I have *pauses to count* 11 tattoos. I have always found the process of getting tattooed extremely therapeutic. The process of getting a tattoo can be so transformative that it is almost addictive. Here’s some of the reasons why.
Committment to values
You might be familiar with ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). ACT is all about accepting your thoughts and things that are out of control and committing to taking positive steps and living a life according to your own values. For me, getting tattooed is a way of doing this. Many of my tattoos represent my values such as family, environmentalism, life-long learning and vulnerability. Through getting these tattoos and looking down on them I am reminded of the values I choose to live my life by.
Celebration of lessons learned and achievements
Some of my tattoos tell very specific stories. One that immediately jumps to mind is my tattoo about my time volunteering in Fiji as a 19 year old. Every element of this tattoo shares a detail of my experience there and how significant it was to forming the person I have become. I learned a lot in my time in Fiji particularly about mortality and the circle of life (as I was working with the elderly). It was the first time I ever went overseas by myself and I now have a marker on my body to celebrate everything I learned on that trip. It makes me so happy to look at it.
Channelling emotional pain into physical pain
My first tattoo was particularly emotional. It was a dedication to my Nanna who had passed away three years earlier. Losing her was the greatest grief I have ever known. She was my hero and had taught me so much about life. I had been planning the tattoo dedicated to her for years and got it almost as soon as I turned 18. I got it put in the centre of my back, right on my spine, and it was a five hour tattoo…What I am trying to say to you is that it hurt like hell. At a certain point, about three hours in, I started to cry due to the pain. And something strange happened. It was like letting myself cry due to the physical pain let me really feel the emotional pain of losing my favourite person in the whole wide world. I cried and cried and cried. It was amazing to get all of the pain out that I had been holding onto. I don’t think I would have given myself the permission to feel these emotions outside of the context of getting the tattoo.
The therapeutic relationship
I have the utmost respect for tattoo artists. In terms of customer service roles it can be one of the most challenging. They are dealing with people who are vulnerable, scared, demanding and in pain. As well as doing a great technical jobs, tattoo artists are required to navigate tense and awkward social situations. I mean, just look at the situation described above. I was sobbing but kept telling the artist to keep going. They had to know how to handle that with poise and courtesy. As such, the relationship one forms with a tattoo artist can be extremely therapeutic in and of itself. I consider my tattoo artists friends and I’m always super excited to see them and have a chat. Having a deep and meaningful chat whilst getting tattooed adds value to the experience and makes the memory of getting the tattoo even more positive.
In case you’re not aware, getting tattooed hurts. Obviously people have different pain thresholds but for me the pain has just always been a trade off, spend five hours to get cool art on you for the rest of your life. Seems like a fair trade. But as much as the pain can be therapeutic, I often find myself having to meditate my way through it. When things get really tough towards the end of a tattoo I’ll do some deep breathing exercises and go to my happy place. An hour of that and I leave the whole experience feeling fresh, rejuvenated and with a smashing new tattoo as well!
Tattoos are a great way of expressing yourself and your values and your experiences. When you throw in the therapeutic benefits of the relationship with the artist and allowing yourself to feel pain, I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.