Tattooed APIs torn between culture and individuality

By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly

Filipino Michelle Yamzon strategically placed her tattoos so that she can easily cover them up in professional settings. (Photo provided by Michelle Yamzon)

For Asian Americans, getting a tattoo has traditionally been considered taboo. In mainstream culture, tattoos often have negative connotations, and they can be tied to gang culture. In Japan, tattoos are associated with organized crime. Tattoos were outlawed in Japan during the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1948 that the prohibition was repealed.

But over the years, tattoos have become more common to younger generations of Asian Americans. Tattoos are almost as ubiquitous as piercings.

The word tattoo is thought to have two derivations: the Polynesian word “ta,” which means to strike something, and the Tahitian word “tatau,” which means to mark something.

To commemorate

Chinese American Tim Bortvedt, 23, served in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009. He has three tattoos. He got his first tattoo when he was 20 years old. The tattoo on his right shoulder portrays a weeping willow over a cemetery. There are two grave markers that he had inked in memory of his friends.

“I got it after a couple of friends were killed in Iraq,” Bortvedt explained.

Another military-related tattoo that he got was of meat tags, similar to dog tags, with his information on his left rib cage.

“This one was kind of impulsive, but it’s a reminder of when I served,” he said.

Bortvedt did say that he had one tattoo that he regretted. He has a tiny crescent right below his weeping willow tattoo, and it is the size of a dime. He’s not sure why he got it, but a group of his fellow soldiers also inked the same crescent together in solidarity.

“If I didn’t serve, I probably wouldn’t have got any of these,” he said.

For the look

Kevin Wang’s tattoos (Photo provided by Kevin Wang)

Sonh Phetsomphou, 37, is a charge nurse at Swedish Medical Center. She is originally from Laos and has seven color tattoos.

She got her first one about five years ago after going through a rough time. The tattoo is of a lotus with some waves and a dragonfly. She also has a big koi fish on her upper back surrounded by water and cherry blossoms.

Unlike Bortvedt, who got his tattoos to commemorate his military duty, Phetsomphou and her best friend got tattoos for aesthetic reasons — they both really liked the idea. On her right hip are plumerias, the national flower of Laos, with a purple backdrop. On her left hip is a phoenix.

And on the other side, Phetsomphou has a butterfly and a hummingbird facing one of the flowers.

Though Phetsomphou is an adult with children, she is anxious over her parents’ reaction because of their traditional values. “My parents haven’t seen them, and they’ll definitely have a fit,” she said.

“[But] I think of my kids flying and being free when I see the hummingbird and butterfly,” she said.

Phetsomphou said she saw a lot of designs online and tried to find ones that were original and unique.

“Tattoos are addictive because of how they look for me,” she said.

To define

Cousins Peter and Kevin Wang, both 25, also agree that getting tattoos can be addicting.

Kevin has five tattoos and Peter has two. Both have Chinese characters to represent their heritage. Kevin has the phrase “this is temporary” written on his right shoulder blade. Peter has the characters that signify “self-reliance” on his back to represent his independence.

Kevin got this tattoo in Taiwan because he wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

“I thought of the phrase ‘this is temporary’ because I believe everything in this world is temporary: life, money, our body, and pain. But I liked the irony of the tattoo being permanent,” Kevin explained.

“I’ve always been extremely independent. I would rather earn things than have things given to me, so naturally, I felt this tattoo was right for me,” Peter said.

Some of the other tattoos that Kevin has on his body include a cross with a banner that reads Acts 2:2-3-24 on his left shoulder blade, Latin words that translate to “amazing grace” on his front left shoulder and chest, Greek words that translate to “nothing in moderation” running down his right rib cage, and a portrait of an angel on his right shoulder.

As a Christian, he wanted the tattoos to reflect his religious beliefs. He chose the verse to summarize what a Christian believes in.

“For my amazing grace tattoo, it was just a reminder that even when times get rough, I’m still very blessed,” Kevin said.

Historically, tattoos have had a place in Asian culture. For instance, as far back as 3000 BC in Japan, clay figurines, which were stand-ins for living people, had marks painted or engraved on their faces. Many believed that these tattoos had religious significance.

Parents’ reactions

“My mom told me that I was stupid when she saw my first one, but that was about the extent of it. My dad, who is really religious, told me that I should get them removed. But since I’m an adult now, they don’t really give me too much grief, and they can’t really do anything about it,” Kevin said.

Kevin has received positive reactions from his friends and even strangers, especially for his angel tattoo.

The cross tattoo with a banner saying, “Only God can judge me,” was an impromptu thing for Peter. Though he isn’t religious, it’s a reminder that there is always a higher power that people will eventually have to answer to. He believes that people should live their lives accordingly.

Everyone in Peter’s family knows about his tattoos except for his father.

Michelle Yamzon, 28, has eight tattoos. She has three in Alibata, an old Filipino script. One of the tattoos is written in Aramaic, which is the ancient language that Jesus Christ spoke. She has tattoos of a tribal cross, two horoscope signs, and a picture of a girl by artist Audrey Kawasaki.

“After my mother found out about my first tattoo, it didn’t sit so well with her. She basically disowned me for three days. She was upset not because I had ‘desecrated’ my body, but because she was afraid of what her friends would think of her if they found out that her daughter had a tattoo,” Yamzon said.

Yamzon hopes to get another tattoo, but she is waiting to find the perfect one that she will love on her body.

“Even though I have as many tattoos as I do, I still know how to carry myself professionally without them showing. I’ve placed them in areas where they’re not so visible, especially in the work environment,” she added.


Kathryna Ta Asan, 29, has five tattoos. Most of these tattoos were gotten to celebrate her birthdays. However, she does regret one that she got when she was 26.

“I wished I thought more of what I wanted rather than just getting them on the spur of the moment,” she said of the Tiffany pendant tattoo on her left wrist.

People with tattoos recommend that those who are interested in getting a new tattoo think carefully about what they choose to ink permanently on their bodies.

“Tattoos generally represent something that is or was important to you, things you stand for, things you hate, and things you love. Tattoos can be a way of expressing that,” Peter said. ♦

Nina Huang can be reached at

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2 Responses to “Tattooed APIs torn between culture and individuality”

  1. Just a quick note regarding “Alibata”. That’s actually the incorrect term as it was made up with no historical backing. The original name is Baybayin meaning “to spell”.


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