Emotional tattoos: How getting inked can promote healing

Getting inked has become more than a mark of self-expression, with emotional tattoos becoming a popular way to navigate personal experiences such as grief.

Tattoos have enjoyed an image overhaul in recent years, thanks largely to the rising popularity of modern designs that carry deep and personal meanings.

Once mostly associated with pirates and prisoners, figures indicate as many as one in four Australians now have at least one tattoo.

While reasons for getting a tattoo vary, including cultural factors, for many the primary motivation is personal meaning, according to a study by University of the Free State psychologist Luzelle Naudé.

Personal healing with emotional tattoos

For many, emotional tattoos are a way to expose hidden mental scars, commemorate a traumatic event or personal loss, or regain control following a challenging experience.

Another study found tattoos can assist in reducing appearance anxiety.

Darwin tattoo artist “Crooked” Mike Sucking tells The House of Wellness TV show most of his tattoo pieces are designed to heal.

“My DMs from clients often (half-jokingly) say something along the lines of being due for another therapy session,” Mike says.

Dedication pieces – otherwise known as memorial tattoos – are one of the most common subtypes of sentimental design, which are generally created in memory of a lost loved one and serve as a tool to help process loss and grief.

According to one study, memorial tattoos are characterised by five distinct features:

  • A tool to manage grief.
  • A tool to communicate.
  • Continuing bonds.
  • Self-transformation.

Tattoos to mark milestones

Commemorative tattoos to signify personal wins like reaching a sobriety milestone or becoming cancer-free are also commonly requested.

One study found tattoos serving as a coping ritual helped to facilitate all elements of emotional recovery post cancer, including changes to self-perception, relationships, and life philosophies.

Brisbane artist Cherie Buttons tells The House of Wellness TV she is honoured to create such significant milestones for her clients.

“It’s really nice to create vulnerable pieces,” Cherie says.

“My main (focus) is to make sure people feel comfortable and safe with me and I just love that people can trust me to mark their body forever.”

Using physical pain to facilitate emotional healing

Some believe the pain of tattoos has therapeutic value for people who may otherwise express internal trauma in other physical ways, however research into this is limited.

Mike says he understands why the physical pain associated with the sensation of new ink may promote emotional healing.

“You’re edging your adrenal gland for X amount of time, depending on the piece, and just as you’re about to step off the cliff, the white is done, and you can leave, and your body just dumps all that adrenaline down the drain and you get a little sniff of happiness from it,” Mike says.

“And you’ve got something cool to show everyone, for having endured it; so double win.”

Written by Charlotte Brundrett.