In At the Deep End - 198

Published: 20 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 198, May, 2011

A recent article in The Independent, ostensibly about a charity providing tattoo removal services made a direct link between tattoos and self-harm. It was an average mainstream newspaper article, not favourable in its discussion of tattoos but not offensively critical either, however, one statement stood out:"Tattoos are what many people turn to when they don't have the courage to self-harm”.

Tattoos are many things to many people: For some, the pain and a subsequent feeling of release might be a factor; the endorphin rush is certainly undeniable. For others it signifies and celebrates the end of a negative experience, sometimes, it is a transformative process, much like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Many tattoo collectors are simply fans of the art form. Some people fit into more than one of these categories, or none of them. To dismiss tattoos as self-harm for the weak is both overly simplistic and utterly ludicrous.

This willful misrepresentation reminds me of a bible passage, famous in tattoo land, a passage often used to dissuade people from becoming tattooed:

Leviticus 19:28 reads "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”

But Leviticus 19:28 has been taken out of context, when read with the previous and subsequent passages it becomes clear that the marks mentioned are the marks of false idols - so why are certain persons so keen to twist truths and misrepresent reality when it comes to tattooing?

I think we have to look close to home to find the answer.

My mother thought I was perfect, just as I believe my son to be perfect and mothers everywhere also believe their children to be perfect too.

Our mothers have tended to our scrapes and scratches, examined our bruises, and kept quiet vigil, watching and waiting for our marks to fade, they waited for our skins to go back to being as pure as their love, as blank as a babies life story.

So when the child is grown up and the perfect surface is broken by the tattoo needle, leaving behind a mark more considered, more definite, more deliberate mark, one much bigger than those of an ordinary childhood, it's hardly surprising that our elders initial reactions are tinged with horror - and perhaps, that horror is verbalized with language more usually associated with self harm.

Self-mutilation is something that many of us have been accused of, or perhaps we've heard the more innocent phrase, "Why has a pretty girl like you gone and ruined herself like that?” Is it easier for those on the outside to dismiss body modification as a symptom of mental illness than it is to examine the myriad appeals more closely? There is no going backwards in time, no returning to childhood and it is precisely this which so horrifies our elders. Our adult markings, like the changing feather pattern of an adolescent bird reminds them that we can no longer be babied, that they are no longer in charge. 

Instead of asking us what we perceive the positives to be, we are told that we must be unhappy, or dislike our naked skin selves, or that we are damaged. When researching tattoos for academic purposes the texts we are referred to are psychological or anthropological rather than sociological, we are told we are victims, not survivors and as we
cannot reinvent ourselves and move on due to our permanent ink, we must remain victims.

While it’s true that some people find an escape from self-harm in tattoo art, it is not the negative that health care professionals espouse. We are accused of using tattoos as a barrier, told we are shutting out the world, but my own experience is quite different. Rather than building a wall, my tattoos provide an easy opener, a conversation starter, a talking point - I get curious questions, romantic propositions and comments on my colourful nature. My tattoos do not repel, but instead make me more approachable.

My earliest tattoo memory is the faded, blurry blob on my Granddad's arm. I would sit on his lap and while he was absorbed in an old black and white TV show, I'd examine it, and ask questions, questions that he laughed at but didn't answer.

After he died, my Nan told me that Granddad had brought that tattoo home from the war, along with a battered suitcase and a serious dose of Malaria. That faded, blurry dragon had been hand poked into my Granddad’s skin in a prisoner of war camp in Burma, a place further away than my Granddad had ever imagined he'd be. Like many of his generation he didn't speak about his experiences, but he didn't forget them either. My Granddad had dug a hole in his skin and buried his memories inside.

So, rather than a barrier, or a disguise, tattoos are a revelation, the equivalent of wearing the picture on the outside of the locket instead of the inside. My contents are not hidden; I wear them on the outside. I remain true to myself, the tattooed person is always authentic, and the process proves the real. Like a time capsule, we create a hole in the surface and seal our memories inside - only our souvenirs are visible.

So perhaps tattoos are not so different from self-harm - both can commemorate an intense feeling, both leave a trace of our life's story. Our self-inscripted images do not make us victims, but rather survivors, a special kind of survivor that takes pride in what they have experienced.

Special thanks to forum members past and present at


Text: Paula Hardy Kangelos