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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