My yoga instructor’s eyes lit up as he bared his forearm. “Look!” In the dim candlelight of the yoga studio, I squinted at the place he’d indicated. There was a tattoo, but not of anything recognizable, at least not to me.
“What is it?” I asked uncomfortably.
“Salaam!” he said. “It means ‘peace’ in Arabic!”
As a professor of Arabic, I get regular requests to verify tattoos, or to admire the ones people already have. This was one of those times.
I looked again, and sure enough, there were the four Arabic letters that make the sounds “s,” “l,” “a,” and “m”—the letters needed to spell “peace.” But they were disconnected, which explains why I couldn’t read it: Arabic must be written like cursive, each letter attached to the next, or else it is unintelligible. I didn’t have the heart to tell the yogi that he’d permanently inked his skin with nonsense.
Laughing at tattoo “fails” has become a favorite pastime of academic linguists and internet trolls. For them, blunders of spelling and meaning betray a vapid, commodified globalism that forever marks the victims. But for thousands of people—including my yoga teacher—getting a foreign script etched onto the skin is part of a universal search for significance and sentimental attachment. People risk embarrassment because foreign-language tattoos give them a permanent invitation to contemplate cultures and ideas beyond their own. That effort can still succeed, even if the tattoos have errors.
As a practice, body modifications like tattoos have been around as long as humans have. One of their earliest uses was what psychologists call “social branding.” Five thousand years ago, for example, ancient Egyptians would tattoo slaves to set them apart from non-slaves when the former were taken out to be sold; so marked, the slaves constituted an “out group,” a label imposed by force from without. The reverse can be seen in the European sailors who, starting in the 16th century, accumulated tribal skin designs after spending time among the indigenous peoples of North America and the South Pacific. These markings gave sailors and their curious onlookers “a fashionable flirt with the exotic,” at a time when not everyone could make the same voyages they had.
For similar reasons, for centuries people have put foreign words on art, clothing, and even human skin in an attempt to score social significance by trying to make mundane objects seem sophisticated and alluring. It was once fashionable, for instance, to pepper European medieval and Renaissance artworks with Arabic text. While visually dazzling, the words had no actual meaning; Britannica has called such text “beautiful gibberish.” This practice recently became the source of a controversy after a researcher claimed that a scrap of Viking burial clothes bore the word Allah, a claim later debunked by scholars. There is also the case of travelers from Victorian England who would go to Japan and engage in “tattoo tourism,” collecting indelible skin-souvenirs as fond reminders of the journey, but also as signals of worldliness to other people. Many Westerners still go to Japan for this purpose.
In the absence of sustained, meaningful engagement with their source cultures, these tattoos become cosmetic decoration alone. For some, foreign-language tattoos amount to an empty cosmopolitanism that casts far-flung peoples as a luxury commodity, rather than as communities to be understood earnestly after learning a foreign language or living abroad. For this reason, a University of Cambridge classicist has given up a lucrative side hustle verifying tattoos in ancient Latin, out of the feeling that the rebellious individualism that once characterized such body modifications “has been ousted by unthinking novelty … or by undue obscurantism.”
Thanks to the internet, a voyeurism has erupted around badly translated tattoos. Social media can make errors in foreign-language tattoos visible to those who couldn’t otherwise tell the difference. By pulling back the curtain in this way, internet culture has stripped foreign-language body art of some of its former mystique. On top of that, tattoos have become more common in Western countries, making errors more widespread as designs influence one another. One might wonder why anyone would risk permanent embarrassment for a thrill, or to impart a vague sense of worldly chic when there are other ways to do so.
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.
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.
But those dangers shouldn’t smear the tattoos entirely. Even when they go wrong, body designs can exemplify the human search for significance. To gain access to something “foreign” is, in a grander perspective, to go beyond one’s own locality, to resist the accident of circumstance, to expand the boundaries of self-perception. It is to discover oneself in something wholly unlike oneself. Linguistic accuracy should obviously be a high priority in choosing a permanent skin tattoo, but so too should the opportunity such a tattoo affords for reflection on the self. If occasional body-art “fails” are the price to be paid, that’s an indelible mark I can live with.