S1: You’re really struck by the humanness of these objects, you know, they’re not really straightforwardly objects, they are pieces of people.
S2: In 2009, Gemma Angel, then a graduate student, heard about a very unique opportunity, the chance to study a set of 300 tried tattoo specimens, basically preserved pieces of human skin with tattoos on them. So creepy. But Gemma was fascinated
S1: to morbid fascination. There’s something repellent about it, but also it draws you to it. At the same time,
S2: the skins are part of the welcome collection, assembled at a time when criminologists were interested in exploring a connection between tattoos and criminal behavior. Gemma applied for the position, and when she went in for an interview, a few of the tattoos were in clear boxes at the front of the room.
S1: I just went straight over to the tattoos and started examining them. I’m so drawn to them.
S2: The tattoos had supposedly been gathered between 1830 and 1829 in France, allegedly from criminals and sailors. But no one knew exactly who the tattoos came from or who’d collected them or how. And Gemma wanted to get as many answers as she could.
S1: It’s like being a historical detective
S2: of the 300 specimens which vary in size, subject and technique, one in particular stood out to her. It’s an especially well-preserved piece of skin from a man’s chest. It has a large figure of a girl on it. She has long, dark hair and she’s staring back towards the viewer. It’s professionally applied, and the girl’s face, though a little distorted, is enigmatic, even a little forlorn, her face resting on her hands. Over the last century, criminologists have paid special attention to this tattoo, to theorizing about its meaning and writing about it into the late 1960s.
S1: This girl is described as being his true love because she’s positioned on his chest above his heart. So the criminologist there is reading the body like a text. But I always thought that that interpretation was not quite right. So it’s been kind of my mission, I guess, to reconstruct his story
S2: in order to learn more about this tattoo and all of the others in the collection. Gemma took a research trip to Paris where the tattoos had supposedly been gathered. She was hoping to spot some similar iconography in one of the city’s photo archives at the Bibliotheque Nacional in Paris. She started flipping through a book about French prisons
S1: and the moment that I. Sort of turned the page and saw the photograph of this person in front of me. I just had this sort of like rush of shock and recognition. And I just remember my heart pounding and just thinking, oh, my God, it’s him. There was a
S2: catch, though. There was no information about him. No name, no face. So she scanned the book and started sending the image around to curators and archivists. She eventually heard back from the French police who had the photo, which had been taken in 1981
S1: when I went to see the collection. So in the full photograph, sort of naked for midsize to Tian and very annoyingly, I can’t you can’t see his face. And I’ve I still don’t know what his face looks like,
S2: but she now at least had his name August from. Frohman, it turns out, was a character who’d pop up in the French press precisely because of his incredibly elaborate tattoos. In fact, he’s been photographed by the police so they could document his tattoos. Many of them came from newspapers and magazines. They were images that other Frenchmen at the time would have recognized.
S1: He kind of becomes this walking kind of picture book of images from popular culture.
S2: But Jamma could not find a source for the image of the girl on his heart, the dreamy one who was maybe supposed to be his true love, or at least not while she was in France. One day back in London, Jamma happened to be watching a documentary about the Victorian era home
S1: as the narrator of this program is talking about these infant milk formulas. And there are various images kind of popping up on the screen all of a sudden. This just for a few seconds, this sort of print image identical to this child tattooed on his chest, pops up on the TV screen. I just remember leaping up and scaring the life out my partner and showing it to
S2: the tattoo that had fascinated Gemma and other scholars. This mysterious, romantic, enigmatic image. It’s from an advertisement, August Man’s True Love is a girl in an ad for Rejas baby food. This is Decoder ring, I’m Willa Paskin. Time does funny things to everything and especially to tattoos. And in today’s episode, we’re going to be telling a number of stories about exactly that, stories like the one you just heard, which show us how a tattoo might mean one thing in one moment in time and something totally different in another. Think of this episode like the walls of a tattoo parlor covered with a bunch of different tattoos, each with their own story to tell Decoder Thanks producer Benjamin Frisch will be taking us through them one by one. First, a journey into the world of a cartoon tattoo. Then a story about a tattoo of a forgotten consumer electronic. And last, a look at mistranslated Chinese character tattoos. So today, undercoating a tattoo omnibus. What has time done to you? Tattoo.
S3: There’s a tattoo I’ve always been particularly curious about, and it’s because at first, anyway, I hated it. Back in the early aughts when I was in high school, I worked as a caricature artist at the European themed amusement park Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was my first real job and I spent eight plus hours a day in 99 percent humidity in front of an easel tucked away in corners of the parks. Various fake European countries, fake Scotland, Italy, Germany. I draw all sorts of people, a lot of kids playing soccer, soldiers in fatigues, retirees with their grandkids and babies. By the way, don’t waste your money on a baby caricature. Babies all look the same because southeastern Virginia is so swampy and hot. In the summer, guests dressed down there was a lot of shorts and tank tops. So when people would sit down to have a character done, I’d see a lot of their tattoos. This was the early 2000s, so there was a lot of Irish knots and so-called tribal designs. But the tattoo that I noticed more than any other was of the Tasmanian devil, the Warner Brothers cartoon character who first appeared in 1954 as a foil to Bugs Bunny. House doesn’t look like a real Tasmanian devil, but he spins around like a tornado, leaving chaos in his wake and he speaks incomprehensibly.
S4: I can picture a Tasmanian devil on the calf of a man wearing cargo shorts. Like I feel like you would see this fairly often today.
S3: Becky Dreisdadt Matt is a character designer and animation, and she was one of my best friends when we worked together as teens at Busch Gardens.
S4: I love Looney Tunes. I love Bugs Bunny. I have never liked the Tasmanian Devil. There’s something about the Tasmanian devil. I just don’t I do not like
S3: Becky and I were in total agreement on this. I liked Looney Tunes too. But to me it has felt like the epitome of a bad tattoo, corny, kind of corporate and also aesthetically unappealing. He’s just kind of brown. So I’ve always wondered why why were there so many tattoos of this one specific second tier looney tune? And yes, there really were so many of them, and not just at Busch Gardens in Virginia. Did you have the tazz on the wall?
S1: Oh, God, yes.
S3: Misha is a tattoo artist, painter and graphic designer who started tattooing in the early 90s. Today, she specializes in these incredibly beautiful, intricate tattoo cover ups. But she cut her teeth doing the kind of readymade tattoos you see on the wall of a tattoo parlor. These tattoos on the wall are known as Tattoo Flash. And by the 1990s, the Tasmanian devil was a tattoo flash staple.
S4: I had one day where I did five Tasmanian devils. I was working on one into my hands like, dude, that’s awesome. I’ll get it two. And then two other guys were coming in to get a matching tattoo. His buddies, they’re like, Yeah, we want that one. I’m like, seriously, five in one day, one after another.
S3: Juli Moon is another tattoo artist who cut a lot of tazz tattoos in the 90s while working in Boston.
S1: Well, Charles was popular, but he was fairly boring in terms of color. And I just thought putting him in different costumes would be really funny.
S3: So Juli drew her own sheets of Tazz Flash softly rendered colored pencil Tazz Variations. There’s Christmas Taz with a Santa’s sack full of guts, a bright pink tazz as Cupid a warlock tazz Fourth of July Tazz and another local variety tazz as St. Patrick’s Day party animal. But unlike other cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop or Woody Woodpecker, Tazz was not always a tattoo icon. It took decades for him to get there. He was first introduced in a cartoon called Devil May Hair in 1954. He’s fully formed here, spinning around like a tornado, running down trees and boulders in his path with his trademark garbled speech. He’s trying to eat Bugs Bunny,
S5: which he really wasn’t. Any groundswell of popularity for the cartoon. Just another crazy adversary for Bugs Bunny, really.
S3: Jerry Beck is an animation historian and the author of multiple books on the history of animation, including Looney Tunes.
S5: The character only appeared in like five cartoons.
S3: These cartoons were originally shown before feature films and movie theaters. But the studio heads weren’t super keen on Tazz, so he never became a regular.
S5: In some ways, I’d almost say the character was forgotten during the 1960s for the most part.
S3: But TASC a second life when those theatrical reels started to air on TV in the 70s and 80s,
S5: I think the ensuing decades, the ensuing reruns of these cartoons, people think the characters, they are more than he is.
S3: The popularity of the character began to snowball and Warner Brothers began to notice in the 80s. They began heavily marketing the Looney Tunes characters in a way they hadn’t before. By 1991, they had their own shops and malls.
S5: They found out the Tasmanian Devil merchandise was really, really selling
S3: tases on T-shirts, mugs and baseball cards. And that ability he has to wear different costumes for different occasions and circumstances made him a merchandisers dream. He appears as an athlete in hip hop get up and on so much St. Patrick’s Day swag. By 1991, he has his own animated sitcom, Tasmania, featuring Tazz as the brother of a Tasmanian devil family. Now you have
S4: to be careful. Your father, just your
S3: Tasmanian, ran for four seasons and has continued to pop up in other properties like Space Jam. A few years later, the character is toned down a bit from his earliest incarnations. He’s not just Bugs Bunny’s enemy. He’s goofier, less scary. But he’s still all iid uncontrollable, destructive. He does what he wants, a wild child. So Tazz was in the air. But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s going to be a hot tatta necessarily. So why did people want Tazz inked on their skin? I think it has something to do with Tazz being a wild child. Rob Brucker was one and he dreamed of getting a Tasmanian devil tattoo since he was a teenager.
S1: The Tasmanian devil is like the wildest lurita. The idea came in my head. Was it twenty eighteen? I’m going to get to be dealt with by gun and I had zero weapon experience. It’s going to be awesome.
S3: Rob joined the National Guard as a combat engineer right out of high school just a few months before 9/11. In 2004, his unit was activated to go to Iraq and he was stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey, waiting to deploy. They were doing field training, getting dropped in the woods for a week at a time, and basically just having to survive. One time, a few guys in his unit said they were sick. So they got to hang back from outdoor survival training.
S1: They snuck off base, went to a nightclub. And as they were coming home, the driver and the passenger got in a serious argument. The argument was so bad that the passenger stuck a knife into the driver’s stomach and I mean, it was terrible,
S3: it was a huge mess. In response, the military brass locked down the whole unit.
S1: I spent my 21st birthday locked in the barracks, not enjoying life.
S3: A couple of days before their deployment, still in lockdown. Rob and some other guys felt so cooped up, they had to get out, blow off some steam, get up to some mischief. They snuck out one night, found a cab and told the driver to take them to the nearest tattoo parlor.
S1: I was like, this is it. This is my opportunity to get my Tasmanian devil holding an F-16. At first, the guy he didn’t have any Tasmanian that was on his wall. So he told me he wasn’t going to be able to do it. But after begging him for a while, he came back. He drew something up real quick, drew it up. And I was like, I’ll take it.
S3: His new tattoo accompanied him to Kuwait and then to Iraq. It wasn’t a great time. He remembers standing in a shipping container that had been converted into a latrine, looking at his tattoo and thinking about how he got it. It was kind of like an anchor to him, connecting him to his past and to his potential future.
S1: I will remember this forever. You know, I’m going through this now. I will not reenlist and I’ll have a story to look back and laugh
S3: after he finished his time in the army and moved around for a while and eventually landed back in Richmond, Virginia. He has a wife and a kid and a mortgage payment. Now his dad’s tattoo is a bit faded to all that sun in the Middle East. Probably didn’t help, but still,
S1: he loves it and never had any regrets when I was there. I don’t have any regrets. Now, do you
S3: still identify with, like, Tazz as a character?
S1: No, I’m I’m older now. You know, I can’t just go around YOLO and everything in life.
S3: Rob made it very clear to me Tazz is the wildest looney tune, the ultimate YOLO character, pure ID. He’s the type that appeals to people who identify with the extremes. People like athletes, bikers, St. Patrick’s Day party animals and people in the military like Rob. And it’s the test tattoos appeal to people in the military that I think helps explain why I saw so much of Tazz as a teenager at Busch Gardens. Though the task tattoo was common across the country, it was especially common. Where I worked at Busch Gardens is smack in the middle of a region called Hampton Roads that’s dense with military bases. In fact, in twenty eighteen sixteen point four percent of the entire population of the area were military veterans, by far the highest in the United States. And the park was always running discounts and free admission for veterans and active duty service members. So if cars, tattoos appeal to people in the military and there are a ton of people in the military who live and work near Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, no wonder I saw so many Tasmanian devil tattoos. I feel pretty satisfied knowing there was an actual explicable reason why I saw so many, but I also feel pretty bad now about how judgmental we were. We really weren’t considering how someone else’s taste and life experience might differ from our own. I worked through this with Becky Dreisdadt, my friend from Busch Gardens.
S4: Again, it is easy to judge strangers and to just assume they’re not putting any thought into it or like, you know, they’re not getting it for the right reasons or whatever. But like, either way, the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because it’s not people could do what they want.
S3: After talking with Becky, I think I figured out why specifically the task Tatou seemed so alien to me because I’m not a wild child. I’m not the following through life type. For most of my life, my world has consisted of doing work, making art, producing podcasts all from the comfort of my laptop. I am a cerebral, risk averse indoor kid. Tazz was never, ever going to be for me, so I wrote Taz off. But I get it now. Friends, go get your tazz captus.
S6: I support you.
S2: So for our next story, we’re going to look at a tattoo of an electronic device that’s just 15 years old, but that already feels like an antique. Behold a tattoo of the Zune.
S3: In 2006, the tech world was ready for a shake up and Microsoft was poised to deliver.
S7: Last month, Microsoft finally came clean and confirmed its plans to release their own family of hardware and software
S3: products from the G4 tech program Attack of the Show.
S7: The Zune is getting the most buzz, and many critics are actually calling it the iPod killer. But could that really be true or are the days of the iPod numbered?
S3: The iPod had first been released in 2001 and half a decade later had totally changed how Americans stored and consumed music completely dominating the market. The Zune was Microsoft’s attempt to change that. It looked honestly, a lot like the Microsoft version of an iPod hit a big dial and screen and came in a brownish green. It was well branded with a slick orange and fuchsia logo, had a buzzy mid aughts tagline Welcome to the Social, and it was relatively affordable. Hopes were high and nowhere more so than on a community forum called Zune seen the online gathering place for people actively rooting for the Zune and for Microsoft. Among those people with Steven Smith under the screen name Ms.
S5: Zune fan. I was actually a really big Microsoft fan. I’ve actually been a that like all versions of Windows. I was like I was just really all in Microsoft trying to support the Zune because they’re going up against a Brucker Matt
S3: Stephen desperately wanted the Zune to succeed. And coincidentally, this is just when he was casting about for an idea for a tattoo
S5: as like, I’m going to get a tattoo. I said not to the Zune logo because that was a neat design.
S3: Stephen was visiting his parents at the time he left their house, found a local tattoo artist, paid him fifty bucks and got the Microsoft Zune logo tattooed prominently on his left arm.
S5: My other thing was I get some attention and try to help them out. You know, sowder the Zune Army. Let’s crush Apple at their game.
S3: He took a photo of the tattoo and posted it to the Zune seen forums. Got a lot of response.
S5: I got kind of a couple of actually, I got shocked. Laughs That’s hilarious. King Zune fan at that point, a lot of people thought was fake that I had to draw a marker on my arm or something or Photoshopped it.
S3: It was so fun being the King Zune fan on the Zune Stephen forums that two weeks later Stephen got another Zune tattoo, this one on his right shoulder. It’s a line drawing of a man holding a rabbit, and it comes from an animated Zune advertisement. He posted a photo of it to the forum, too. Were you trying to impress the people on the forum?
S5: Yeah, I’d say like definitely get a rise out of them. I think that they find it funny and like at most I expected it kind of get a lot of attention on the community forum, like on Zune, Zune, maybe a couple hundred talks back and forth about it.
S3: And then the photos started to circulate on the wider Internet. The technology blog Engadget published a photo of Stephen under the headline, What kind of man gets a Zune tattoo? It’s mostly just a photo Stephens photo, the one he took of his first tattoo of the Zune logo. It’s a funny photo. His expression is a little hard to pin down. He’s wearing a handlebar mustache, which is kind of silly looking, but his brow is furrowed. The post ends with the line. Is it just us or does he already look regretful about the decision he just made?
S5: When I see, like the Engadget article have like hundreds of thousands of years and stuff in my comments and I, like, always like that was crazy.
S3: Pretty quickly, other blogs picked it up and it spread fast. But what had been an in-joke on the Zune Stephen message boards looked a little different outside of it, less laughing with Stephen a little more laughing at him. When Engadget discovered his second tattoo, they made a post in the same format, the photo with the headline What kind of man gets to Zune tattoos? At this point that I first heard about Stephen’s tattoos and I, along with many, many others, wondered online, why would anyone do this? Some reactions were more heated than others.
S5: People were like legit mad at me. And I’m like, I didn’t tattoo on you. It wasn’t that big of a tattoo. I didn’t see the problem. And they’re just like freakin
S3: part of this reaction was driven by the performance of the Zune itself.
S7: You know, it ranks up there with the Edsel as one of the most notorious ill conceived product failures of all time.
S3: Stephen Witt is the author of How Music Got Free The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century and the Patient Zero of Piracy.
S7: Nobody asked for it. Nobody wanted it. The closest thing I can think of it as the equivalent to the Zune in the modern era would be the short lived streaming service Quimby.
S3: By mid twenty seven retailers had sold about one million Zune, according to Microsoft. That sounds like a lot, but by contrast, Apple had sold over 100 million iPods. Microsoft was clinging to an obviously failing product, but Stephen was still committed to being its mascot. To defy the haters, Stephen decided to get a third Zune tattoo this time of the Zune tagline running over his left shoulder blade. Welcome to The Social. Engadget ran a post about it under the headline. What kind of man gets three Zune tattoos?
S5: Totally dumb tattoo. I did it more as like a shock value against those people.
S3: Did you feel made fun of.
S5: I have a thick skin, but that way when I was a kid we moved a lot like a lot, a lot like more so than a human being should move. And on top of that, I’ve always been a big guy my entire life, that kind of stuff. So I either cry about it or develop a twisted sense of humor and make fun of myself and just develop a thick skin about it. So I chose the latter.
S3: Stephen took his thick skin and turned it into armor. To most outside eyes, the Zune was a dead device walking, but Stephen was the Zune guy that was his online identity and he was getting so much interaction, attention for himself and the Zune. So he kept looking for Stuntz. Steven told me he got close to getting a Zune tattoo on his forehead, but he ultimately decided against it. He consulted Microsoft to see if he could legally change his name to first name Microsoft. Last name Zune. They told him, sure, why not? Like his other escapades, he posted this idea to the Zune Zune forums. It was picked up by Wired, garnering him some more press. But when he actually filled out the paperwork and took it to the judge, the judge said, What?
S5: No way. This is crazy. That’s what he said, because you have a lot of years left because I don’t want to ruin it. I was like, OK, you know, I have a good point.
S3: There were some other shenanigans. Microsoft plan to fly him out to Washington to meet the Zune team and do some interviews for their internal TV channel. But that, too, leaked. And then Microsoft backed out. They did send him a bunch of limited edition Zune. So by twenty ten, it was pretty obvious that the Zune was a failure and that was never going to change. Interest in the Zune faded on all fronts and even Stephen finally got it. By now. He’d covered up his Zune logo tattoo with an equally spontaneous tattoo, a drawing of Dick Cheney as the devil that a co-worker of his had drawn. He’s still got the line drawing of the rabbit from the Zune ad, though just looking at it, you never even know it was Zune related. It’s a real Rejas baby food situation. After the Zune hype settled, Stephen would still get called up by journalists every once in a while just to get his take on a Microsoft announcement. He occasionally gets recognized in person to over a decade after the fact. These days, Stephen is planning on covering up a lot of his tattoos to reflect his young daughters interests. He still loves the Zune, though.
S5: At my wedding, I literally had a Zune doc with a Zune HD and playlist that like on display like a little TV set up. So I was like a part of my wedding.
S3: Even if Stephen had displayed this kind of devotion to a product now, he’d probably be able to turn it into a career. Back then, Stephen stunt made people angry. But today it might have bought him a few years as a Zune influencer, making money, doing unboxing of sponsored products or interviewing Microsoft staff on YouTube today. YouTube is getting stuntwomen tatoos. Is Aegina in itself? On Twitch, there’s a streamer that spins a wheel on his streams. Sometimes it lands on a space that says he has to get a tattoo and outcomes the tattoo machine. There’s still Zune fans out there to the Zune Zune forums are no longer active, but there’s now a makeshift replacement, a surprisingly robust community on Reddit, where Zune fans work together to show off their devices, ask for help, and even in one case, show off their recent tattoo of the Zune logo on Reddit. This one time laughing stock has become a genuine nostalgia object in a way the iPod never could be. It’s the ultimate underdog and a reminder of a simpler Internet. Right before the iPhone streaming and social media revolutionized everything, Stevens tattoos have taken on a nostalgic glow as well. When he posted a thread to the Reddit a few months ago, the community was so happy to see him, one user replied. Our Zune King still sits atop his throne.
S2: Our last story takes us to the present day to examine a current if feeding fad, the Asian character tattoo.
S3: In January of 2019, Ariana Grandy released the single Seven Rings. It is just like it was a hit debuting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for eight weeks to commemorate the song’s success, Krondl got a tattoo. She got the words seven rings tattooed on her palm in Japanese characters and posted it to Instagram. The characters she got literally translated to seven and rings, forming the word Shiho in. Idiomatically, though, she Cherine means something else. A kind of small, portable charcoal grill you might use to cook meat or fish. Japanese literate Instagram followers quickly noticed, and the online reaction was swift and gleeful. People went in. One artist who goes by arigato grand remade the entire Seven Rings video with an Asian cast with new lyrics about meat and grilling the grill.
S1: The Chinese banjo was on the bill.
S3: It also spurred think pieces, this is from Inside Edition,
S4: it’s part of a larger trend of cultural appropriation using parts of another culture without really understanding what
S3: they mean. Grundy is hardly the first English speaking person to get a tattoo of Japanese or Chinese characters. These sorts of tattoos have been a trend for years, which has led to a strange phenomenon. Thousands and thousands of English speakers with tattoos that they don’t understand. Celebrities like Rhonda were the face of this trend, but what sustained it for so long are the regular people who got these tattoos in 1996, Mindy Bonner was one such person. She was 20 years old and living in a small town in the middle of the cornfields of central Illinois. It was pretty samey.
S1: You go to church, you go to school, you go to work the first like little act of rebellion. So I’m going to get a tattoo.
S3: She decided to get a tattoo of a Chinese character
S1: that just seemed so exotic to me. So I went and looked at the wall and I found one. He got out like a little sheet of paper to to tell me what it meant. And it meant immortality. And I was like, oh, my God is so cool. That’s the coolest thing ever.
S3: It was her first tattoo, the first of many. She’d eventually move away from her small town, come out as gay.
S1: I think maybe the tattoos were part of that. Coming to terms with who I really was saying, you know, I’m not like you guys and not like all of you. And on a much deeper level with my own sexuality. No, I was not like you guys
S3: 20 years past. She got a job and a pretty conservative office environment. So she kept her sleeves rolled down most of the time. One day they had some Chinese colleagues visiting the office and she was showing them around. It was hot. So Mindy rolled up our sleeves
S1: and my Chinese colleague looked at it and she started smiling. And she’s like, that’s so cute. And I’m like in my head, like, I didn’t intend for it to be cute when I when I was a kid, when I got it. And so I asked her, I go, OK, so what is it, what does it mean thinking, you know, I’m going to get back the response of what I’ve always thought it meant. She saw. That means fairy princess. It’s so cute that you would have a tattoo that says that actually laughed out loud when she told me and she didn’t. No, she was like, well, what’s so funny about this? And so I explained the story to her. And then we both kind of got a laugh out of it. I guess it could have been something way worse. I’ll take Fairy Princess compared to what it possibly could have been.
S3: How this fairy princess Tatya ended up on Mindy is the result of decades of cultural fascination, fetishism, confusion and commercial exchange. There’s a centuries long history between the West and Asia when it comes to tattooing influence. But the type of tattoo Mindy and Ariana Grande got began to appear much more recently after a loosening of restrictive immigration laws in the 1960s, there was an influx of Asian immigrants and a larger Asian influence on American pop culture. Beginning in the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s diplomatic visit to China in 1972 created a boom in Chinese cuisine after Americans witnessed the Chinese banquets broadcast on the news, kung fu films became wildly popular and technology from Japan was booming. With brands like Panasonic and Sony becoming ubiquitous in the United States,
S5: these Asian-Americans are coming in and bringing in the culture with them starting businesses.
S3: Ryan Takemiya is a writer and speaker on Asian-American culture.
S5: These factors came together to sort of give exposure to a culture that they hadn’t had much exposure to at all before and just enough exposure for this culture to still seem strange. Exotic and foreign
S3: Asian characters become more and more common in everyday American life. And they developed a sense of cool over the next three decades. They would find their way onto T-shirts and logos and of course, tattoos. By the 90s, they had become extremely popular, peaking around the year 2000. One article from the Associated Press from that year spoke to an artist in North Carolina who speculated that these tattoos were making up a whopping 40 percent of the tattoo market at the time. By 2001, Allen Iverson, Britney Spears and countless other celebrities had them and many were mistranslated. Spears tattoo, for example, was supposed to mean mysterious, but instead just meant strange. It’s just after this early aughts boom that an engineering student named Tian Tang started a blog. What percentage of these tattoos are just incorrect?
S8: I was a 90 percent
S3: teen’s blog is called Hanzi Smatter. At the time, there was a lot of popular blogs dedicated to images from Asia of broken English gathered for laughs. Tian saw that he could provide the opposite service, and so he created a blog dedicated to translating these Asian character tattoos for non speakers, essentially a compendium of broken tattoos, just a tiny sampling of mistranslations. He’s featured Power Pigou. My abusive husband pimps me out. Large domesticated livestock, real milano’s knows men, and in one of the site’s most infamous tattoos, one reading crazy diarrhea on a lower back, although the owner of that tattoo would appear in the comments to say it was a joke but intended it to be violent diarrhea, not crazy diarrhea. So still mistranslated, sort of still at least those tattoos meant something. Tian quickly noticed something. Even stranger readers were sending in tattoos of multiple characters in a row that were meant to spell something out, oftentime a word or their initials. But it was always complete nonsense. Chinese and Japanese do have phonetic alphabets in addition to their traditional characters. But that’s not what this was. This just seemed totally made up from whole cloth. Still, he’d see many of the same characters repeating. Eventually, he accumulated enough examples of these tattoos to puzzle it out,
S8: a cipher almost to correlate the six alphabet with Chinese character, which I believe gibberish. And then we have people using that to to tattoo them on Tian.
S3: And a translator friend finally cracked the code of what they call the gibberish Asian font and reconstructed it
S8: to able to put the table together. Sort of a matching English alphabet correlates to which Chinese character. So we put this together and we put on the website, tell people that please don’t don’t use this,
S3: that this gibberish font was showing up. So much means it must have been extremely widespread.
S4: On the wall of the shop I worked in A, B, C, D, E, F, g, all with a different kanji over it.
S3: That’s the tattoo artist Misha. Again, she remembers doing a lot of these tattoos in the early 90s, pulled from a sheet of flash tattoo. Flash again is the art that often hangs on the walls of a tattoo parlor, giving patrons an idea of what kind of tattoo they wanted to get. The Asian characters on this flash sheet corresponded to Roman characters, allowing you to supposedly spell out English words. Needless to say, this isn’t how language works.
S4: Who knows what we were writing on people? So we as Americans are playing Decoder ring with it, you know, where we just assign a shape to a letter. None of them were accurate. So you’ve got a lot of people going around with tree, horse lavatory.
S3: But where did this come from? Oftentimes from a catalog.
S9: The body translated ones. I mean, a lot of those come from commercial flash.
S3: Dr. Matt Lodder is a senior lecturer in art history and director of American Studies at the University of Essex. If you were running a tattoo shop anywhere in the country and you wanted to offer these sorts of tattoos, what you’d likely do is order some tattoo flash from a tattoo supply company.
S9: They were just sold and reproduced in their hundreds and thousands all over the world from that kind of 1970s onwards. And still today, actually, there are inside studios.
S3: This is as much a commercial story as it is an aesthetic one. These tattoos were fast, typically used only one colour, and so they were able to be offered cheaply. No wonder tattoo shops and customers liked them so much. So if that helps explain why these tattoos are so common and so mistranslated, what was the appeal in the first place? Why was it so popular to get a tattoo? You can’t read?
S1: What is mysterious or what is inscrutable has some sense of magical power attached to it.
S3: Betsy Huang is an associate provost and dean of the college at Clark University who specializes in Asian-American literature and science fiction. She pointed out to me that the fact that most Americans can’t read these tattoos is not some weird side effect of the tattoo. It’s the whole point.
S1: So you’re choosing to express something about yourself without actually using the language that everyone understands to say something that’s so appealing to be able to simultaneously be transparent and hard to read.
S3: If I got a tattoo with a Chinese word for family on my arm, I’m sending a message. I’ve put something deeply sincere and revealing about my values as a person, presumably that I really value family as a concept, but I’ve applied it in a way that is also obscuring because you can’t read it. Only I can decode it for you. There’s a power imbalance there. It also creates a bond with people with similar tattoos, a way of signaling your taste that you’re part of the same club. But for these tattoos to work as they are supposed to, to be mysterious and obscuring, they assume a certain kind of audience. One that can’t read Chinese, everything energizing these tatoos falls apart when you’re around people that can actually read them, they assume a world where Chinese literacy doesn’t exist and by extension, a society in which Chinese people are not part of the mainstream. These tattoos remind me of another early aughts obsession with language, one I mentioned earlier, some of the earliest meme material on the Internet were the blogs that did the opposite of Tian Tang Hanzi Smatter blog. They posted images of poorly implemented English and Asian countries, like a construction sign that says erection and progress. These images were mocked. How could these foreigners make such basic, hilarious errors? Shouldn’t they know better how ignorant of them, how funny? But these tattoos prove we were doing the exact same thing. Perhaps we should have been looking in the mirror. Artists I spoke to told me these tattoos are on the decline in popularity. But that fact didn’t stop Ariana Grande from getting her seven rings charcoal grill tattoo in twenty nineteen. Within twenty four hours, Grundig went to fix her tattoo upon consulting a Japanese tutor. She modified it, adding the character for the word finger to make it clear she was talking about rings and not grilles. She added the new character below the original tattoo, which, due to the way Japanese syntax works, did not solve her problem. It just changed the meaning to Japanese barbecue grill finger. Maybe the most profound thing anyone told me about tattoos was something Dr. Jema Angel said, she’s the person you heard at the top of the show who studied the preserved tattoo skins today. She’s a lecturer and program director for the M.A. Program in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester there.
S1: This is the thing about tattoos and kind of the connected by temporality, aren’t they? So that they are a reminder of something that’s gone, but they’re also permanent. So there’s a kind of paradoxical aspect of the technologies of memory, I guess you could say.
S3: We spend so much time talking about the material permanence of ink embedded in skin that tattoos are forever, but just because a tattoo is fixed on your skin does not mean it’s cultural. Meaning is fixed to. In the long run, tattoos can read as something the person wearing them never imagined. In the case of angels tattooed skins, some of them are so far removed from us in time. They are almost pure mystery. In the same way the Chinese character tattoos meaning has shifted from something cool and mysterious to something more questionable. So too has the Tasmanian devil. He’s less a modern symbol for party animals and more a throwback to the wilder youths of people like Rob Brucker, who’ve aged out of wallowing through life. And the Zune a symbol of technological hope for people on the Zune Zune forums became a symbol of failure, only to become a nostalgia object on Reddit. Just as a tattoo may blur with age or fade from too much sun, so too does the cultural meaning of a tattoo become obscure with time. Over decades and centuries, all tattoos might become as inexplicable as a girl in a baby food ad. This is Decoder ring, I’m Benjamin Frisch. You can find me on Twitter at Benjamín Frisch, at Bahri S.H., a very special thanks this episode to Dr. Matt Lodder and Carmen Nyssen, who were instrumental in orienting us on this episode. Also, thanks to Brett Lemoine, June Thomas, Mike Hoffman, Osseous Soldier and Jonathan Shaw,
S2: if you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, you could email us at Decoder at Slate Dotcom. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe and read our Feet and Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Benjamin Frisch. It was edited by Willa Paskin. Decoder is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. Cleo Levin is our research assistant. If you’d like to become a slate plus member, please go to Slate Dotcom plus. Otherwise, we’ll see you next week.