Tattooing And Self Harm: How Tattoo Art Can Save Your Life

Of all the criticisms levelled at the fine art of tattooing perhaps the greatest is that it’s a form of self-harm. The negative connotations of this perception are extensive. The driving notion is that getting a tattoo is a sign of mental illness.

Yet to the tattooing industry, it’s clear to see there’s far more complexity going on in this art form. There’s no doubt that some people with tattoos also have mental health conditions. And yet cause – in this case – does not equal effect.

Many people who dye their hair, paint their nails or get piercings also have mental health conditions. That doesn’t mean their choice of aesthetics is a symptom of their illness. 

Asserting that tattooing is a form of self-harm is particularly ironic; many find tattoos to be a healthy, safe, and positively expressive way of coping with the urge to self-harm. 

In recent years more and more stories have surfaced in the media about individuals who cite regular tattooing as being a lifesaver. Why? Because the ‘buzz’ of getting a new tattoo can replace the sense of brief euphoria created by self-harming.

And while self-harm can lead to destructive behaviour that results in injury, infection, health complications, and even death, getting a tattoo is perfectly safe.

There are other examples of tattoos playing a positive role in the fight against mental illness. The rise of trends like the semi-colon tattoo is a great example. Those who have survived a suicide attempt are now marking the experience with a semi-colon inked on their skin. This serves as a reminder that their life could have ended (with a full stop) but instead, it merely paused (with a semi-colon), allowing their story to continue.

But can tattooing really have a positive effect on those who self-harm? We did a little digging into the subject, here’s what we found…

Self-harming is a serious mental health issue that can affect anyone. There is no specific age, gender, background or ethnicity that makes a person more likely to self-harm. As a practice, it tends to act as a kind of release from the pressure a person is feeling. That might be psychological in nature – a condition such as bipolar disorder, for example – but it can also be emotional – the reaction to a bad breakup, or trauma.

Self-harm is a way to take control when things feel out of control. Inflicting pain on oneself and the ability to decide how much pain there should be, and how long it lasts creates a sense of euphoria. That relief returns a measure of control and self-esteem that has – for whatever reason – been lost.

Self-harming and tattooing both physically impact the skin and cause pain; it’s understandable that one came to be seen as a form of the other.

There is, however, a great deal more to tattooing than this. It’s a form of expression, a creative outlet, a means of communication and even motivation. Many people find their identity and self-worth through their tattoos, gaining a sense of belonging, self-worth, or simple attention when they get new ink.

All that being said, getting a tattoo does result in the infliction of pain. For those who self-harm through destructive means like cutting, getting a tattoo can actually act as a positive alternative that allows them to gain that sense of control, euphoria, and relief, without the risk of permanent damage.

Instead of scars, they are left with beautiful works of art.

Ensuring Tattooing Is Safe…

While it’s clear there is room for tattooing to allow those struggling with self-harm to manage their mental health difficulties in a healthier way, there is always room for caution. Extremes exist in all things, and tattooing is no exception. 

Anything that breaks the skin has the potential to become infected. Tattoos should never pose a health risk as long as they’re created in a sterile environment by a trained professional and properly cared for as they heal. That being said, the potential for infection is there. This is why proper aftercare treatment is so essential; keeping your new tattoo clean is vital if you want to avoid infection.

The potential problem here crops up when we consider where the line is drawn between tattooing and self-harm. 

Getting a tattoo is painful as it is being inked. There is also residual pain for a few days as it heals. An infection or anything preventing the tattoo from healing would prolong that pain further.

This is potentially problematic for individuals who seek physical pain as a means of coping with psychological and emotional turmoil.

The good news is that part of the appeal of self-harm is the ritual, and a new tattoo gives you a chance to create a little ritual of a far healthier nature.

Cleansing your tattoo, and applying an effective tattoo aftercare cream to the area can become the new ritual.

Not only does this keep you safe from infection, but it will also help avoid behaviours – like picking at the scab of your new tattoo – that can have a negative impact on the final appearance of your new skin art. 

Staff Note:

If you or anyone you know are struggling with self-harm and suicidal instincts, please know that help is available.