Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Dr. Justin Puder B.A, M.A, Ph.D
Tattoos and Mental Health: Honouring Recovery
Published Jan 4th, 2022 & updated on Dec 22nd, 2021
TW: this article mentions sexual assault, self-harm and suicide, white supremacy, and life-threatening medical conditions
Scars come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you fell into a coffee table as a toddler or crashed your bike as a kid! Or maybe you survived a deadly curse as a baby and now you have a lightning bolt-shaped scar…
Whatever the cause, physical scars are a visible sign that we survived something. Emotional scars are invisible, but represent a much deeper cut. They’re the result of our experiences that don’t necessarily leave a permanent physical mark, but cause us significant pain. They’re often the result of things that happen to us, out of our direct control, like being the victim of abuse or receiving a life-changing medical diagnosis.
Tattoos, like scars, are a signifier of a story. It could be as simple as a favourite song lyric or your life motto of living with “no ragrets,” but it can also be a tangible representation of something invisible.
Tattoos For Mental Health
For people with mental health disorders and survivors of abuse or illness, a tattoo can be part of the recovery process: a reminder of what they’ve been through, and a way to honour their courage. Here are just a few ways people have done that!
Mental Illness and the Semicolon
One of the more popular mental health awareness tattoos is the semicolon. It’s a representation of mental health struggles and suicide. It comes from Project Semicolon, a nonprofit started in 2013 by Amy Bluel to advocate for people with mental illnesses.
If you don’t remember from English class, the semicolon links two related complete sentences together. Or as Project Semicolon describes it, when the author could have ended a sentence but chose not to. That’s why the semicolon is a symbol representing the movement. We’re all the authors of our own lives, and the semicolon shows that we’ve chosen to continue writing.
Unfortunately, the number of people who are survivors of sexual assault is really big. The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of women worldwide have been subjected to sexual violence; for men, it’s estimated to be one-in-six. And sexual assaults are notoriously underreported (an estimate of 80%).
Sexual assault, at its core, is a violation of one person’s body by someone else. Survivors feel a wide variety of emotions and responses to being assaulted, like fear, anger, guilt, and powerlessness. Any and all emotions are valid responses!
For some, tattoos can be a way to achieve catharsis. After the assault, they might feel as though they don’t have control over their own body. Putting a permanent mark can be one way to take back control. A small study done in 2018 found that sexual assault survivors who got tattoos had much different reasons for getting inked than the general population.
The study’s author, herself a survivor, said most of the people she spoke with didn’t realize how much pain they were holding on to inside, until they began the process of picking a design to symbolize it. Tattoos can help the mental health of survivors by giving them an outlet to release those feelings. It also serves as a reminder that the person survived something, the way a physical scar can be a reminder.
The designs can be anything. Lady Gaga got the fire rose unity tattoo to commemorate being a survivor, and her geometric design has become a popular option. Other designs have included sayings like “no means no,” “survivor,” or “I am still whole.” For survivors, it’s a personal choice to decide how to symbolize their experience — it is their body, after all.
Healing and Recovery
Cancer is a scary word for a scary time. And if you or someone you love has gotten through that time, it’s going to leave a mark—physically, emotionally, or both. Some popular designs include ribbons, flowers, and words like “survivor,” “fighter,” or “still here.”
One tattoo becoming more popular among breast cancer patients and survivors: areola replacement (FYI some links in this section contain pictures). It’s a tattoo that recreates nipples that have been removed during mastectomies. For survivors, it can be traumatic to relive their experience every time they see themselves topless in the mirror. One artist, who is also a breast cancer survivor, said she was afraid of losing her nipple because “it’s part of our womanhood, motherhood.” As she describes it, the tattoos “bring life” back to an area that has been traumatized.
By all accounts, the tattoos have a very positive effect on the mental health of those who get them. One woman said when she looks in the mirror she feels “so much more complete.”
Illness-related tattoos aren’t just for people with cancer — they can also be for other chronic or long-term health conditions, like diabetes. Chronic illness can be a draw on your mental health, and a tattoo symbolizing your fight can provide a boost.
Some people choose to get tattoos as a form of medical identification — the same way you might wear a bracelet to make others aware that you have a severe allergy or type one diabetes. That’s not always the best choice, depending on the condition you’re wanting to represent. There’s no standardized system for those tattoos, like there is for medical jewelry, and first responders aren’t trained to check for a tattoo.
Tattoos as a Fresh Start
Self-harm scars can be uncomfortable to live with. Because of the stigma around mental health disorders, visible signs of self-harm can be a source of shame. People with self-harm scars face questions, pity, and judgement just for wearing a tank top or shorts, and that’s not cool.
Getting a tattoo over top of the scars is more than a fresh coat of paint! It can symbolize growth and a new beginning. As one writer described it, “there comes a point at which you realize you no longer want to be constantly confronted by your past.”
Like we mentioned earlier, the tattooing process can also be cathartic. A Scottish tattoo artist who does cover-ups said he doesn’t ask people any questions about their scars, but “nine times out of 10 they let their story come out when [he’s] doing the tattoo and it is a release.”
While this whole article is about tattoos that were done for mental health, there are also tattoos that no longer symbolize who the person is. For people who have left gangs, hate groups, or other toxic ideologies behind, their tattoo is a constant reminder of who they used to be. New ink can cover up those old tattoos that no longer represent who we believe ourselves to be.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed, several tattoo shops offered free coverups of racist or gang-related tattoos. After years in a white supremacist gang, one Canadian man committed to unlearning his racist beliefs and values. Erik Smith was constantly reminded of his old life by several tattoos, including a large swastika. It took more than 30 hours in the chair, but his chest is now covered by a large eagle instead. Smith says it was painful, but good for his mental health and his recovery to have his body reflect his new mindset.
There are also tattoos that help someone else’s mental health. Maybe your friend, partner, or family member is a survivor, and you get matching tattoos! It can be a great way to commemorate a difficult time you got through together.
It could also be something like what this dad did for his son. The boy has a large birthmark on his chest, and as he got older he began to feel self-conscious about it. To help him feel better, the dad got a large tattoo on his own chest, matching his son’s birthmark. The dad’s tattoo definitely had a huge impact on his son’s mental health… We cannot recommend enough that you watch the video of the dad and his son… just make sure you have a box of tissues handy.
For survivors thinking about getting ink to represent their fight, it’s definitely a good idea to do your research. That includes talking to your doctor first. They’ll be able to give you a professional opinion, like possible illness-related impacts on the tattoo process. You should also do research on the parlor, to make sure they’re reputable. Set up a consultation and talk to your tattoo artist about the reason you’re getting the tattoo! They’re also experts and may be able to adjust the process or aftercare plan to suit your needs.
Whatever the backstory behind your mental health tattoo, we’re proud of you for being strong and surviving. We know your new ink is gonna look amazing — after all, it’s part of you and we think you’re pretty swell!