Tattoos have a long history as an art form, with the oldest evidence of a tattooed body being dated at about 3,000 B.C. Despite its enduring presence, only a few short decades ago tattoos were considered to be reserved for a subculture of military and biking men. Now it’s made a return to the consciousness of popular culture, with about 36% of individuals aged 18-25 sporting the permanent art. This rise in popularity and deviation from tattoo culture’s traditional place in hypermasculine expression is partially the fault of the same factors that influence most millennial trends: social media and television. Television shows such as Miami Ink brought the beauty and attainability of tattoos to living rooms, and artists now have platforms with millions of followers to showcase their enviable work. But tattoos hurt, sometimes a lot, so why are so many individuals flocking to the needle drawn art form?
Probably because tattoos are surprisingly therapeutic.
Unless acupuncture is involved, needles generally aren’t considered the height of catharsis. Not only that, but tattoos are incredibly painful depending on where you get them. So what do I mean when I say tattoos are therapeutic? When intangible emotions feel suffocating, the physicality of having ink drawn into skin can provide a health coping tool with which to work through those emotions. Getting a tattoo can give one agency over traumatic experiences that once left them helpless, express physical strength where one has already expressed emotional strength, and provide closure to a traumatic or hurtful experience.
For example, for several years I struggled with an eating disorder that centered on hatred of my stomach. Although my weight was healthy, I couldn’t look in the mirror without seeing myself as someone engorged and grotesque. Even after beginning the process of recovery, I still struggled with the shape and size of my stomach. Finding nothing to love about my body, I chose to have my it marked with something I could love. I now sport two flowers on either side of my stomach: a magnolia and a Mediterranean anemone. If anyone asks, I explain their individual symbolism. The Magnolia grandiflora is Mississippi’s state flower, which is a nod to my southern roots. The Mediterranean anemone is a flower sacred to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who created the flower from the blood of Adonis when he was murdered by Ares, which is a nod to both the romantic in me and to my affection for Ancient Greek culture. However both tattoos serve a purpose beyond their symbolism, and that’s to turn something grotesque into something beautiful. Stomachs and rib cages are especially sensitive areas to have tattooed, and I freely admit that these two pieces were excruciating. But that pain was nothing compared to the burden of self loathing that I’ve harbored for so long. Although the tattoos didn’t “fix” me and my self perception, they’re a testament to my endurance. More importantly, if I’m looking at myself in the mirror with cruel intent I find myself drawn to the art instead, which I can’t help but love for the technical skill that went into its creation and its physical beauty.
I’m not alone in seeking solace from permanent ink. Alex, who’s also in recovery from an eating disorder, has the word breath along the side of the National Eating Disorder Association tattooed in black ink on their thigh. When asked about its meaning and purpose, they said: “My tattoo means a lot to me, and it’s a comfort on days where I’m tempted to relapse. It serves as a reminder that I can’t afford to go back to bad coping. That’s also why it says breathe along the side. Calming.”
Laura is getting her first tattoo as I write this article. She’s getting a minimalist outline of a lotus which reminds her of the obstacles she faces and will continue to face: “2016 has arguably been one of the worst years I’ve experienced thus far for a lot of personal reasons, and it has been trying in a lot of ways. As someone who struggles with anxiety and a lot of self doubt, it’s a reminder that the worst events in my life can shape me in positive ways, and that I can overcome the obstacles set in front of me and come out stronger (since the lotus grows out from mud and blossoms into itself.)”
Others are tattooed for the artistic merit of the work, and although their connection to the meaning may have changed, parts of the meaning take on new life and they still find value their tattoo as a work of art and a piece of their history. Dave, for example, has left behind some of the ideology that went into his tattoo, but that doesn’t mean the symbolism isn’t still relevant to his life: “I got it during my occult period – it’s a triple goddess, with a Gemini sign inside (as Gemini is my moon sign). I got this over a decade ago, and while I no longer believe in astrology or any of the other stuff I was into at the time, it still holds meaning to me, as a reminder of what I used to believe. Additionally, I still feel that the triple goddess is a potent symbol in its own right, representing not only the feminine part of my psyche, but also the evolution of my psyche. The triple goddess represents three phases of life (maiden, mother, and crone), and I see no reason why I shouldn’t have myself marked with that.”
Sometimes tattoos are used to cope with the tangible as well as intangible. Some individuals get tattooed to cover self harm scars or surgery scars. There are artists who specialize in helping clients reclaim their body by covering up scars from traumatic events, such as from domestic violence and cancer recovery. By choosing to mark one’s skin over a mark that the individual had no control over receiving, they’re able to regain agency over not only their self perception, but of the perception of others. They challenge their victimization by painting over evidence of trauma with evidence of their survival. Thus, something ugly and hurtful can become something beautiful and comforting.
Although not every tattoo comes with emotionally wrought meanings and experiences, tattoos are a healthy, beautiful coping mechanism that is becoming more accessible to the general public as stigma lessens and tattoos continue to remain visible to the public eye.
Thank you to Alex, Dave, and Laura for their candor!