Nicki Minaj’s Chinese Tattoo

01 Dec 2011

Nicki Minaj has one of the more interesting Chinese tattoos out there. It’s not particularly pretty (it was clearly not the ink work of a Chinese calligrapher!), but the traditional characters are correct mostly correct and legible. The tattoo:

Nicki-Minaj-Tattoo

It means “God is with you.”

The tattoo uses traditional Chinese characters:

> 上帝

Here’s the simplified character version (it only differs by one character):

> 上帝

And pinyin:

> Shàngdì yǔ nǐ cháng zài

The grammar, though, seems a little strange to me. The sentence I’m used to hearing (at Catholic churches in China) is:

> 上帝同在

同在 is just a fancy way to say “to be with.” So what’s up with 常在? You’re probably used to taking on the meaning of “often,” “frequent,” or “usually,” as in 常常, 经常, 通常, 平常, etc. “God is usually with you” certainly doesn’t seem like the most confidence-insiring blessing.

Here, though, is used more to refer to a “normal,” unchanging, continuous state. So although neither this sentence nor the Catholic version is everyday Chinese, they both make sense.

When I asked my wife for her impressions on Nicki Minaj’s tattoo, she made the following comments:

– Those characters look like they were written by a poorly-educated elementary school student.
– She should have chosen simplified characters; less ink is less pain.
– Foreigners’ Chinese character tattoos are like our stupid English t-shirts. But at least we can take off the t-shirts whenever we want.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Actually, maybe I spoke too soon on the “correct” part… the “與” looks a little off in the middle, but I’m not used to reading traditional characters.

  2. It looks kind of like a cross between traditional characters “興” and “與”. Other comments?

  3. Does your wife have a cool internet moniker that I should use for attribution of this marvelous quote:

    “Foreigners’ Chinese character tattoos are like our stupid English t-shirts. But at least we can take off the t-shirts whenever we want.”

    If not, how about: “-John P’s wife”?

    • Heh… She doesn’t have an English name, but she often goes by “SS.”

      • SS as in the german Schutzstaffel? Perhaps it’s my Danish roots, but why didn’t Jon “The Name Nazi” Pasden overrule that name? (In Denmark “SS” is banned on licence plates.)

  4. I would translate it as “God is always with you” I think…and actually the 帝 is written incorrectly as well as the 与. I wonder who wrote this for her? It doesn’t sound like the mangled grammar that usually comes out of tattoo parlors in the west

  5. In any aesthetic choice between Simplified and Traditional Chinese(except for, say, 50s or 60s kitsch), never go for Simplified, even if it is an ugly tattoo.

    • It depends on the font/style. As far as print goes, 繁體 probably win out no contest. For calligraphic/flowing/草写 style, I’d say simplified is often just as, and sometimes more, aesthetically appealing.

  6. the font seems to go with a little retro-traditional chinese look, like you might find handwritten on a store somewhere in a san francisco chinatown of the 1800s. Then again she might just be flexing her muscles thereby distorting the proportions of the characters somewhat.

    Using traditional characters seems not to be a big deal here since it’s only one character difference. Also, if you care about the aesthetics of Chinese characters, one would think you’d prefer traditional characters, with their complexity and balance, to the commie characters. It also seems to me that anyone who gets a tattoo in the first place isn’t altogether too worried about avoiding pain. Who knows, they might even be the types to stretch their ear lobes.

    As for the idiocy or not of the T-shirts and whatever–well, there is irony in a lot of those T-shirts, I’m sure, but perhaps not with this tattoo, so apples and oranges. If someone happens to be of a Christian or some other monotheistic persuasion, i don’t see anything particularly dumb about tattoing this on the arm. It might not be the most tasteful thing ever, but it would make plenty of sense in the context of that person’s beliefs.

  7. Agreed, this fetish for Chinese character tattoo gives comic results: sloppy calligraphy with errors in the strokes, grammatical mistakes, silly translations, and it all comes together when a foreign tattoo “artist” puts his hand to ink and flesh.

  8. I think what might be most painful would be hearing Ms Minaj try to pronounce her tat in Chinese. I think we’d have to settle for, “It means ‘God is, you know, with you. But it’s like in Chinese.'”

  9. I’m used to traditional characters and I thought that yu was 興! I was quite confused…

  10. The tattoo artist working in China may be on a hiding to nothing when it comes to characters. Within reason the customer decides what goes on, although the artist has some control over the look, or at least they can advise on what looks best. If you use a calligraphy template it should look fairly natural but it will always lose something because of the painstaking process of tattooing – you cannot tattoo with a flourish as you might with a pen.
    This one is interesting because it appears that they did not use a template made by an accomplished writer.
    Interesting that a significant number of tattoo customers in China are Christian. Eg. there are a few character tattoos here at http://www.tattoobin.com/viewartist.asp?uid=2529
    上帝保佑
    文房四宝
    慈悲
    恩典
    荒 – note the calligraphy on this one
    Actually I like the 荒 best … kinda intense

  11. to be fair, her tattoo is a LOT more meaningful and less mangled than so many other Chinese tattoos. marcus camby comes to mind. i also saw a girl with a tattoo of just 丑, she probably thought it meant beautiful.

  12. Josh Koehn Says: December 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Interesting posts. I have thought of getting two tats on either shoulder; (eg. 爱 and 梦)but haven’t accomplished it yet.

  13. FWIW, the phrase 常在 appears 64 times in the Chinese Union Version (和合本) of the Bible, But, as far as I can tell, always with an object. For example:

    John 15:4a – 你們要常在我裏面,我也常在你們裏面。
    Philippians 4:23 – 願主耶穌基督的恩常在你們心裏!

  14. It’s like the 常 in the first line of the 道德经:“道可道非常道” – “The Dao that can be known is not the eternal Dao”. That manages to be doubly confusing by appearing to have the word 非常 in it, when it doesn’t.

  15. I saw a girl with the tattoo 牛 on the back of her neck in Australia. I’m assuming she thinks it means ‘awesome’ without knowing it could mean other things…

  16. I would love to see more posts about stupid tattoos in Chinese on non-Chinese people! I love laughing at Engrish, but this definitely puts us in our place.

    By the way, is there a way to follow you via email? That is, have your new posts, or at least a notification of new posts, sent to my inbox?

  17. […] passionate and committed, which are necessary qualities for getting inked up. Our own John Pasden recently explored rapper Nicki Minaj’s Chinese character tattoo, so read up and learn the lessons she didn’t. There are also some other resources out there […]

  18. urgh! the chinese characters seems to be written by a kindergarden kid. horrible!

  19. […] passionate and committed, which are necessary qualities for getting inked up. Our own John Pasden recently explored rapper Nicki Minaj’s Chinese character tattoo, so read up and learn the lessons she didn’t. There are also some other resources out there […]

  20. Wow

  21. Spikey43 Says: April 2, 2013 at 1:17 am

    上帝與你常在
    means god is with you often I am Chinese

  22. Devon Jackson Says: September 24, 2014 at 5:52 am

    I’m thinking about getting this “god is with you ” tattoo what’s the right way to say it

  23. well traditional chinese looks better

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