In recent years, sporting a tattoo has become increasingly mainstream and viewed as a mode of self-expression. Indeed, studies show that having a tattoo is no longer the province of deviants or criminals. These days, people get tattoos for a wide host of reasons, including self-enhancement, asserting individuality or group membership, representing resistance, and challenging gender norms.
But can it help survivors cope with trauma? A recent study led by Laura Crompton of Tel Aviv University suggests that it can. More specifically, Crompton and her team sought to better understand how getting a tattoo can be a viable method to cope with trauma and to give meaning to a difficult experience.
In order to investigate this inquiry, Crompton and her collaborators analyzed publicly published articles of personal accounts of trauma survivors who then went on to get a tattoo. In the end, the data consisted of secondary sources that were located via a Google search, using the keywords tattoos, trauma, projects, trauma survivors, and also searching specific events such as the terrorist attack at Bataclan, Hurricane Katrina, and September 11. The sources included a book chapter, newspaper articles, and a video that featured survivors’ accounts on getting a tattoo in the aftermath of a trauma.
What did the researchers' analysis reveal? Getting a tattoo helped survivors cope with trauma, and it gave meaning to their experience in five distinct ways. The following is a summary of the team’s findings.
1. Exposing hidden mental scars to gain public recognition. Some survivors felt that their trauma left invisible wounds, and thus they felt that they had to “prove” to others that it existed at all. One participant remarked, “When you lose a hand or a leg, people see you. In my case, it’s something that’s hiding inside.”
2. Witnessing the trauma so it will not be forgotten. Participants’ desire to share their traumatic experience with others went hand in hand with the expectation that society at large commemorate the traumatic event. Thus, the tattoo at once memorialized the trauma for the person bearing it, reminded others of the event, and signaled to others what the survivor had endured. One participant stated:
"Without even saying a word to anyone, just by showing this, being at a pool somewhere, they’re going to come up and they’re going to know and they’re going to think of 9-11 and it will stay in their consciousness."
3. Maintaining intimate connections in the encounter with others. Exhibiting a tattoo also helped survivors make deeper connections and give meaning when interacting with others. This has reportedly been the case among relatives of Holocaust survivors who shared how their tattoo made them feel more connected to important people in their lives. One participant reflected:
"[It was] like an inheritance or something... Every time I see it, it’s a reminder to call him... I find it kind of hard to relate to people I don’t know and places I haven’t been to and this thing called the Holocaust. The thing I relate to more is my grandfather."
4. The symbolic meaning of tattoo images after trauma. Survivors who experienced trauma related to a mass event, such as Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attack at Bataclan in Paris during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, chose specific tattoo imagery that bore collective meaning.
For example, one survivor of the Bataclan attack a tattoo got a cloverleaf with the number 13 inside shared:
“It was Friday the 13th, there were 13 of us in the mosh pit in front of the stage, and we all got out alive.”
5. Transformation and regaining control of one’s body. A central experience of trauma is feeling the loss of control. Thus, the decision to get a tattoo can itself be a reclamation, in which the survivor takes back control over physical or emotional injury. Consider the following response:
“When you experience an injury, any kind of injury—it doesn’t have to be dramatic... you eventually carry scars which you didn’t choose on your body and soul for the rest of your life. Here, you’re putting something on your body [a tattoo] which you choose to carry for life.”