had the sleeves ripped off. He was pointed out to me in roughly this manner, “Look at that guy. His name is Ben. Ben has a tattoo of his name in Chinese on his upper arm. Ben insisted on having the pinyin of his name tattooed instead of being given a proper Chinese name. Ben is proud of his tattoo. Ben likes to introduce himself to the Asian people in Chinatown by pointing to his tattoo.”
Ben in pinyin = “pen” (pronounced pe-hn, which does sound like an Asianfied “Ben”). “Pen” in Mandarin means stupid. Dude introduced himself as stupid for years. As far as I know no one has ever told him. Everyone knows Ben though.
10. Artist’s Hari Kari
OK so late to the party, but a guy I know was travelling overseas and decided to get a tattoo. He asked the tattoo artist to write “Strange Human Interactions” on his arm. After the tattoo artist was done, he had a look, and sure enough, the tattoo artist had spelled one of the words wrong. The artist was so upset and he showed how sorry he was with a baffling gesture. He tattooed the same thing on himself – spelling mistake included.
11. Kind of Had it Coming
Guy had “変態外人” on his arm, said it meant “Lover of Asian Beauty” when in fact it means “Foreign Pervert”.
12. Lemon & Lime
I still cringe when I think about this one. When I was in my first year of tattoo school, I was tattooing a yellow sunflower with a blue background and some script. Seems pretty simple, right? I was so excited to start right away into the sunflower that I ignored my training and did all of my light colors, yellows, white highlights etc. first.
I finish that and move on to the dark/medium/light blues for the background, and it only took one misguided wipe of the excess dark blue into the yellows of the sunflower to permanently stain what was once a pastel yellow sunflower into a lime green mess. I freaked out, finished it up as best as I could, and charged her practically nothing.
I saw her again months later and while it wasn’t fluorescent green, it was still pretty obviously greenish. She showed me and then we didn’t talk about it further. Ugh. Awful.
13. Shoulder Fungus
I don’t speak Japanese nor Chinese, but I once had an Art Academy colleague who had two kanjis tattooed on each shoulder. She believed they meant “eternal happiness” 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.
14. Stick to English
I know a girl who got a Latin tattoo that read “ego sum libera spiritus,” thinking it meant “I am a free spirit.” Besides the inaccurate grammar, “spiritus” in Latin is a false cognate – the Latin word for “spirit” is “animus,” while “spiritus” means “breath” – so her tattoo translated literally to “I am a free breather”
Don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t understand, especially one with a notoriously complicated grammar.
15. Don’t Wear it Out
I once had a roommate placed with me in the apartment our company ran for us here in Japan. He was loud, obnoxious, and I generally didn’t get on well with him. But you try to get along, so we’d go to the izakaya up the street from time to time with other friends to drink and have a good time. The owners were this wonderful old Japanese couple who loved having all these weird gaijin come and entertain the locals.
Anyway, somehow, we get talking about tattoos and the roommate is showing his off. He then says that he got the kanji for “friendship” (友) and “peace” (和) tattooed on his back and lifts his shirt to show everyone. There’s a bit of silence, broken by someone asking, “Who’s Tomokazu?” What Roommate didn’t know, of course, was that those two kanji in that order was a man’s name.
He reacted well, though, taking a beat and then announcing, “I’M TOMOKAZU!” which became a running joke while he was there.
It was Friday the 13th, and I was getting a $13 tattoo of the Roman numeral XIII. Small lines, pretty simple. I get it on my calf. So, he does that tattoo, tells me to stand up and have a look. I look down at it, and something’s wrong. IIIX. “It’s backwards” I tell the guy. He says in a very Long Island accent, no paraphrasing, “Don’t tell me that, I don’t read Roman numerals, man!”
17. Sneaky Sausage
A friend of mine was working as a roadie for one of those ‘hair bands’ from the 80’s. One night, one of the members was in their dressing room with his shirt off before the show, when another singer walked in and exclaimed “That’s a freaking dick on your back!” The tattoo in question was a dragon, but it wasn’t hard to see that it was very phallic.
So, this 80’s hair band member calls the tattoo shop where he got it done, starts telling the guy about his experience, and the guy immediately cuts him off with the worst thing he could say. He goes, “Yea man, listen, I’m really sorry but he’s long gone, fired him quite some time ago. You were not the only one” So, this tattoo artist had been sneaking in dirty images into all of his tattoos, including the ones on famous rock band members.
18. Been Better
I speak Khmer (Cambodian) and when I lived there, I saw tourists with incorrect translations of words all the time. My favorite was a repeat offender. A lot of people got កម្លាំង for strength, but កម្លាំង really means like… generally not feeling like garbage rather than specifically strong. It doesn’t refer to emotional strength or even really physical strength, just like “I woke up today, and I feel basically fine.” But if you put strength into google translate, that’s the word it will give you.
19. Two is Better Than One
I saw a dude with a tattoo that said “household” on his arm (家庭), talking about a family more in the sense of a unit rather than something with sentiment. I was at a Chinese takeaway in a western city’s suburb with two friends who also understand mandarin and said loudly in mandarin “why does his arm’s tattoo say household?” and the dude didn’t flinch, which tells me he definitely doesn’t understand Chinese.
20. Washroom Lady
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.
21. Power Move
I have the characters for Shrimp Dumpling (Har Gow) tattooed on me. I knowingly did this, because I’m half Chinese and I 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.
22. Friends Tattoo Friends
I’m out one night and meet a blonde bombshell. She’s almost as drunk as me and long story short we end up at her place. She’s showing me the tattoo machine she just got in the mail. All the colors and diff sized needles and whatever. She shows me a portfolio of work she’s done and I’m pretty impressed. She’s going to now tattoo me (free of course) with something I picked out. It’s a girl holding her arms up reaching a sun with this cool stone cracking.
I’ve always wanted one on my right forearm so that’s where she starts. I’m not looking and I’m extremely surprised about how bad it hurts. It’s like the needle is touching my bone. It freaking destroys. I finally look and I do not like what I see. I simply say, yeah. You can stop there. So now I have an unfinished naked chick on my forearm that legit looks like a woman’s private parts. I literally cannot come up with anything to cover it, so I’ve had it now for about 5 years.
23. So Close
I did three years of Mandarin Chinese in high school. After I graduated, I met a woman and we kinda became friends. She was excited to get a tattoo and she had printed it out and showed it to me when I told her I knew some Chinese. The character was for joy or happiness and she wanted me to make sure it was correct.
She handed me the paper, and I looked at it, but it was upside down, I turned the page and told her it was right, and she looked confused but satisfied and I didn’t think anything of it. A few months later she showed me the tattoo on her ankle, and there it was, upside down. I said it looked great.
24. True Friend Stuff
My best friend got a tattoo when she was 16. Her dad had passed on about three years ago and she wanted to get a tattoo on her wrist to remember him. Instead of getting his name, she decided she wanted to get “dad” in Japanese. It’s been two years and I still haven’t told her the truth. It just says “turtle” I know that she’ll hate herself if she finds out.
25. Do Not Heart
When I turned 21 me and my sister decided to get matching tattoos. We wanted to get little birds behind our ear but when we got to the tattoo shop, they said that wasn’t a good idea because sometimes the ink bleeds and it turns into a big blob. That should have been my first sign to get out of there. Long story short we decide to get little hearts behind our ears instead.
I went first and it’s pretty obvious the lady was just practicing on me. I have the most screwed up heart behind my ear imaginable. Crooked. Unevenly shaped. Even the line is unevenly darker on one side than the other. One side does the float heart edge, the other side is a straight line from the “top heart hump” to the bottom. It looks like two different people drew either side of the heart.
The heart my sister got behind her ear is perfect.
26. It’s Like English, Right?
I speak Japanese and was once browsing a small-town tattoo shop. I cracked up when I saw the “Japanese alphabet” on the wall with poorly written gibberish characters listed as “A, B, C,” etc. No one’s that ignorant, I thought. Two hours later getting lunch with my boyfriend. I notice similar looking characters on our waiter’s arm. I casually ask him what it says.
I didn’t have the heart to correct him.
27. Rock N’ Landslide
Had a metalhead guy think he had ‘Rock and Roll’ in Japanese on his arm. Turns out it meant rockslide/landslide, as in the natural disaster. Had a girl with a tramp stamp she thought meant sweet babe, but actually meant “sugar baby.”
28. Soup Lover
I don’t speak Chinese but back in college I knew a guy who liked to brag about how cultured he was when in reality, he was just an idiot. He came back from China with some characters tattooed on him. My friend next to me burst out laughing. The guy got kinda annoyed and said “It says Strength, Wisdom, Passion.”
My friend then reached into his bag, pulled out his phone, opened up one of those AR translators, pointed it at the guy’s tattoo, and through the magic of AR, revealed it actually said, “chicken with noodles.” My friend then said that one of his mates in China told him that a lot of Asian tattooists will often deliberately mess up tattoos and stuff because they get really annoyed at those people coming over asking for random words to be tattooed onto them.
29. Partying With Tweety Bird
One of my best friends in high school moved away to St Louis and a couple years later I was in town, so I looked him up. He came to our hotel and brought his friend with him. Apparently, he got pretty into a rough lifestyle in the interim and was, from what I gathered, dealing some stuff on the side.
In the course of conversation, he brought up his friend’s tattoo and claimed it was the worst ever. Dude pulled up his sleeve and showed us what was essentially a yellow blob with a white blob coming out of it. We all just kinda sat there stunned until he said, “It’s Tweety Bird puffing. If you ever trade a rocks for a tattoo, make sure you both wait until after to smoke it.”
30. Italian Mandarin Food
My friend in high school got “Italian” in mandarin tattooed on his neck… we later learned that it means “Italian food”.
Many years ago, I went to a college that was about a half hour drive from my house. I was with this girl at the time and I thought we’d spend a nice day driving around together. We ended up back at my place as I needed to pick up a few things. In my room, she pulls out a random book in Korean and goes, “what book is this?” I say, “it’s a biography of Benjamin Franklin.”
She opens a book to a random page, points to a sentence and asks, “what does this sentence say?” I read the sentence and say to her, “the sentence reads, “did I not promise to myself that I would not be a slave?” or something to that effect.” She thought it was so amazing that the sentence she picked out of a random Korean book had such “meaning” to it. I know. Looking back on it, it was a total cringe moment but boy oh boy it was going to get so much worse… Anyway, she thought it was kismet that this occurred. So, she asked me to write it out for her in Korean.
I decided to get all fancy and write it out in Korean calligraphy but due to the length of the sentence, I had to write it in two lines. So, I gave it to her in two strips of paper. Next year she comes back to school and was so excited to show me something. She rolls up her sleeve and had the sentence tattooed around her arm in a band. When I looked at the sentence, I realized with horror that 1, she had the order of the sentence reversed and 2, the second half of the sentence was tattooed upside down.
I said to her, “It looks great!” and walked away. I have no idea whether she knows or not. I lost touch with her years ago.
32. At Least It’s Not Mad Cow
A guy I used to know had the astrological sign of Taurus. He decided one day to get a tattoo of “wild bull” in Chinese characters on his arm. Some time later he was golfing, and a small Chinese man came up to him, laughing the whole time, and slapped him on his tattoo and said, “crazy beef!”
33. Paper Thin
Just fresh out of my apprenticeship I had an older gentleman in a wheelchair with his caregiver come in and asked to have his late wife’s name but on his arm. I told him how that it can sometimes be a bad idea to tattoo older people like himself because of how thin and paper-like the skin is. It often leads to blow outs or the tattoo completely falling out.
But he’s determined so we get started. First letter in… The whole letter blows out and is completely unrecognizable. I stop, call over a coworker with more knowledge and we both tell the gentleman that we don’t think it’s a good idea to go on with the tattoo. He then begins to cry and tells the awful truth. It’s the anniversary of his wife’s death the next day and he wanted to go and show her the tattoo. He said that before she passed, he told her he’d do it.
He was utterly distraught and clearly still grieving the love of his life. This was six years ago, and I still remember it every day before I start a tattoo.
34. Same Difference
Chinese speaker here. In high school I worked at a CVS. A white woman showed up at the register with a very poorly drawn 力 tattoo, and I said, “cool tattoo, means power.” She scoffed and replied to me like I was Satan himself, and said, “you obviously don’t understand Chinese “letters” the tattoo artist told me it means the strength to overcome anything, even breast cancer…” then she rolled her eyes at me and walked away.
Worked in Japan for a few years, and shortly after moving back to the US, I spotted a fellow working in a comics shop with a tattoo of a kanji. I recognized it right away, but I asked him what it meant just in case I was horribly wrong. He said it was Chinese, that there wasn’t a direct English translation, and it was about inner strength and determination.
My dude, 苺 means “strawberry.”
36. Felt Inspired
I asked my artist to make my tattoos blend together into a sleeve by adding a blue-ish background. Hours later, after he finishes, I get up and look and feel like I’m about to have a heart attack. My arm is FULL of purple swirls. No blue at all, just awful, uneven, ugly random purple swirls.
I ask what exactly happened and his reply made me livid. He said, “Oh, yeah, I thought this would look cooler.” I don’t care what you think, it’s what I wanted. He clearly didn’t understand that I was ticked so I just stared at him blankly, told him to wrap it up so I didn’t get any grossness in it, then promptly left. After freaking out, I went to another shop that fixed me up.
Funny thing is, the old artist still thinks we’re pals, still tags me in stuff on Facebook. But he doesn’t know that the only reason we’re even friends on there is so I can watch him fail. It’s been so satisfying to see his business unravel over the years. I saw him open and quickly close his own shop after too many people cancelled and his financial backer pulled out. Now he’s working out of someone’s house, but is still begging on Facebook for people to come in and get work done by him.
I know it’s bad, but it makes me so happy to see this idiot fail at every step.
37. Big House Fan
Guy in my class told me this long story about a Japanese student who stayed with his family for a semester. They got so close that when the student left, the guy went out and got the Japanese symbol for “family” tattooed on his arm. Well, that’s what he thought he got. Long story short, there is a dude with the Japanese word for “house” running around thinking he has this profound tattoo about family.
38. Dyslexia Strikes
My good friend got tattooed once. He’s really into art and painting, so he got “art never comes from happiness” on his forearm. But he actually got “art never from comes happiness.” They both checked it out and everyone approved, and his friend was even in the room the whole time with him. No one noticed until they got home. True story. He wore nothing but long sleeve shirts and sweaters for the summer until he got it fixed.
39. Riff Raff Roof
I read Egyptian hieroglyphics. I once met a woman who had “live, laugh, love” written on her in English, but with hieroglyphic characters. Thing is, while Egyptian was a phonetic writing system, the sounds aren’t directly copiable into English. For example, there is no “L” in ancient Egyptian. The “v” as in vampire was more a “f” sound.
What she actually had was closer to: Reefe Raff Roofe. Ouch.
40. Adventures in Picnicking
Girl at a festival had got a tattoo down the side of her ribs while traveling in Thailand. A Chinese tattoo. In Thailand. Why? She brought it up and showed people. Said it meant “live for adventure” or something corny like that. Chinese girl we were with starts peeing herself laughing. Girl was like “what’s so funny?” It said “picnic table.”
41. Fleeing to Taipei
My stepson bought an entry level tattooing kit, spent a while practicing on pig skin, and then proceeded to spend much of the winter tattooing three large Chinese characters vertically on the back of his own thigh. He had made friends with an exchange student from Taipei who nicely translated some stuff for him. I can’t remember what the tattoos were supposed to say, some simple motto like “truth, beauty, diligence”.
Come spring, when it healed, stepson went to show his new ink off at one of the beaches. We lived in Vancouver at the time, so lots of Chinese people wandering by on a nice, sunny day. But if his tattoo was exposed, they’d look at it, whisper to each other for a few minutes, then walk off snickering. Bad sign. Long story short, he had somehow transposed the characters left to right, so they were actually in mirror image; this explained the confusion and whispered conversations among the passers-by.
But it gets so much worse. The characters he so diligently inscribed onto his own flesh didn’t actually say “truth, beauty, diligence”, or whatever. His high school friend – now safely back in Taipei – had carefully brushed out for him the characters for “ugly white boy.”
42. In the Bucket
One guy got a tattoo that read 饭桶. Literally this means “rice bucket” which is funny enough on its own, but the actual meaning of the word is somebody who sits around all day eating and does nothing else. (i.e. where you store the rice in the house.) I’m guessing the tattoo artist was having a good laugh.
43. Swapping Ears
I saw a lady with 右 tattooed under her left ear and 左 under her right. I don’t know about Chinese, but in Japanese they’re right and left…but she had right under her left ear and left under her right….
44. Unpopular Opinion: He Had it Coming
My friend wanted to get the word ‘ANOGE’ tattooed since it was some made-up slang that his group of friends used to mean ‘no’. He wanted the text and a clenched fist. So we all went to the tattoo shop with him. He had a drawing of what he wanted and showed it to the artist, with the word spelled “ANOGE.” The artist made a stencil and placed the stencil on his calf, still spelled ‘ANOGE’. We all looked at it, probably ten people, and it was correct.
When it was done, he proudly came outside to show it off. Everyone was telling him how good it looked until I saw it. My stomach dropped. The text said “IAOGNE.” I was the only one that noticed. When he stepped back inside, I broke it to him and he just started crying. When he told the artist, the guy wasn’t very apologetic. He still charged my friend for the incorrect tattoo, and said something like, “come back later and I’ll dig it out.” Um, no. He’s had the misspelled tattoo for 10 years now.
45. Paint It Black
It was my second legit in-shop tattoo, I was to do free tattoos for friends only for a few months before I was allowed to get actual clients. An old friend from high school made an appointment for a nautical star. I did the outline no problem and started packing in color. I was going around the points filling in the left sides black and when I got to the last point, I filled in the right side instead. I felt horrible. We worked it out to where she was happy and tried to tell me not to worry but I did, and still do.
46. Game Over
I was getting my second tattoo at the same shop as my first but with a different artist. It was a simple, 8-bit, one up mushroom. It healed and was crooked with lines different sizes and eyes slanted. The same artist caused a lot of pain trying to fix it a month later and it still came out terrible. When I healed I went back a couple months later. A different artist said he was let go and offered, as a peer, to fix mine for free. He expanded the lines and made it symmetrical and great looking. I gave like $80 as a “tip.” Since it didn’t take him long and he did not have to do that.
47. A Plea to God
Not in Chinese, but in Hebrew: I’ve seen a collection of stupid Hebrew tattoos on Pinterest, and one of them said אלהים תן לי מח – God, give me brain. Maybe it was a sincere prayer, though.
48. Too Literal
A friend of the family asked for, “Victory or Defeat”. Then found out his literal translation was, “if I do not succeed, I will end myself” …Not wrong? But the best part is what he says if you ask him what it means. His new response is, “it says I’m a friggin’ idiot”.
49. Chubby Chaser
Dude was so proud of his grandson that he wanted a tattoo that said “I love my grandson” in Chinese characters. Except I’m guessing everyone just googled “I love my grand son” because it came out reading “I love fat boys.” Whoops.
50. DOES NOT COMPUTE
I personally don’t speak Chinese, but I dated someone who did. I worked with a dude who had a BIG tattoo all down his back in Chinese lettering in remembrance for a friend who had passed. He thought that the characters said the friend’s name. My date said that the tattoo translated to “does not translate/ untranslatable.” This poor dude had plugged his friends name into google translate or something and it came back unable to translate and since he couldn’t read the characters that’s what he printed out and took to the tattoo shop.