Tattooing and Self-Care

by EYMY Activist Emmy

Tied in to our Self-care Sunday over the last two weeks, EYMH Activist Emmy, from France, shares her understanding of self-care and blogs, through interviews with young tattooists and tattoed people and its relation to mental health.

Disclaimer: this article in no way encourages people to get tattooed (especially underage teenagers) but rather to promote acceptance and challenge the negative perception of tattooed people as well as the idea that tattoos are a synonym of self hate.  

Many people have a pretty narrow vision of what self care is. We tend to think that determining what self care is can be done by creating two boxes: one for activities or things that can be considered as self care and others that cannot. This dual vision is influenced by brands who use the word self care as a marketing key word to sell us a variety of beauty products or fancy trips to Bali. But isn’t the world “self” in self care a reminder that it is, in reality, a very personal practice? Why couldn’t we simply acknowledge that one can practice a certain activity, like cooking for exemple, for self care while others would perceive this same activity as a stressful chore? 

This is why in our instagram serie “ Self Care Sunday” we try to stay as open minded as possible on the variety of activities that can help an individual to take care of their mental health and constantly try to think beyond the border of what is commonly perceived as acceptable self care and what isn’t. And this is why today, we decided to talk specifically about tattoos. 

Tattooing is generally not considered as a mental health practice and it’s a pretty sensitive topic in the mental health sphere because it has a history of being associated with self-harm. But this negative perception of tattooing also exists because in western cultures, tattooing is still a stigmatised and often marginalised practice, associated with being an outcast, a criminal, a drug addict, having an unprofessional attitude, not being able to get integrated into society … Even though in many cultures the act of getting tattooed is a symbol of pride, belonging and beauty, in western society tattoos have historically been perceived as an act of punishment and as a sin because of religious interdictions.

Find out more on the preception of tattoos in ‘Western Society’ here:

But it’s also because of this specific history that tattoos became equally as popular as they can be taboo in the west. In fact, many marginalized groups have reclaimed the act of getting tattooed, such as the LGBTQ+ community who turned this art form into a celebration of their difference or communities of colors who have historically practiced tattooing such as the Kabyles of North Africa or various indian ethnic groups living in the West who started a movement of reclaiming their ancestral tattoos as an act of decolonisation. Many people decided to get tattooed as a way to celebrate their difference, affirm their identity, reclaim the bodies and adorn themselves with art. 

In order to learn more about how the act of getting tattooed can be a synonym of self care we decided to collect testimonials from tattooed individuals and tattoo artists who were willing to share their beliefs on the healing power of tattoos. 

We outreached to tattoo artists and just this experience showed us how this can be part of a self care practice. Everyone we talked to was caring, mental health mindful and willing to help just because the topic was important to them which are such important values to create any community. 

Some ideas that could be developed:

  1. Tattoo shops as safe spaces: Vagabond, Feralis, Cult tattoos
  2. Tattoos as a way to reconciliate yourself with your body ( quotes about how tattoos are an alternative to self mutilation, quote from Dahlia Lou) 
  3. Tattoos as self expression and self identification ( quote Lysiane) 
  4. Tattoos as reminders of good moments and providers of a sense of safety and belonging ( quote Alejandra, Christina, Anna)

Chapter I – Tattoo artists & shops as safe spaces

In this first chapter, we asked some tattoo artists how important the subject of mental health was in their industry and here are their answers:

Dana, Feralis Artwork (Belgium)

“ A reminder of where you have come from and where you are now’, is, for me personally, the  almost literal representation of tattoos in mental health (or the other way around). 

You get the ability to tell your story without really have to tell anything. If your tattoos have a  deeper meaning or not, they’re a form of self expression, a way to take total control of your own  body while you may have not in other ways, and I think that is total empowerment and can be  healing for some people. 

In times of this global pandemic, I myself was constantly shifting between moods, while I’m  normally not really a big mood swinger. I quickly realized that these moments of A LOT of free  time are a once in a life time opportunity to work on and learning new things where you normally  never get the time for if you’re working full time, and I took it with both hands. On the other side I  was taking some decisions in my personal life future wise, and the pandemic was throwing a big  spanner in the works. That caused me a lot of stress and a little mental breakdown at the end of  our second lockdown. Everything turned out fine eventually so now this third lockdown is an  opportunity again to full

I focus on other projects besides tattooing and for now I enjoy it a lot. 

Now, for my clients it’s another story of course. I notice that these tattoo appointments are the  one thing to look forward to for them in this pandemic. That one activity between constantly being  at home and being restricted. We only worked for a month now in March and everyone was so  grateful, happy to be out, happy to be able to talk to someone. It really breaks my heart to have to  cancel all people from April again, knowing that this was going te be one of their highlights this  year.”

Kim, Cult Tattoos (Belgium)

“I feel like there is no short way in talking about mental health and tattoos. There are so many layers in dealing with your head while getting a tattoo. Saying goodbye to a loved one by a forever home on the skin, replacing automutilation by getting tattooed and getting the same relief in pain, starting to love your body again weither that is in covering old scars or just getting art and finding it pretty on you. But maybe also talking to eachother during a session because there is no judging, only sharing and a little bit and letting go. (And maybe some tears because I’m always so invested in people their stories and thankfull they feel safe to share them with me) As for the pandemic and its several lockdowns, I feel fine going through it, health is a priority. I have extra time to spend with my kid, I love being at home and if I feel like it drawing some flash and making candles. Trying to avoid that ‘must make merch and creating content’ because who cares…”

“ What we have done is made our shop a place where our clients fee safe and assured zero judgment about their mental health concerns. We utilize rotary machines to cut down on the loud buzzing sound often associated (and feared) by clients. We have found that our approach to breaking the stigma of mental health has endeared a lot of clients to us. 

We have clientele who were former cutters and they have now stopped the practice in favour of getting tattoos. This reduces their need for self-harm and provides them with something new to their bodies that they can be happy about. The reduction in self harm lessens the severity of injuries and unnecessary visits to hospital.

Body modifications have a unique effect on people with body issues that manifest into mental health. This in itself is one of the biggest benefits to our clientele. 

In terms of self-care, we find that our clientele treat a new tattoo as a reward to themselves. They work hard at their jobs and when they have a little extra money they put it towards themselves. The tattoo often becomes a medal of achievement for them that they survived the weight of the capitalist world and now have something permanent to show for their efforts.

We make sure that we are as inclusive as can be. We cater to everyone (minus those who would be detrimental to the environment we sustain here) and make sure each client feels as welcomed as the rest. We go out of our way to even make sure to give the choices of pronouns on our paperwork as to jot misgender someone and add to their mental duress as they transition or have transitioned.”

Chapter II- Tattoos as a way to reconcile yourself with your body 

If people are often quick to associate tattoos with self mutilation, we have seen with the above statement that tattoos often act as a substitution to self harm. In fact, getting a tattoo on a part of your body that you would previously feel the need to cut might help you to avoid this type of behaviours, because where you previously saw something that you want to cut you now see an artwork that you love. 

Note: if you are currently having self destructive behaviors please find resources below with some ideas to help you and don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional: 

Dahlia Lou, an old musician, model and photographer accepted to tell us a bit about how getting tattooed improved her self confidence: 

“My name is Dahlia Lou and I’m 23 years old. My journey with mental illness start

ed when I was really young. Anorexia found me after the passing of a friend when I was 12, and then started a 12 years long journey to recovery.

I was never overweight, but I had a deep hatred for my body. Always too fat. Always too much.

I started getting tattoos the week of my 18th birthday. That’s also when anorexia got worse and I had to be hospitalized for a long time.

Fast forwards to today, anorexia is just an old memory. I never thought I’d move past it, and the recovery was long, but today I love my body and appreciate it! And getting tattoos have helped me tremendously.

I got a stomach tattoo because I didn’t like my belly. Now, I look at it and see a piece of art. I got my shins tattooed because I wanted my legs, who can’t always carry me due to chronic illness, to be beautiful and have an armor. When I look at myself, I don’t see the fat anymore. I see the beautiful ink that makes my body look badass, like a warrior. And that’s how I feel. After everything, after recovering from so many things, I know I am a warrior and my tattoos are a reminder of everything I’ve been through. A reminder that I rose above it.Tattoos aren’t a cure to anorexia or body dysmorphia, but they help. Photoshoots have helped too. Being able to discover myself through different angles. Being able to build with the tattoos the body I’ve always wanted.It’s empowering, it shows me that I still have the contrôle and power over my body. It proved me that I’m in charge. And I can change my body with ink instead of fasting.” 

Seeing how tattooing can help people to love their bodies shows us how damaging discriminating people based on their tattoos (especially in the workspace) can be. If people can learn to love their bodies thanks to their tattoos try to think about how damaging it can be to them to be taught that it makes them look “unprofessional”. Discriminating someone based on their tattoos is unquestionably wrong and shouldn’t be something normalised in the workplace. 

Dahlia Lou 23

Chapter III- Tattoos as self expression and self identification

In many cultures, tattoos have been a way to show belonging to a particular community for millenials. For exemple, the oldest evidence of Inuit tattooing dates back to 3,500 years ago making it a millenials old unchanged, widespread tradition (you can read more here https://www.uphere.ca/articles/between-lines). The success of this practice amongst many nations, despite how painful hand poked tattoos can be can be explained by the strong sense of belonging that tattoos can provide to their owners. In fact, because they are permanent, and, depending of their placement, difficult to hide, tattoos can act as a strong marker of where you are from, where you belong and what’s your social position. In fact, even in western society, some tattoos are commonly recognised as sailor tattoos while others became symbols of rock’n’roll or biker cultures. Tattoos can also be a way to affirm your belonging to a marginalised community like it is the case for some members of the LGBTQIA+ community but can also simply be a way to show your interest for a specific book, anime, movie, comic, manga, TV show ect…

Our EYMH volunteer, Lysiane tells more us more about how her tattoos help us to self identify herself: 

“I’ve grown up being told how I should look, how I can express myself or not depending on how other people will perceive it, that I’m only okay if everyone else approves of me. Drawing and art has always been a passion of mine so discovering tattooing was a revelation. Getting tattooed was the best thing that ever happened to my self esteem. Because no matter how much I’m at war with myself, there’s always this one thing that will be beautiful on me and that I can love. My tattoos are my talismans. They’ve been a way for me to process things I couldn’t, turn a page I couldn’t turn and a way to remind me who I am in times of panic and confusion.”

In this way, getting a tattoo can be a way to reclaim your body and affirm your right to

adorn it like you would with your house. 

Chapter IV- Tattoos as reminders of good moments and providers of a sense of safety and belonging

Eventually, it is worth mentioning that tattoos can also simply act as reminders of good moments, providing to its owner a sense of safety especially during a hard time. For exemple, EYMH volunteer Anna K,  states that : 

“ My tattoo is an eye (with brown in the middle), because it reminds me that even though no one is there to see it, things still happen. For example, a tree still falls in a forest, even when no one sees it. This thought really helps me in my healing journey, because I used to invalidate some of my own experiences, because no one was there to witness it with me. To help remind myself that my own experience is just as valid as when I share it with someone else, I decided to have my own “little spy eye”

In a similar way, Alejandra, the communications officer at Sirius Policy Network on Migrant Education tells us how her tattoo reminds her to stay hopeful :

“I made this tattoo right after I got my first actual job. It had been a really stressful search, and my anxiety and other factors had not helped at all, so when I got the notification that I had been accepted I had the feeling that things were going into place, and that eventually, everything gets better”

Eventually, Christina from Greece states see tattoos as “ an art form and as a means to express yourself. A piece can be meaningful or you simply like the art. For me, it’s a bit of both. On one hand, it’s a way to communicate my interests without words and on the other, I can connect with it on a deeper lever. For example this one not only  represents my love for the particular movie but it also has a personal meaning as it conjures up happy memories from my childhood and my parents.”

As a conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that one can choose to get tattooed for a variety of reasons that are all valid and should only matter to the person who is making this choice. Tattoos can be part of a self care process as long as they are done in a safe way ( find out more about the risks of getting tattooed and different tips to do it safely here: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/safe-tattooing.html ) but they are only one of the millions things that can help you to feel better in your body. 

More about this subject: 

Published by Euro Youth Mental Health

I'm a champion for youth mental health - Co-Director of Euro Youth Mental Health - Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor - Mental Health Participation Expert - Facilitator & Podcaster - Youth Wellbeing giver.

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