Unless you live under a rock without Wi-Fi, you've seen the tattoo. The kanji that were supposed to spell “7 rings” at the top of Ariana Grande's palm — or so Google translate probably told her — turned out to spell “shichirin,” the Japanese word for a type of barbecue grill.
It’s almost exactly like the sitcom trope where the white girl wants to get a tattoo of the Chinese character for “hope” or “courage” and winds up with her ankle looking like a takeout menu.
Grande has since had the tattoo incorrectly corrected by adding the character for “finger” underneath, leaving out some of the symbols that would have actually spelled the title of her latest single.
The tattoo now translates to something like “Japanese barbecue grill finger,” with a black outline of a heart next to it. Basically, it’s a mess. But the issue isn't getting a mistranslated tattoo. It’s getting the tattoo in the first place.
Clearly, nobody involved in the tattooing process spoke Japanese. Grande is a white Italian American with no claims to the culture. So why get a tattoo in the language?
Pop music is no stranger to capitalizing on the exploitation of Japanese culture. Just Google Avril Lavigne’s cringeworthy 2013 music video “Hello Kitty.” Or consider Gwen Stefani and her four “Harajuku girls,” who were forced by contract to only speak Japanese while performing and appearing with Stefani beginning in 2004.
Even today, artists such as SZA, Nicki Minaj and Migos have in some way used Asian culture as a prop for their work. Upon receiving backlash for her tattoo, Grande has unequivocally outed herself as yet another fetishist of Asian culture.
"Indeed, I left out ‘つの指’ which should have gone in between,” she wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “It hurt like fuck n still looks tight. I wouldn’t have lasted one more symbol lmao.”
Grande has now established her fascination with an Asian people’s language as an ornamentation that she thinks “looks tight.” There are plenty of words in English that might sound or look pretty, but you don’t see anyone getting tattoos of words such as “fuselage” or “cholera.”
But at least a nonsense tattoo in English wouldn’t wound anyone. In Stefani’s words, what may just be “style detached from content, a fatal attraction to cuteness” for white Americans is the theft of everything Asians and Asian Americans created but struggle to keep.
Grande’s supporters might try and call it a misappropriation to defend her from what is only her latest offense against people of color, implying the tattoo was a mistake. But there is nothing innocent to me about a white woman playing dress-up with a culture that isn’t hers.
In a country that promises certain unalienable rights, it’s a cruel joke to steal our identities and sell them back to us as performances with Japanese backup dancers bowing to a white pop star. Ariana was even selling crewnecks featuring the title of her song “thank u, next” written in Japanese. The merch has recently been removed from her website.
I obviously have no pity for Grande and other white Americans who want to take a bite out of a culture that isn’t theirs and find the aftertaste less than sweet. As an Asian American in a world where white people sample identities to consume as though they’re snacks on a tray — or a barbecue grill—sometimes my only satisfaction is when culture bites back.