For the last six months, I have considered getting a tattoo. Ever since I was young kid, I’ve enjoyed buying temporary tattoos from vending machines and covering my body with images of scorpions, cobras, and barbwire. Tattoos symbolize a lot of different things for me: rebelliousness, self-expression, permanence, empowerment, legitimacy, and beauty. During my numerous visits to tattoo parlors and hours on the web searching for that perfect design, I have often thought of getting a tattoo that represents my Japanese heritage, like a Kanji symbol for my middle name. Yet, whenever I thought of following through with it, I couldn’t help but compare myself to the numerous Asian symbols I have seen over the years on non-Asians. Would my friends see the symbol on my back and put me in the same group as the hipsters and gangsters alike who get an Asian symbol for “good luck” or “power?”
I have a friend from high school who prides himself on his “multicultural collection” of tattoos. He has an American Indian symbol of an eagle, a Celtic knot, and a Chinese symbol for “strength.” Whenever I see his tattoos, they scream imperialism, racism, extotification, and exploitation, yet could the same symbol for me be a source of empowerment and legitimacy? With the majority of people getting Asian tattoos being white and black, the popularity of Asian tattoo art could also easily be viewed as a success of integrating Asian culture into the mainstream. Is it less offensive for a non-Asian to get a Kanji character if he venerates the symbol by knowing its meaning and history? Another interesting phenomenon which has taken place is the mistranslation (both intentional and accidental) of Asian characters: “gas” instead of “spirit” or “blood and intestines” instead of “blood and guts.” Poorly drawn and even upside down characters are another regular occurrence. For all of its complexities, Asian tattoo art serves as a good lens for examining production and abuse of Asian American popular culture.