In a recent issue of The Gatepost, there was an op/ed written about Ariana Grande’s use of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean calligraphy on her album covers, and a tattoo “七輪” which in Japanese translates to “charcoal grill.”
The op/ed accused Grande of cultural appropriation largely because she doesn’t know these languages and seemed to use the lettering for stylistic purposes to appeal to a certain demographic without respect for original meanings, rather than using it as a chance to be inclusive to these cultures.
I have one objection to this accusation, and it’s that I literally cannot see how this is cultural appropriation.
Using different languages to express ideas is not cultural appropriation. Using lettering of a foreign alphabet or writing system to create a stylized approach to art is not appropriation. And finally, while the argument could realistically be made that getting a tattoo in a language you don’t know is cultural appropriation, the motive for Grande to get the tattoo was because it held meaning and importance to her – not just because it looked pretty.
It seems like there is too much eagerness these days to point out any flaw or point in time where someone could be using a piece of culture incorrectly. There isn’t just one agreed-upon definition as to what is and when it begins or ends, and the overlap among appropriation, assimilation, and exchange seems to be endless.
A common example of when foreign alphabets are used with no respect to their original meaning is in something ubiquitously common in American media, faux Cyrillic.
Faux Cyrillic is when letters are taken from the Cyrillic alphabet, commonly Я, И, and Д, and used to replace ones in the Roman alphabet, commonly R, N, and A, to give a Russian or Soviet feel to media.
The only problem with this is that the letters “Я, И, and Д” are pronounced “ya, i, and d” respectively.
There is a mad embrace of people who wear leprechaun hats, drink green beer, and scream about kissing the Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a single accusation of appropriation when it comes to the way the fantasy genre depicts Western European mythology.
And finally, looking back to Grande, getting a mistranslated tattoo in a language you don’t understand is a universally bad idea, but by themselves “七” means seven, and “輪” can translate to rings.
It was a dumb decision, and while she was ignorant to the possible meanings, she still tried to keep the meaning of the language intact, rather than pick a few good-looking symbols.
I’m starting to get sick of the way these events are constantly framed as malicious or stupid people trying to use things they don’t understand to look a certain way. It devalues the occasions when people actually do maliciously appropriate.
It has a bad way of making us forget that not everything is cultural appropriation.