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The Psychology of Tattoos

Psychiatrist (and Tattoo Fanatic) Dr. Melané van Zyl

The decision to get a tattoo is a very

individual one. Since being asked to write this article | have asked around why people got their tattoos: professional artists, friends and patients. got more answers than people I asked. if there is more than one tattoo there may also be a different reason for getting each one. People with tattoos are often stigmatized (luckily less so these days) as being rebellious, belonging to some gang or cult, or having loose sexual values.

From a behavioral point of view the decision to get a tattoo is based on how we live our lives, and the decision is not inherently good or bad. It is the same as other lifestyle decisions we make when we choose the statistically less popular option, such as deciding not to have children, becoming vegetarian, and homeschooling the kids. None of these 'alternative lifestyle' choices are inherently good or bad. It is also interesting how community perceptions change. I regularly talk to conservative, elderly patients who are using cannabis for medicinal purposes - people who would not have been open to the idea of using drugs for any reason 20 years ago.

Eastern philosophies and psychoanalytical theories teach us that wholeness is important. This means that we must accept ourselves and others without judgement and not 'split off some aspects as 'bad', sinful or even evil. Engaging in a conversation with somebody with a tattoo is a valuable opportunity to connect because we can learn something about the deeper psychological motivations of that person. Here are some powerful positive 'ideas' or motivations that contribute to us getting tattoos. Or worded in another way - what positive things do our tattoos say about us?


1. The idea of wearing your heart on your sleeve and not being afraid of being judged

In the worlds of business and politics it is considered a bad strategy to wear your heart on your sleeve. If it is obvious exactly what you are thinking, and what your fears and plans are, you may find it difficult to influence people. Margaret Thatcher has been quoted saying "To wear your heart on your sleeve isn't a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best." Having a visible tattoo, especially one with a known symbolic meaning says something about you, e.g. that you do not care too much about portraying a conservative corporate image. This is a brave stance, as the skills and virtues you bring to work may have to speak louder.


2. The idea of impermanence

Tattoos are permanent, at least permanent for this life. Our bodies are temporary. By having something permanently visible on your skin creates a landmark because the landscape around it changes - we get wrinkles, scars and grey hair. A tattoo marks a specific point in time and creates an awareness that our lives are transient.

This emphasizes that our lives are preciously short and that we should make the most of our available time and opportunities.


3. The idea of trust and

letting go of control

When I got my first tattoo I quickly realized that I had to let go of my urge to be in control. Tattoo removal is an option, but from experience I know that there is no guarantee that a tattoo can be removed completely.

The tattoo artist takes into consideration what the client wants but, in the end, a tattoo artist is still an artist in the true sense of the word, and will be creative when tattooing. Having this experience where such a high level of trust is required was quite significant for me.


4. The idea of understanding symbolism

Tattoos are an artistic way of using symbolic images to express mystical ideas, emotions or a state of mind. Choosing a tattoo that represents an idea or emotion therefore implies an awareness of what the tattoo means perhaps you have an idea or emotion that could not be expressed otherwise. Trying to convey emotions and values in such a visible manner also implies that these (often) subconscious thoughts are brought to the light, which is an extremely useful touch in understanding ourselves.


5. The idea of belonging or having

important connections to others

Through history people have wanted to express that they belong in a certain group, either because they qualified somehow or shared ideas with a certain group. We therefore identify with the views, values and traditions of the group. Making it visible that you are permanently identifying with a group indicates an acceptance and 'surrendering' to the ideologies of that group. Of course we need to individualize; to develop a strong, independent idea of who we really are and to be able to live accordingly. But we as humans are tribal' in nature. Isolated people experience more suffering and do not live as long as people who feel connected to their community.


6. The idea of remembering

Tattoos are often used as reminders of important dates and people. This again serves a landmark function. Despite being aware that life is transient, at the same time we are able to 'hold' an important event. We are able to be with the emotions that come up when we look at the tattoo, and remember. It is difficult to avoid the pain of remembering a loved one's passing on if we have a daily visible reminder, but eventually it also helps to lessen the pain of the loss.


7. The idea of creating beauty out of

pain and accepting the body

Tattoos are sometimes used to cover up scars, to make something beautiful out of an injury or illness. Of course, this does not mean that scars are ugly and should be covered - they are also part of our history. Sometimes going for a tattoo is a form of self-inflicted pain - and alternative to cutting. This is, however, still a type of avoidance of emotional pain and is not a psychologically "healthy' thing to do. For many of us the aesthetic aspect of our tattoos is essential. We all have many different ideas of how the perfect body looks, and of how important that

perfect body is to us. We can decide how we want our bodies to look, and tattoos help to bring acceptance with the reality of the story that our bodies tell.


8. The idea of being non-judgmental

Independent of our religious or spiritual beliefs it is always a sign of maturity when we can be non-judgmental about other peoples' life choices and behavior. Having tattoos immediately places us in a position from where we cannot judge, but probably will be judged. Being judged (often unfairly) teaches us how to be unattached to others' opinion about us. It also teaches us how painful these judgements can be, and helps us to refrain from passing judgement on others


9. The idea of embodiment

Once again, regardless of our religious or

spiritual beliefs we all live in a temporary body. Tattoos can help us to be embodied to have a tangible, physical experience or sensation that we live in our bodies. Trauma often causes us to lose the sense that we are in our bodies here, now. We could then develop many physical and emotional symptoms, such as dizziness, feeling disconnected from our bodies, numbness, and anxiety, which create high levels of distress. Having something that you can look at brings you back into your body, to the

present time, and helps to relieve anxiety and depression


10. The idea of alternate rebellion

Certain psychological techniques, such as dialectical behavior therapy, describe a concept called 'alternate rebellion'. This means that if you want to be rebellious, do it in such a way that you don't hurt yourself or others. Basically you rebel 'undercover', and while you still get the satisfaction of doing your own thing, you don't get into trouble. To rebel against the 'system' is a normal developmental stage and a healthy psychological process. It is much better to do this undercover, than having to face consequences like being expelled or fired