Background on the Tao Tattoo

Part of The Tao Tattoo Series

  1. The Meaning
  2. The Experience
  3. The Background
  4. Tattwo
Thumbnail: Various ways to write Tao
Thumbnail: Cover of Tao of Pooh

Asian character tattoos have become somewhat of a cliché, but not doing something because it’s trendy is as bad as doing it because it’s trendy. I chose to get a tattoo for myself, which is why I it’s on the inside of my wrist, facing me when I see it. Unfortunately, foreign language tattoos are often wrong and hilariously bad as well, as if a child had drawn them.

Thumbnail: Laozi getting off his ox
Thumbnail: A painting of the character Tao

So I did my research, and found as many drawings of the Tao character as possible. At one point I went as far as tracking down people who had purchased a certain painting with Tao in the title, and calling them to ask if they would take a picture and send it to me1. I’m a perfectionist in my everyday life, so I was going to be sure about something that would last for the rest of my life.

Thumbnail: Gia-Fu Feng

My initial dilemma was that I wanted something clear and clean — as is my style — but personal and expressive — as is my taste — at the same time, and these two things seem to contradict each other when it comes to Chinese calligraphy. While the former (regular script) is a little too rigid to fit with the spontaneous nature of Taoism, the latter (cursive script) is barely recognizable.

The human canvas is something to consider as well. Embossed tattoos look fake to me, and dry brush strokes, while acceptable in Chinese painting, look like marker on skin.

Thumbnail: Huang Ting Jian
Thumbnail: Ni Zan
Thumbnail: Wang Xizhi
Thumbnail: Wen Zheng Ming

Through my extensive searching, I’ve come to understand that Chinese calligraphy is an art. Each stroke is made with expression and intent. There are basic brush techniques, proportional structure, as well as personality that make up a character.

At first I tried drawing it myself, but quickly learned how much practice it takes to write well.

Thumbnail: Tao fonts

There are also many Chinese fonts out there, but they’re fonts. I didn’t want something that was computer generated, but had the personal feel of being hand-drawn and included brush imperfections.

After going through dozens of versions and interpretations, including several famous Chinese calligraphic masters, I settled on an engraving by Yan Zhenqing.

His artistic accomplishment in Chinese calligraphy parallels the greatest master calligraphers throughout the history, and his calligraphy style, Yan, is the textbook-style that every calligraphy lover has to imitate today.

My Uncle Joe was a great help in the matter. He has a strong understanding of cultures, and compared the free-willed drawing of Gia-Fu Feng to an impressionist painting with “essence and spirit”, whereas the more strongly defined drawing is that of a Realist, capturing the “beauty of the form”.

Thumbnail: Gia-Fu Feng
Thumbnail: Yan Zheng Qing

This interpretation by Yan is formal, masculine, and a bit of a contradiction to the carefree (and feminine) nature of Taoism, but I think it’s the right balance. From a design point-of-view, the very nature of the Tao character is rather blocky, and the last (bottom) stroke defines a strong border.

I’m happy to have a bit of history, or my culture, on my body. I feel like I have right to wear such a thing, instead of the poseurs who don’t even know the true meaning of what they have.

Paintings are nice, but don’t follow you around. Pendants and the like don’t carry the same meaning as a tattoo. I felt like a tattoo was the right medium to express myself.

This is the first and only thing I would ever want etched on my body, as a permanent reminder for me to follow The Way. Until now, I’ve never had the desire to get a tattoo. My fickle nature has always made it hard to stick with anything, but when I discovered Taoism, I knew it was going to stay.

Instead of getting a reason for a tattoo, I got a tattoo for a reason.

  1. I felt terrible when one guy said that the painting was with his ex-girlfriend []


  1. How amazing for a handwriting to be known after centuries.

  2. @Causalien — I would have guessed that you like that one. I think I can tell from what I’ve seen of your handwriting.

    @Pearl — I know, it’s such an amazing medium of art, something I think that most take for granted nowadays. It reveals so much about a person.

  3. I love the Gia-Fu Feng! But of course you’re right, no one would recognize it. I look at it completely abstractly, and it just FEELS very Taoist and grounded in the way it’s drawn. Maybe I’m just a girl and that’s part of it…

  4. My uncle likes that version too actually and I can understand why, but since I don’t read or write Chinese, it loses it’s meaning on me.

  5. Hahahahha. Great link on the tattoo mistakes.

  6. Nice.. :) i always open this site as my reference in my oriental class.. :)

  7. Did you get the tattoo? Could you post a picture? Do you mind telling where on your body you put the tattoo? I am researching having the Tao symbol tattooed on my body. I haven’t yet decided where. I would also like to integrate water somehow into the tattoo. Thanks!

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