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George Clingerman

"What was I thinking when I wrote that?" If you are a developer who has ever had to re-look at code you wrote in the past (sometimes even just a few minutes in the past), you're bound to have had those thoughts. The code you look at is utter gibberish. Garbage, confusing as heck, unnecessarily complicated and makes you scratch your head just wondering what in the world was going on in your head when your spewed forth that vile code. Every time I come across some code like that, I give a little chuckle because it reminds me of my tattoo.

You see, I have a tattoo on my back. Well, upper right shoulder technically. It is nothing large, just some solid black Japanese characters that run down my shoulder blade. Three characters, running vertically. It’s not a recent purchase, I got the work done the summer of my Junior year of college. I had always wanted to get a tattoo, but was always to hesitant to wander into a random shop and ask a very large man with a bandanna to draw something permanent on my body. This problem was solved when one of my friends rolled into town after apprenticing himself to a tattoo artist for four years. He came back to open up his shop and wanted to get his name out there so he was looking for some walking billboards and giving tattoos to all of his friends for basically the cost of the ink.

I immediately took him up on his offer and ran to the library to do some research on just what I wanted. Browsing the web on the computer there (farm town, no internet access at home, the HORROR!), I stumbled across a site with Japanese characters all spread out in alphabet form. I was so excited I couldn’t hit print fast enough. They were exactly what I wanted and they were so beautifully laid out, when I took them to my friend we laminated the sheets and added them to his tattoo book. It was awesome. Now you could walk into his shop and spell anything with Japanese characters from those sheets. I had him do my initials “gWc” (lowercase "g", uppercase "W", lowercase "c" just because I liked the way they looked) down my shoulder.

Going back to college and getting away from my partying friends (and before my new partying friends started up). I had a bit of detox period. As the summer sun stopped hammering my brain and the alcohol stopped damaging my liver, my brain started working again. And the things it started to tell me made me feel a little queasy. I started to remember that the Japanese alphabet does not match the English alphabet.

There is no Japanese character for “A”, “B”, etc. (I later took a semester of Japanese just to cement this in my head). Walking back to my dorm room one night after finally accepting the fact that I had no clue what was written on my back, I decided I had better figure out just what exactly I had done.

The first step I took was to try and find that wondrous site that started it all. It didn’t take me long. What I had discovered in my delirious excitement on the web was not a translation page of Japanese characters to English letter, but was instead, a font. Yep, it was a font map showing what Japanese character would be drawn if you hit the “A” key, the “B” key, etc. The characters themselves had meanings unto themselves and all I had printed out what the font sheet showing what would be drawn as you typed.

The next step was to try and figure out what my back said. I have so far only been able to translate the first two characters. All three of them together are absolute gibberish. The first means, “Reading, writing language and culture”, the second means “New years and new beginnings”. I may never discover the meaning of the third tattoo. I’ve had several friends come back from teaching in Japan that have no clue, but have confirmed I was correct with the first two.

For me alone, this story is something to laugh at. I still love the tattoo and I love the characters for their exotic beauty. I’ve always found Japanese writing to have an elegance that makes me want to cry. However, this story has not impacted me alone. Coming back for a break from college, all of my friends began showing me their tattoos. Japanese characters were very popular it seems. I have one friend with his nickname tattooed across his lower back another with his three daughters names tattooed in beautiful Japanese characters down his neck. As each friend I bumped into showed me their new works of art, I realized, I could never tell a soul.

My friend with the tattoo shop still has the sheet in his book and there is a small farm town in central Pennsylvania where all the kids are walking around with nonsense Japanese on their bodies. Sometimes I wake up at night in a cold sweat from a dream where they find out and begin hunting me down. I don’t think I will ever be moving back.

So yeah, coding can be a lot like that. The codebase you're looking at is a small farm town in Pennsylvania where young inexperienced developers tattooed their functions and classes all over the place. It works, but it doesn't make much sense. Rarely in the software industry do you get to start out with a clean slate. You've got to learn to roll up your sleeves and work with the ghosts of an inexperienced past. Sometimes it's someone else's code, often it's yours. Sometimes the code you write makes you want to run away before someone discovers it was you who put that tattoo of gibberish down their neck. In a perfect world, every time you came across code like that you would re-write. From a business perspective, that's not always the correct solution. Things like cost, impact and timelines come into play. Sometimes you have to leave the tattoo on your back.

The true trick of coding for a developer is figuring out the right decision every time you come across a summer tattoo. For me, today, I wear my tattoo with a wry smile remembering that summer. I roll my eyes at what I was thinking when I wrote that. I stretch my fingers, and start my fingers flying on the keyboard as I begin the refactoring process.

What WAS I thinking!

Posted on Thursday, August 9, 2007 9:01 PM | Back to top

Comments on this post: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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That is the reason that I could never have a tat. I can't refactor it and change it.
Left by Scott Miller on Aug 10, 2007 6:28 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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Awesome post George!

I wonder what the equivalent of the lower back tattoo would be in code...possibly a singleton? (from overuse?)
Left by Justice~! on Aug 10, 2007 8:50 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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Check out Hanzis Matter ( for more bad oriental tattoos.
Left by The ZMan on Aug 10, 2007 9:00 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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Hi, I recently started reading your blog, and now I find I actually have something to contribute!

The reason you can't find the last character is because it is the Simplified Chinese form. The Japanese use the traditional form. You can see both at the link below (the traditional form is shown first, with simplified in parentheses). It means either time or hour. It can be pronounced either 'toki' or 'ji' in Japanese.

At least it's easier to refactor code than to remove a tattoo.
Left by Joseph Irwin on Aug 10, 2007 9:16 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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i want a tatto in japanese and here is what i want: michael and marcia. not the "and". anybody can help me out.. thankx
Left by sinbad on Oct 26, 2007 9:53 PM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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can somebody help me with a tatto in japanese with these names: michael and marcia
Left by sinbad on Oct 26, 2007 9:58 PM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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Well the closest I can find is:
戈【か】 (n) ge (ancient Chinese dagger-axe).
戈【ほこ】 (n) (1) long-handled Chinese spear; lance; pike; (2) weapon;
arms; (3) grip of a bow.
年【とし】 (n-adv,n) (1) year; (suf) (2) age; (P).
年【とせ】 (ctr) (arch) counter for years (following a number in the hito-futa-
mi counting system).
年【ねん】 (n) (1) year (e.g., AD); (ctr) (2) counter for years.
肘【ひじ】 (n) (uk) elbow; (P).
I think the 1st and last Kanji are missing a few strokes
Left by Tir on Nov 23, 2007 11:31 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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I've never spoken to ANYONE with a tattoo more than ten years old that they even still wanted to talk about. And in my experience there is 100% correlation between a girl having a really bad/dumb tattoo and her being a nightmare to date.
Left by Craig on Jan 25, 2011 1:20 PM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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You must not run in the same circles I do :) Most people with tattoos I know have had them way longer than 10 years (mine is over 10 years old...) and love them.

And my wife has a tattoo... And I'm pretty sure she's not dumb or a nightmare to be with! :)
Left by George Clingerman on Jan 25, 2011 2:23 PM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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The problems is when you have to remove the tatoos.
Left by Paid Surveys on Mar 31, 2011 9:48 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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the motive you can't chose the last identity is because oahu is the Simplified Asian form.
Left by young drivers insurance on May 16, 2011 6:24 AM

# re: Experience, Coding and Summer Tattoos
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A great informative blog, keep up the good work. Keep posting articles. You have a great knowledge of the subject. Thanks for sharing such an article.
Left by Phoenix Travel Guide on Jan 16, 2012 2:10 AM

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