Italian Tattoos Are Forever
Beware: an Italian tattoo is forever. On an episode of Miami Ink on TLC, a customer went to a tattoo parlor and, being Italian American, wanted "per sempre" tattooed vertically down his forearm from elbow to wrist. He told the tattoo artist it meant "forever" and gave him the drawing he made himself. The tattoo artist, who did not know Italian, proceeded to finish the tattoo as drawn. When finished, the customer looked at it in horror! Written on his arm was "pre sempre"—which has no meaning in Italian. The customer had spent much effort in making the lettering artistic that he spelled it wrong. The tattoo artist was able to fix the error, but it was a costly mistake.
Context Is King
If you're thinking about getting an Italian tattoo (in Italian: farsi fare un tatuaggio—to have oneself tattooed, to be tattooed) one thing to consider is context. A trendy phrase in English might not mean anything in Italian or, worse, require a bit of linguistic gymnastics to render the term comprehensible in Italian. In addition, there may be no cultural reference. For instance, "keep it real" is a popular American pop culture term—but it's a phrase that has no resonance in Italian everyday life. In fact, if Italians were to use the term, they'd say it in English to indicate their knowledge of American pop culture.
Another consideration when getting a tattoo, obviously, is whether it fit on your ankle, bicep, back, or wherever else you've decided you want the image. If there is text involved, be aware that Italian translations of English phrases and terms are typically longer—both the words themselves and the total number of words. Either the font size of the letters will have to be smaller to fit the same area, or you will have to bulk up that bicep so that's there's more skin to ink!
If An Italian Tattoo Is A Must
If you're absolutely, positively convinced that you want an Italian tattoo, consult a native Italian speaker. Better yet, ask a few Italian speakers and get a range of opinions about both the grammatically correct translation of the term or phrase you're considering, and also whether it has any significance in Italian. This way you won't have an Italian tattoo permanently etched into your skin that, although it makes sense literally, isn't part of everyday speech. Whatever you do, avoid online automatic translators—they are notorious for rendering incomprehensible statements. And make sure the tattoo artist understands exactly how the word or phrase should read before beginning his work.
A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
Walk into the Sistine Chapel and one of the lasting images is the brilliance of the colors on the walls and ceilings. Now imagine what an Italian Renaissance artist could accomplish with a broad expanse of back, a forearm, or thigh. That's an Italian tattoo that wouldn't require translation—the vivid colors and dramatic personae would tell a story better than any phrase rendered into Italian, and would be unique as well. That might be the best Italian tattoo anyone could design and execute.