Tattoos and Trauma

How art can aid the healing process

Content warning: discussion of self harm (cutting) and mental illness

I have eighteen tattoos – I think. Both of my arms and my back are heavily inked, with sporadic pieces across my thighs and legs. There are song lyrics and selected lines of poetry; delicate florals mixed with strange neo-trad illustrations; and a tribute to my home-town adorning my back. 

At the time of writing the first draft of this article, it has coincidentally been eighteen days since I last hurt myself (I know that for a fact, because that’s the kind of thing therapists always ask about so now I like to take note of the date). Both of my thighs and my left arm are heavily scarred, with sporadic slashes on my calves. There are regions of red and pink; sections of skin without sensation; the word FAT carved into my side; and clusters of grey and silver, like traces of a map leading nowhere.

People ask of my tattoos – “What do they all mean?”

People ask of my scars – “Why are they all on one side?” 

People ask of both – “Why did you do that to yourself?” and “Won’t you regret that?” and “What about when you’re older?”

So it seems that at the intersection of these two parts of my story, where hope and recovery collide with pain and trauma, is where people – and for reasons unbeknownst to me, particularly strangers – are most interested. As if violating myself with a blade could be repaired by their vilification, with the humiliation of having my disfigured figure dissected by their gaze. 

The truth is, adorning my body with art is helping me to heal.

If you have ever been addicted to self-harm (or suffered from any addiction for that matter), then you will understand the difficulty in abstaining from an act which you so desperately crave. And if you haven’t self harmed or consider yourself to have ever suffered from addiction, then let me tell you this: it takes an enormous amount of strength to stop yourself from engaging in those behaviours. Because those behaviours serve a purpose – my addiction to hurting myself allows me to cope with painful situations, as ironic as that may seem. 

So it really does take an enormous amount of strength to stay clean from cutting long enough to have the scars from self-inflicted injuries tattooed over. It can take many months of healing at a minimum, but most artists recommend waiting as long as possible, and some tattooists will only go over scars that are five years old or more.

And that, my friends, is incredibly motivating. 

Like most addictions, my self-harm is ritualistic. It has a pattern. There are rules. I will hurt myself in certain places for certain amounts of time – often until I run out of room. This is important in the context of tattoos for a few reasons.

In the first instance, the length of time required before scars can be tattooed over discourages me from self-harming in a particular area. Secondly, once that particular area has been tattooed over, I will rarely self-harm in that area again – although, under severe distress, there have been times I have cut through tattoos, in one instance purposefully (it reminded me of someone I was angry at) and in another by mistake (I was so blinded by my anger that I didn’t care where I was cutting). 

Most importantly, tattoos are a part of my healing process because it is a way for me to reclaim my body from the traumas it has been subject to, whether as consequence of my own addictions, or at the hands of others.

Not unlike gender dysphoria, I can feel incredibly detached from and disgusted by particular body parts that are associated with certain traumas. By adorning those body parts with art that I admire, I am learning to love myself again. I no longer find my own body triggering, but am beginning to appreciate its strength. 

One of my dearest friends has full-colour tattoos covering most of their body. Their philosophy towards tattoos is this: even if they come to regret a tattoo, they will never have one removed, since at some point in their life, it was meaningful enough or beautiful enough for them to want it permanently featured on their body. 

The scar-removal process is eerily similar to that for tattoo removal. But, although I deeply regret many of my scars, I instead choose to have them disguised with tattoos, reminiscent of my friend’s philosophy.

There is still a heavy stigma associated with womxn who are tattooed. But I would argue that there is a much stronger, stranger stigma associated with self-harm. 

I can’t choose to take away the scars I inflicted upon myself, but I can choose to inflict a different kind of pain instead. I choose instead to carry the stigma of being a young, heavily tattooed woman and empower myself with a body reborn as an artwork.

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