Tattoos And Trauma: How Body Art Helped Me Overcome An Abusive Past

Trigger warning: physical and sexual abuse.

The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 16 years old. My “boyfriend” forced me into a compromising position. He gave me an ultimatum: give him a blowjob or get out.

I was first diagnosed with mental illness when I was 17 years old, after years of cutting and self-injury. After a precarious suicide attempt.

I got my first tattoo when I was 18 years old. I gave up my driver’s permit, trading the thin piece of cardstock for a state-issued ID and some ink. And I was physically abused when I was 19 years old. My boyfriend struck me in the face during a fight over a banana.

He gave me a bloody nose and blackened my eye.

And while this was the first time, it wouldn’t be the last time. I collected bruises like my friends collected Beanie Babies or cards. Every day was a different wound. A different battle. A different scar. 

The good news is, eventually things got better. I’m 36 and haven’t been beaten, pushed, kicked, or struck in some time; however, the wounds remained (and, in many ways, still remain) — at least until I turned to body modification. Until I realized the healing that I found in tattoos and body art. 

“Trauma experts encourage us to work from the body out in the course of recovery and healing — to attend to the sensations, senses, and images that carry the imprint of trauma,” Suzanne Phillips, a psychologist and adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University, tells PsychCentral. “The tattoo’s use of the body to register a traumatic event is a powerful re-doing. It starts at the body’s barrier of protection, the skin, and uses it as a canvas to bear witness, express, release and unlock the viscerally felt impact of trauma.” And this was the case with me.

The first time I was tattooed, I felt empowered. Like I was reclaiming a piece of myself. Of my voice. The second time I knew it wasn’t a fluke. The act transformed me. I felt whole — and healed — and since then I’ve used tattoos to overcome grief, trauma, sadness, and loss. My tattoos aren’t just a part of my story, they are the story. They are pictures of pain and triumph. Of battles won. 

Of course, I am not alone. Many people use tattoos as a means of catharsis for various reasons. Kelli, whose last name is being withheld at her request, told Scary Mommy she used body art to overcome a “difficult crossroads” in her life. 

“Everything was crumbling around me, and my religion and culture were the only things there for me during that trying time — hence why I got a shamrock with a trinity knot.” 

Caitlin Papiner, a childcare provider and educator, admits she used tattoos as a way to stop injuring herself and engaging in self-harm.  

“[Cutting] was a way for me to bring an instant calm to a chaotic emotional overload. When my anger and anxiety would become too much to handle — when my adrenaline was skyrocketing at an insane pace — the ONLY way to drop those levels were to cut and then instantly take a nap. But then I found tattooing and the second I felt that needle, I was instantly calm. It felt like I could finally breathe.”

And Samantha Robinson, a mother of three, shared a similar story.

“I tattooed my left forearm to cover scars from my past. I used to cut as a way to cope from sexual assault in my teenage years. As I got older and found better ways to cope I was embarrassed by the scars. My tattoo brought beauty from pain and reminds me of everything I have overcome. It made me confident again.”

That said, tattoos still get a bad rap. Many associate the art form with deviant, criminal, or sexualized behaviors — hence the terms “prison art” and “tramp stamp.” The notion that tattoos and body modification can be used to heal is also widely debated. Some believe it is a form of social masochism. However, tattoos can be cathartic for many of us, particularly for those (like me) overcoming trauma. In fact, “therapeutic tattoos” represent a powerful pathway to healing and body reclamation.

“In its visibility and in the bearer’s wish to let it be seen, a tattoo can undo the shame so often associated with trauma, war, victimization, and the intergenerational legacy of hidden trauma,” Phillips writes. “Choosing to publically… [share things which are] often hidden, they [tattooed individuals] turn horror to honor and shame to a shout about survival and a mandate to ‘Never Forget.’”

As for me, tattoos have helped me cover physical wounds, bringing new light and life to myself and my body. They have helped me overcome invisible scars. The act of tattooing has actually helped me heal, feeling comfortable in the hands of others. I’ve allowed men (and women) to touch my body in a safe, controlled, and intimate way. What’s more, tattoos have given me a renewed sense of self. Body art has helped me feel more secure in my skin. For me, body art has been transformative, in more ways than one.

Does that mean tattoos are right for everyone? No. Of course not. Tattoos are personal, as is trauma. But there is potential pushed with ink. Power. Tattooing can be motivational, inspirational, and full of healing and hope.

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