• 2023.05.18
  • Tattoos
These days, it’s considered fashionable and commonplace to have a tattoo somewhere on your body.

And yet, this is something that people would have found unthinkable in past generations. In Japan, irezumi tattoos are closely tied to the yakuza and organized crime, while in the West they are historically associated with prisoners bound for concentration camps—so it makes sense that older generations would have an aversion to marking their own bodies in this way.

But what about the mindset of the people that get them? I’m sure there are several different motivations, but in general, I’m thinking a lot of people just find them cool or fashionable. I’ve heard that it takes some self-confidence to get a tattoo, which must mean that many people end up getting them as a result of seeking out their own identity.

When one of my Italian coworkers told me that she’d decided to get a tattoo, I advised against it--she was a 40-year-old woman for one, and there are concerns about ill effects from the chemical ingredients. But she went ahead with it and seems happy. There’s a postscript to this story, though—I half-jokingly pointed out that she wouldn’t be able to enjoy the colorful peach blossoms and branches if she put them on her back because she wouldn’t be able to see them. And yet, she still ended up choosing her back.

There’s another postscript. She told me not to tell a soul since her parents would disapprove. Shocked that a forty-year-old woman would say such a helpless—or I guess immature—thing, I was at a loss for words. But when she wore something that allowed the tattoo to peek out, drawing a little bit of attention to it, I wondered whether creating a little stir in people, surprised that such a sweet-looking woman would be fond of tattoos (in other words, creating a bit of social buzz), might be part of the reason she wanted it. She told me that she had a friend go with her to get it (whether this was because she felt lonely going by herself or some other reason, I don’t know), so I suspect that getting a tattoo gave her a bit of confidence and a feeling of independence.

Incidentally, it’s become quite popular to get kanji character tattoos in Italy.

But there’s a problem.

There are so many situations where I want to ask the person why in the world they would get those characters tattooed on them! I vaguely recall one of my coworkers getting 良妻 (the characters for “good wife”) tattooed on her neck… I mean, it’s not like it has a negative connotation, but what was she doing? Self-advertising that she was a fantastic tattooed wife, in lieu of an official certification?

After that, I kept seeing strange kanji tattoos everywhere. I couldn’t help but look—but then resolved to avoid doing that, since they might demand that I confirm the meaning of the characters, dragging me back to the tattoo artist with them and forcing me to reveal it.

There have been stories of all kinds of mishaps with Westerners getting kanji tattoos, including having the characters reversed or upside-down.

Kanji were certainly tough when we had to study and take tests on them in elementary school.

Basically what I’m saying is, the world of Chinese characters is one of tremendous depth.


  • Yuriko Mikami
  • JobMusician

A cellist based in Milan. Performs as a soloist also with some ensembles. Has a wide range of genres from classic to pop. Actually plays in a band on an Italian comedian's TV show.

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