Part of The Tao Tattoo Series

  1. The Meaning
  2. The Experience
  3. The Background
  4. Tattwo

The tao tattoo


Some people ask me whether I feel more Chinese or Canadian. While some first-generation Canadians say that they’re neither, I feel like I’m both, because I appreciate and understand things from both cultures. I have the best of both worlds.

I already have a the hanzi character for “tao” on my right wrist, so I got the word “tao” on my left in English. This tattoo serves two purposes: as an expression of this dual heritage, and as another reminder for me to follow the tao.

The Operation

I went back to Jay at New Moon, who did an awesome job on my first tattoo. When I walked in, he had the latest Mars Volta album on, which I didn’t even know was out until that day. Most of the time was passed comparing them to Tool, two of our favourite bands1.

Can you tell when he’s going over my artery? (Hint: I start to swear)


tao typography

The three-letter word is written in Avenir. As the Humanist, sans-serif typeface designed by Adrian Fruitiger (also used for the title and menu of this site), it’s my favourite font. Clean, sharp, minimalist, and legible. The most distinguishing part, as with most good fonts, is the double-story “a”, which increases legibility.

I had over a dozen variations, at different point sizes, kerning values, and weights. I wanted the weight, size, and position to balance with the one on my right wrist. In the end, I went with one that was 63.78 points, and the 35 “light” weight.


I chose the Wade-Giles Romanization of “tao”. “dao” (the Pinyin Romanization), while commonly accepted nowadays, is too new for me to recognize it as the official spelling. “Dō”, the Cantonese/Japanese pronunciation, was also an idea, but it doesn’t carry the same connotation when relating it to “Taoism” because it’s not “Dōism” (in my mind, at least).

Another consideration was the capitalization. Most Taoist books capitalize tao as the “Great Way”, but I felt “tao” was less pretentious, especially since there’s no sense of capitalization in Chinese. It also balances the rest of the word out nicely, as the large “T” makes it look as if the word is about to topple over.


In the last few months, the most popular searches to this site by far are for terms such as “tao tattoo”, “taoism tattoo”, “chinese wrist tattoo”, so it looks like people are seeking similar ideas. The most popular Taoist tattoo is the yin-yang by far, but it’s overdone now, even on people who don’t understand the concept.

I’ll have to accept the fact that more and more people are getting tattoos, and that as people try to unique, someone out there will eventually have the same one as me.

  1. Tool was a favourite until Lateralus came out, and I discovered Dream Theater. Ænima remains one of my top albums though. []


  1. You’re a braver man than I… I have two tattoos but I don’t dare put them out where they can’t be covered in a professional setting.

    Looks cool though! Congrats.

  2. Yeouch, I thought about getting a tattoo but I watched Pat get his and it just looked like it hurt too much :p

  3. @James — I’m glad to have a career in an industry where tattoos don’t really matter. They’re covered up with a long-sleeved shirt most of the time anyway; most people don’t notice them. I would think that in most professional settings tattoos wouldn’t be a big deal, as long as they’re not on the hands, neck, or face, but I’ve never been employed in a really prestigious place.

    @Sophia — It does hurt at lot at some points, but it’s such a localized pain that it’s tolerable. The funny thing is that Pat said it just felt like a bit of scratching on his back. I’m sure you thought the pain was a lot more than he was feeling.

  4. how much do i love that you broke down the typography in such detail?
    very much.

  5. The choice of the text came as a surprise, but it’s not bad. You do have the best of both worlds, as opposed to the worst of both.

  6. @fathima — And it matches my website! :D

    @Uncle Joe — In the end, there wasn’t any other style of Chinese calligraphy I was satisfied with, even though it may fall more in line with Taoist beliefs. I’m very thankful to feel like I’m part of both cultures, which is unlike most Chinese born Canadians I know.

  7. Nice font choice. lovely symmetry to it. I don’t see myself watching the vid tho. ( needle-squeamy)

  8. nice!! congrats

  9. @Pearl — Sometimes I’m needle squeemy as well, but only with those big, long ones. It’s not too bad with a tattoo machine, although the sound can be quite intimidating.

    @Liz — Thanks!

  10. I like your tattoo a lot. I didn’t even find it or know about it until I had already gotten mine. http://forums.randi.org/imagehosting/44214a6f4986b2b06.jpg

    it still needs touching up, and that’s the day after I got it. my tattoo artist wasn’t really good with chinese caligraphy, and got some of the strokes a bit wrong, and so I’m finally healed and going in tomorrow to have it touched up to my original: http://forums.randi.org/imagehosting/4421497eadb28e952.jpg

    I like the fact that you got the word “tao” on your other wrist. I plan on the symbol for water, as it, to me, is the best representation of the tao, and that will remind me that I can flow or creep or drip or I can crash.

    It nourishes and yet it dwells in the places men fear to tread. that is why it is so close to the Tao.

    • That style of the Tao character in your tattoo looks familiar. Where did you find it? How is it that the tattoo artist got some of the strokes wrong? Didn’t he just trace the carbon transfer of the artwork you gave him?

      Water makes a lot of sense too. I would consider that as well, if it didn’t have so many other connotations for me.

  11. Jeff,

    I have no idea how I stumbled across equivocality.. but since coming across it, I haven’t been able to stop reading. I was exposed to Hoff’s, The Tao of Pooh in university and that was what originally sparked my interest into Taoism. Since reading I have had the chance to learn an introduction into the arts of Tai Chi and Qigong.

    Anyhow, for a while now I have wanted to get a tattoo related to Taoism — the way of which I try to live by. I really struggled on what I wanted to get done; I am not one to get a tattoo with little meaning to me and realize it was a mistake a few months later. I originally wanted to get done the symbol of The Uncarved Block.. but still didn’t feel it suited me enough to mark it on my body.

    Going into teaching, I feel a principle of Taoism related to education would spark meaning for me. I can tell you know your Taoism much more than myself; do you have any recommendations of what I’m searching for? I realize a tattoo of this nature is very personal and subjective…but if you could perhaps suggest anything along this topic I would be so appreciative.

    Many Thanks,


    P.S. your tattoos turned out incredible!

    • What’s the symbol of the “uncarved block”? It is the same as wu wei?

      It’s safe to say that you’ve already considered the yin-yang, so we’ll skip that one. You could consider the image of a Taoist deity, but it seems to me like you’re more of a philosophical Taoist than a religious one. How about one of the trigrams from the I Ching that you would most relate to (like the flag of South Korea or Empire of Vietnam)?

      I’ve also seen some people with entire verses from the Tao Te Ching tattooed on their bodies. You could consider your favourite line or verse in the original Chinese (or in a translation/interpretation you trust).

      Otherwise, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Part of the concept of Taoism is that symbols are very simple because they’re all-encompassing; there’s no need to segregate things, so there are very few symbols. Of course, I’m sure there are still others who have a vastly superior knowledge of Taoism to me, so they may know better.

      Let me know what you decide on eventually. I’d love to see it!

  12. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for the quick reply! and Yeah the same as Wu Wei, but at the time I was even considering getting someone to design a an actual small block uncarvled with chisel on its side.

    Getting some verses would actually be a pretty awesome idea, too. I’m considering
    “The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise.” – Lao Tze <– it kind of follows the philosophy of education I'm being taught as well, so it has some concrete meaning to me.


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