By Sophia Kamps
January 29, 2019: Pop superstar Ariana Grande revealed a new tattoo to celebrate the release of her single “7 Rings.” The Japanese characters on her palm, intended to say 7 rings, actually meant BBQ grill.
10th Century, Christian Constantinople: A glass bowl was decorated with elaborate medallions of classicized figures, and bands of illegible Arabic script.
For over a millennium, cultures have been using each other’s scripts, without thought to meaning, as aesthetic decoration. There is, of course, an important conversation to be had about the moral implications of taking a language and using it as a decorative allusion to a larger cultural stereotype, as Ariana Grande was already receiving criticism for doing in her “7 Rings” music video. However, it is also interesting to consider the reasoning behind using meaningless words as decoration. Why do foreign scripts hold such a fascination for artistic expression?
The trend of Asian-character tattoos is not a new one, and getting a tattoo with one meaning in mind and entirely different one as a result is a well-documented Western mistake. However, even if the tattoo-getter gets the translation right, a tattoo in another script is not about the meaning, it’s about the visual appearance.
The decorative program of the 10th century Byzantine bowl is made almost entirely of borrowed visual elements. The classical figures that inhabit the medallions belong to an artistic tradition stolen first by the Romans from the Greeks and then again by the Early Christian Byzantine Empire as part of their identity as a “New Rome.” However, the use of classical motifs is a practice so ubiquitous in Western art that it is not a particularly notable example of cultural appropriation. What is much more interesting is the appearance of pseudo-Arabic around the rim of the bowl. This form of meaningless Arabic script was not uncommon in Byzantine art, for despite being military adversaries, animosity between the Islamic world and Byzantium did not prevent artistic exchange. Islamic kingdoms were Byzantium’s most respected adversaries. Using Islamic script as ornament was a way for the artisan making this bowl to allude to a culture seen as exotic, luxurious, and mysterious. It’s been a thousand years but this attitude has not changed.
Still, the script of a foreign language is often turned into a decorative motif, no longer meaningful as a word or phrase but instead imbued with a simplified characterization of the culture from which it came. When Ariana Grande first used Japanese kanji in her “7 Rings” music video, it was intended as a visual queue for her audience to associate her music video with a Japanese aesthetic.
The use of script for decoration, bodily or otherwise, is not as simple as an “evil” appropriation of Asian culture by Western celebrities and civilians. For one, the trend goes both ways. For over a decade there has been a trend of English tattoos in China. There, English is seen as “mysterious and exotic,” just as Japanese is in the West and Arabic was in medieval Byzantium.
Exchange of symbols, motifs, and even scripts has occurred between cultures for thousands of years. Statues of the Buddha from after 4th century BCE bear a remarkable similarity to Hellenistic statuary, since Alexander the Great’s failed attempt to conquer India left a lasting impression on Indian art.
Byzantine culture was composed of a series of cultural robberies- classical motifs from Rome, burgeoning Christian iconography from Jerusalem, and even obelisks from Ancient Egypt, all re-purposed in the Byzantine capital as a means of bolstering political and cultural legitimacy. The history of cultural appropriation is longer than many realize, and drawing the lines between cultures is much more difficult than we would like to think. That being said, if you get a tattoo in another language and don’t really know what it means, you’ll look pretty stupid.
Written language is, at its heart, visual symbols to which we give specific meaning. When these symbols are appropriated for decorative reasons, they become a different kind of symbol- a symbolic stand in for the whole culture from which they come. This is where it becomes dangerous, because they are not representing an accurate view of their cultures, but the way their culture is perceived by those foreign to it. For a member of the Byzantine court who might have used that bowl, the fake Arabic that decorated it called to mind an exotic idea of Islamic culture. Similarly, Ariana Grande’s tattoo carries with it a Western view of Japan.