Trigger Warning: This piece contains in-depth discussions of mental health struggles and mentions of self-harm and suicide.
People always ask me what my tattoos mean, but they tend to skip over one of them: the word “whole” on my leg in Old English-inspired letters. I want to share the story behind it, though, because its meaning is not just for me to understand.
I got it in September 2019 in the midst of a particularly grueling depressive episode. Every day, I felt like I was ripping myself into tiny little pieces with each intrusive thought that popped into my head. Exhausted from trying to put myself back together again, I wrote in my journal, “I just want to feel happy for more than one day at a time. I want to feel whole.” The next day, I pulled myself out of bed and walked into the first tattoo shop I saw. I needed the word inked on my body so I could never forget it — no matter what my brain tells me, I am whole. I’m not lacking anything. I don’t need anyone or anything to complete me. And most importantly, nothing about me is broken.
“I love how tattoos help me process my feelings and express myself,” I later wrote. “I keep looking at my leg in the mirror. I’m proud of myself. I wanted something, and I got it. I needed that reminder, too.”
Tattoos are a valid tool for self-expression and can be a meaningful way to change your skin. When they are placed on visible parts of the body, like arms and legs, “tattoos can be a [constant, visible] reminder of a person or something they’ve been through that gives them positive feelings,” says Dr. Amy Wechsler, M.D., a New York City-based physician board-certified in both dermatology and psychiatry.
Of course, this tattoo — or any of the body art I have — hasn’t replaced either weekly therapy sessions with my psychiatrist or my daily doses of Zoloft. They aren’t a magical cure for my medley of mental health issues. Instead, my tattoos allow me to honor all that my brain has put me through in ways that are as creative and colorful as I am at my core. They also help me present myself to the world in a way that makes me feel complete.
Just writing this about my tattoos is a proven form of healing. After all, a study published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association found that sharing stories about body art can be a part of the therapeutic process. “Tattoos can function as a vehicle for promoting healing and exploring self-identity,” writes Simone Alter-Muri, a board-certified art therapist, professor, and founding director of the art therapy programs at Springfield College in Massachusetts. And while tattoos (for the most part) may be unique, their function as a restorative experience is more universal than one might think.
Coping Through Everlasting Art
Whole wasn’t the first (or last) mantra I got tattooed on my body to help me cope with my turbulent mental health journey. My skin has become a bulletin board of them — each an oath with myself to trust what they say: I’m enough, you’re fine, and abundance.
The pandemic, in and of itself, has spurred countless people to seek out tattoos as both a coping mechanism and form of self-expression. Of course, tattoos were becoming mainstream prior to 2020 — in 2019, three out of 10 Americans over the age of 18 reportedly had tattoos — however, RK, a Philadelphia-based tattoo artist known as @crybabyricecake on Instagram, says she’s noticed an influx of clients getting their first tattoos and adding even more pieces to their skin over the past two years, stating that they feel more comfortable expressing themselves now that they can work from home. “People are recognizing that your happiness matters more than what your job thinks of you,” she says.
Not only that, RK’s clients make appointments with her as a way to process their mental health struggles in a safe space. She believes she cultivates this environment — which she says is more like heart-to-heart conversations rather than one-sided therapy sessions — through her flash tattoos of interconnected stems, portals, and disjointed body parts. All of these express the overarching theme of her work: “We all live our separate lives in our own heads, and everyone has their own perception of their own reality,” she explains.
Savana Wang, a tattoo artist based in New York City who goes by @stickiesnpokes_sav, also mainly does flash designs, and her clients impart their own meanings onto her playful art. “I am honored they choose my work as a form of healing,” she says. “It is a living, breathing piece and something that they will carry for a long time to come.
Although Wang doesn’t reveal specific stories she’s heard from her clients (which are mainly made up of women and non-binary individuals), she does share that anxiety and body dysmorphia often come up during her tattoo sessions. “Beauty and body image are inescapable parts of our lives,” she says. “We all share parallel stories: trauma, being too self-critical, toxic people that made us question our self-worth. With tattooing, it is a personalized and individual journey. Everyone is on their own path to self-acceptance, and I am glad people are comfortable enough to share their stories with me.”
The Connection Between Tattoos & Mental Health
Tattoos, in an essence, become permanent symbols we carry with us on our bodies much like physical talismans. According to Kat Vollono, a psychotherapist based in New York City (who happens to have tattoos herself), “Symbols hold weight in our psyche, and getting a tattoo can be a way to imbue meaning for ourselves.”
Sometimes, the significance of someone’s tattoos may be less obvious to others, like RK’s signature surrealist portals, vines, and hands. They can also be as universally understood as the semicolon tattoo, which has become an emblem of suicide prevention. Other times, tattoos can be text with loaded meanings, like that of New York City-based model Sophia Hernandez, or mine.
“It’s very morbid,” she laughs when we sat down to discuss her most recent tattoo. “I got ‘you’re going to die’ in braille in December 2021.” At the time, Herandez had just moved to New York City from her hometown in Florida and was dealing with a bout of seasonal affective disorder. “I was thinking about everything I did to get to this point of taking the risk of moving to New York,” she explains. “If I were to hypothetically die in New York, I think I could say I was happy with the choices that led me here.”
She points under her chin to the Spanish word for girl, “niña,” which she got in 2019. It’s a celebration of when she reached a point where she was comfortable with her femininity and experiencing gender euphoria. “I was so happy,” Hernadez recalls. “It’s like, no matter what, you're always going to be like a girl. You're always going to be a woman no matter what. It’s a constant reminder of my transition and how solidified in my gender I felt at that point.”
For Sophia and many others, tattoos are timestamps, commemorating meaningful moments throughout life — even if the designs themselves aren’t exactly evolving in the same way. Says RK of the first tattoo she got at 16, “It's been 10 years now, but I vividly remember the day I got it, what I felt like, and who I was because of this tattoo. I don't think I would ever get it covered up.”
Tattoos & The Brain-Body Connection
Before starting Zoloft at the end of 2020, my brain’s default setting was sad. Around 13, I realized I could escape perpetual sorrow by imagining getting tattooed instead of harming myself. As soon as I could actually get tattoos, I realized how much I enjoyed the pain, which distracted me from the darkest parts of my brain. Several times, I found myself telling the tattoo artist that I didn’t want them to finish.
Alessandra Tantawi, a psychotherapist based in New York City, likens these desires to BDSM. Similar to pain play, getting tattoos is a safe way to engage in the pleasure of pain in a controlled setting with someone you trust.
Historically, medical studies may have considered tattoos to be a form of non-suicidal self-injury, which is defined as “the direct, intentional destruction of one’s own body tissue without the intent to die,” by Current Directions in Psychological Science. However, studies over the past 15 years or so have found tattoos to be more sought after for aesthetic reasons. They also found that tattoos can help people, particularly women, hold space for themselves and feel in control of their bodies. In fact, Tantawi calls getting tattooed a justifiable harm reduction practice. Some people actually stop cutting themselves after experiencing tattoo pain. The process can even be incredibly grounding, Dr. Wechsler adds.
RK has similar sentiments, saying that her clients often find her hand-poking technique meditative, and the repetition of the needle akin to acupuncture. Vollono, on the other hand, compares getting tattooed to taking psychedelics (something she specializes in for treating anxiety and other mental health issues). Both experiences require intention setting. “We can choose the way we connect to the tattoo and the tattoo process to become something greater,” she explains. “The tattoo can become a container to represent change, insight, meaning, fun, grief, and love.”
For Wang, the tattoos she personally has on her body aren’t necessarily specific odes to her own mental health journey, but getting tattooed has helped her feel more comfortable with her body and gives her a sense of self-actualization. “When I get tattoos, I usually can be quite spontaneous, but that is a part of my recovery,” she explains. “I have had issues with relinquishing control, so choosing flash pieces let me put more trust into an artist's vision for a piece they’ve created.”
Of course, both Hernandez and I, like Savana, have tattoos that are less emotionally charged. My friend Young designed a colorful, abstract eye based on my aesthetic that she tattooed on me in 2020. I’ve also randomly gotten a sprig, cartoon flower, teacup, and a little skeleton.
Hernandez has ones that are simply odes to random things she loves. Her left leg is devoted to her favorite horror movie characters, like Freddy Kruger. She also has a little tattoo that is a shout-out to SZA’s album Ctrl. All together, Hernandez says her tattoos make her feel like the most confident version of herself. She loves her body in ways she never thought she could thanks to them. “I’m more attuned to myself and my best energy,” she says.
Hearing these women share their stories with me (and having experts back them up) was honestly as cathartic as getting tattooed. I’ve come to realize tattoos are a reminder to us all that we can feel things deeply — physically and emotionally — without shame. The fact that I found comfort in tattoo pain used to scare me, but I’ve replaced that thinking with something Hernandez shares with me: Tattoos are a way to turn pain into something beautiful, and getting them done shows us that pain eventually ends. You can get through it.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.