Chinese characters are the oldest writing system still in use today. Many other East Asian languages have adopted the Chinese “Han characters,” including their use in Japanese Kanji writing. Both traditional and simplified characters have become commonly used in Chinese calligraphy tattoos.
“Calligraphy is an art form that uses ink and a brush to express the very souls of words on paper.”
In China, calligraphy is among the most admired arts. The appreciation of this art form has spread around the world, and Chinese lettering tattoos have become popular tattoos in the West.
It requires a skilled hand to transform lettering and logograms into artful displays. It also requires an intimate knowledge of language.
An advanced literary vocabulary may include as much as 6,000 characters, and the writing system itself includes tens of thousands. Each character has several variants. Asian tattoo artists can choose between variants to change the meaning or aesthetics.
Why People Get Chinese Script Tattoos
In the West, Chinese script tattoos are sometimes criticized when worn by people who don’t speak the language. The idea is that those who don’t speak an Asian language cannot understand or appreciate the meaning of the characters. However, there are a number of reasons people choose Chinese lettering tattoos.
Prior to the year 180 BC, Chinese calligraphy tattoos were one of the Five Punishments. Criminals would have tattoos branding their face, with characters displaying their crime.
While this practice was abolished during the Western Han dynasty, it is a popular theme in popular culture. The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850 for instance, was a story where adulterers had to wear a bright red “A” to display their crime. It has inspired a number of other movies and books from Kafka’s The Penal Colony, to Easy A.
Over time, the association of tattoos with criminality faded. In the modern world, people choose to get Asian calligraphy tattoos for a number of reasons including:
Calligraphy is a respected and beautiful art style. A strong calligrapher can create a truly, masterful, aesthetic tattoo. While these tattoos require precision and a careful hand, they do not have a high degree of detail. As a result, they look good just about anywhere and at any size.
This provides a lot of placement options, making them great tattoos for the workplace. They are inoffensive and easy to hide.
Chinese characters provide an opportunity to express meaning simply. Some people want to express something that they have a strong connection with, but that is complicated to express visually. Using a word or character can express this meaning in a simple, elegant tattoo.
English speakers may find that an English lettering tattoo is too large or doesn’t possess the look they desire. In this case, they may turn to the aesthetics of Chinese characters.
A zodiac tattoo is a popular choice for Chinese calligraphy tattoos. There is a wide selection of character variation so people can get the aesthetics they want, and have a meaning specific to themselves.
For example, a popular zodiac character is a dragon tattoo. The above image shows the character for dragon in oracle bone script (left) and bronze script (right). These are just two possible designs of many, with varying complexity.
In addition to symbolizing a dragon, this tattoo also represents everything associated with this zodiac sign, such as courage and intelligence.
These tattoos are a popular way to honour or represent one’s heritage. They may have meaning to one’s self, family, or nationality.
Tattoos are sometimes used as an expression of control over yourself and your body. With a Chinese character tattoo, you mark this control with a word that is meaningful towards your own struggles or goals.
Getting A Chinese Calligraphy Tattoo in Toronto & Vancouver
If you are thinking of getting a Chinese calligraphy tattoo, it’s important to go to a good shop. This is especially true if you are unfamiliar with the language. Too often, artists without the linguistic knowledge end up using or stringing together characters that are incorrect in meaning or grammar.