However, to dismiss foreign-language tattoos as vapid body tourism or cultural appropriation misses a key fact: People get such tattoos for varied and complex reasons: self-expression, rebellion, individual and group identity, cultural tradition, memento, or just plain spur-of-the-moment impulses. Many inscribe a hard-fought struggle against addiction, depression, toxic relationships, or some other challenge whose conquest was deemed worthy of tribute. It is a mockery of human striving to disparage such skin art as mere ornament or bland consumerism.
The awkward encounter with my yoga instructor wasn’t the last time I got to check out an Arabic design. Over the years, many students have asked me to translate a word or phrase for them in Arabic, or to verify that the word they found is indeed the correct one. A number of these students have been servicemen and women trying to reclaim the memories they had on tour. Others have told me stories of such body art being used to no less potent an end, though perhaps a less savory one—as an intimidation tactic by soldiers still stationed in Arabic-speaking lands.
Read: Watching tattoos go from rebellious to mainstream
In the most memorable case yet, someone asked for help tracking down the right word for gratitude (we settled on al-shukr, a Koranic term of sincere acknowledgment of God’s blessings). Embarrassed but curious, I asked her to elaborate more about her decision to get an Arabic tattoo. “I’ve been working with a gifted intuitive for a couple years and she recently told me about a past life I had in ancient Egypt,” she wrote to me in an email. “There’s no way to prove it’s true, but it resonates with me. Since the ancient Egyptian language is a dead language, I settled on Arabic.”
While not everyone who gets a foreign-language tattoo has such a mystical connection, there is indeed a kind of magic when people come to see ordinary, everyday things through the fresh lens of a foreign tongue. It happens all the time in casual speech—saying carpe diem rings deeper and graver than “use time wisely,” while esprit de corps has a poetic lilt absent the more insipid “team spirit” (the word tattoo itself comes from Polynesian languages). Interjecting words that we know have meaning and yet which are different or striking, a blend of the canny and uncanny, has something to do with being culturally sensitive and aesthetically creative.
It doesn’t always come across that way, of course. Chinese is a popular language for tattoos on Western people who don’t speak the language, risking the descent into crass exoticism. My yogi’s interest in Arabic had nothing to do with his interest in yoga, an originally Hindu tradition. But for a casual observer, it could suggest a failure to distinguish between cultures of color. In the West today, Arabic can also come across as threatening to some, whereas Latin often signals high-culture elitism. These are some of the perils of foreign-language tattoos.