By Leah Harris
Traumatic experiences can leave visible and invisible scars on survivors. While there is no one-size-fits-all to recovery, for some survivors of abuse, assault, and violence, “therapeutic tattoos” represent a powerful pathway to healing and body reclamation.
For sexual assault survivor Olivia Adamson, whose story was recently profiled in a “If I am having a hard time, as soon as I touch my wrist and I run my finger over my word ‘survivor,’ it helps.” While more research on the links between trauma, tattooing and healing is needed, researchers have found a “small but significant association between a history of abuse of various forms and choosing to have tattoos and body modifications later in life” (Liu & Lester, 2012). Many survivors report that tattooing was just one strategy among several that they found supportive of coping and healing, and recovery in the wake of trauma.
Some experts liken tattooing to art therapy, in which survivors are invited to draw or create something related to how they feel as a means of engaging with their lived experience. But tattooing has an additional dimension: research suggests that the pain is part of the therapeutic experience; that the (bearable) pain of the needle supports people to be present and reflect on their experience. As Flavia Carvalho, one tattoo artist noted: “They come to the studio, share their stories of pain and resilience, and they show me their scars. Embarrassed, they cry, and hug me…It is wonderful to see how their relationship with their bodies changes after they get the tattoos.”
For other survivors of traumatic experiences, a tattoo itself might represent a reminder of the trauma. This may be the case if a survivor bears a tattoo with an abuser’s name; or if a tattoo is an unwanted reminder of a life of addiction, incarceration, or gang-related activity. Luckily, there are more and more tattoo artists and nonprofit organizations offering free or low-cost tattoo removal or covering services for survivors of trauma. Check out the link below to a profile of an East Bay activist who compiled a database of national services.
Check out and share these resources about the therapeutic effects of tattooing, or covering/removing tattoos:
- Tattoo therapy: How ink helps sexual assault survivors heal (CNN.com)
- Reclaiming the body after trauma: Can body art help abuse survivors heal? (VAWNet.org)
- These Stunning Tattoos Are Helping Sexual Assault Survivors Deal With Their Trauma (Health.com)
- 23 Tattoos That Represent Healing From Childhood Trauma (The Mighty)
- Lafayette man makes helping ex-inmates his mission, forms national database for tattoo removal (East Bay Times)
- Directory of U.S. free or low-cost tattoo removal programs (Jails to Jobs)
Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.