Therapeutic Tattoos: Can Art Be Cathartic?

therapeutic tattoos
Credit: David Clifton

Tattoos are a lot of things: beautiful pieces of art, self-expression, youthful indiscretions, political statements, tributes to loved ones. And then there are therapeutic tattoos. Perhaps every tattoo, on some level, is a form of therapy, releasing something from the depths of one’s mind onto their skin in a true place of permanence. In this regard, tattoos can bring closure or begin the process of emotional healing. 

When body art becomes more than art

There are different ways tattoos can be applied for therapeutic reasons. “It’s becoming quite common for people to incorporate tattoos into their unique process of healing and recovery,” psychologist Ana Jovanovic confirms. “These tattoos are a way to remind a person of their strength, their love for someone, or a new intention.”

Take, for example, the stories we’ve already shared about scar coverups and artists like Draven Gayheart, owner of Lost Gypsy Tattoo in Hazard Kentucky, who offer free or discounted tattoos to victims of human trafficking. Then there are women like Samantha Malamet who had her breast tattooed after cancer treatment and surgery to help her heal, “instead of missing what is no longer there.” And there’s also the semicolon tattoo, which has helped people who have considered, attempted, or been affected by suicide at some point in their lives. 

Heidi McBain, a therapist specializing in women’s mental wellness, shared one anecdote of a friend with a therapeutic tattoo. “[She] got a beautiful tattoo on her wrist after a traumatic cutting incident. It represents hope and healing for her,” she explains.

Why therapeutic tattoos work

Getting inked after self-harm isn’t an uncommon practice which serves, at the very least, two distinct purposes. For one, the tattoo covers the scars from the event and it allows her to turn a new page. “Some experiences we just don’t want to remember as they were,” says Jovanovic, expanding on using tattoo to mask physical scars. “If we felt helpless, we may want to have more control. If we felt deficient, we may want to prove as equal. If it faced us with death, we may want to set the intention to commit to living fully.”

But then there are experiences that don’t leave a physical scar. In its place, a tattoo acts as a reminder or symbol of our pain or loss and gives a person the space to make sense of what happened to them even if they’re no longer grieving. An unfortunately common event that leads someone to this type of tattoo is assault or abuse, especially of a sexual nature. When someone is a victim of physical abuse, it’s as if their body has been stolen from them.

Similarly, someone who has grappled with their gender or sexual identity, and have been robbed of the choice to live that identity, may choose to get a tattoo as a reclamation of what is theirs: their body. In many ways, it’s a rebranding: Where a business changes logos as they shift their focus or leadership, for example, an individual uses a tattoo to make a similar statement with a tattoo.

My personal therapeutic tattoo story

When I was 26, I was fired from a job I loved. I had spent two years pouring literal blood, sweat, and tears into this business. Getting fired came as a shock; I wasn’t perfect, but I put everything I had into my work and trying to make our company a success. In doing so, I lost myself. Working from sunrise till long after the sunset cut me off from my friends; on rare breaks when I went to see my family, I was stressed about not working the entire time.

And then one day, it was all gone — time was given back to me and I didn’t know what to do with it. I had a hard time processing that, sometimes, the rug gets ripped right out from under you and you don’t always get a reason why. In the spirit of that, and on a whim, I went and had a wave tattooed on me. It commemorated that moment in my life when I felt like I was pulled under and tossed around a rough, rolling wave. But it also set a powerful intention: It reminded me that life, like waves, change course without much notice. They can pull you under or safely deliver you ashore and sometimes you just can’t fight it.

The power of healing through tattoo

Jovanovic says traumatic experiences have the power to transform us. “Throughout the process of healing, a person makes sense of what has happened, creates some order in the midst of chaos, and defines future intentions.” Sometimes those intentions are permanently captured as tattoos, serving as a daily reminder of what you set out to accomplish.

While mental health professionals don’t recommend using tattoos as one’s only form of therapy, they do acknowledge the power a tattoo holds to give meaning or closure to an experience, or to begin a new one. Because tattoos are so deeply personal, it’s impossible to say how (or if) an individual sees their tattoo as a tool of healing. But we do know that it is one tool among many that has helped people forge ahead.

If you liked our story Therapeutic Tattoos: Can Art be Cathartic?, make sure to check out When a Party Favor Is Permanent: Why Businesses Are Featuring Live Tattooing at Their Events.

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